Design Moment: Cloth covered tennis balls, 1870s

Filling the core of the ball with pressurised gas marked next significant improvement

In 1972 the demands of TV encouraged the International Tennis Federation to introduce the easier to see yellow tennis ball. Photograph: Getty

In 1972 the demands of TV encouraged the International Tennis Federation to introduce the easier to see yellow tennis ball. Photograph: Getty

 

Commentary on the impact of design in tennis tends to now focus on performance clothing or racquet technology but one of the biggest design changes in the sport happened when a rubber ball was covered in cloth.

The development of lawn tennis in the 1870s with rules devised by Maj Walter Clopton Wingfield – as distinct from the centuries old real or royal tennis – followed the ongoing perfection of Charles Goodyear’s invention of vulcanised rubber. In the early 1840s Goodyear, a self-taught chemist working at the Eagle India Rubber Company, had patented his vulcanisation process which hardens liquid rubber.

Wingfield favoured the new bouncy India rubber balls in red or grey for the game while his friend, barrister and tennis champion John Moyer Heathcote is credited with the idea of covering the ball with cloth to improve its wear and make it more visible against grass.

Filling the core of the ball with pressurised gas was the next significant improvement followed by the flannel covering being replaced by melton cloth, a woven woollen twill – in either black or white – held in place by a vulcanised rubber seam.

In 1972 the demands of TV encouraged the International Tennis Federation to introduce the easier to see yellow tennis ball – a move resisted by Wimbledon, which held off until 1986 before introducing yellow balls.