The Tennis Ball – A Tribute

Third Man always wanted to be able to thank Charles Goodyear who invented vulcanized rubber and thus played an important part in the development of the lawn tennis ball in around 1870.  Since then few schoolboys have been able to exist without one for long. 

Patron Saint of Tennis Balls and Childhood, Mr Charles Goodyear

Even at TM’s present stage in life a tennis ball could well remain his preferred item when Kirsty Young sends him to that desert island.  A beach, a rock wall and a tennis ball would be enough to provide hours of fun and occupation.  Who would need rescue or food?

When young, Third Man and his friends were rarely without an old tennis ball stuffed into a coat pocket.  Playtime without a tennis ball was beyond comprehension.  Stumps painted on walls throughout the playground, a dozen or more games of cricket going, balls whizzing in every direction that was our natural habitat.  Jrod at Mountain Chickens has an evocative picture of such a playground match as his banner.

Tennis balls were a dull grey or cream in those days as we encouraged rainwater and dirt to degrade the previously bleached felt.  Now they are ‘optic’ yellow.  The possibility of concealment as the light faded was part of their charm.

The Penn is mightier than the sword

Besides deliberate dunking to one side, other forms of ball tampering were also de rigueur. The felt was removed from the ball in search of pace.  Sellotape was painstakingly applied and reapplied to obtain much prized late swing.  (TM thinks he recalls the use of molten sealing wax, the burning of the felt and the melting of the rubber beneath, but his memory has been known to play tricks.)

For many years Third Man thought that the most important function of a mother was to find missing tennis balls lost under cars, in undergrowth, beneath lethal briars and ‘somewhere in that direction’ on bombsites.  Even today, when Third Man is hacking back some rampant shrub he’ll find two or three balls of various types lost months before by his son who not unnaturally has inherited Third Man’s inability to find stray cricket, golf, soccer, squash, table-tennis, rugby and tennis balls.

On this last Sunday, a tennis ball, hidden under a clump of irises, managed to be propelled by the rotary lawn mower at an impressive speed across the garden with a satisfying World War I ‘crumping’ sound. With two minds electrified by the possibilities, son and father immediately set to creating a hybrid bowling cum catching machine with 360 degree release.  (Expect a child-friendly version to be marketed in the next Romida catalogue.  With his permission, we are thinking of using the blades in Mr Dyson’s new fan.)

Inside a tennis ball factory

At the United Services Ground, Portsmouth, we small boys would rush out to the middle between innings to watch Doug Welch, the groundsman’s apprentice, drive the largest cricket roller in the world under the watchful eye of the Head Groundsman, Arthur Gawler. ‘Watchful’ because Mr Gawler knew our greatest ambition (yes, greater even than playing for Hampshire) was to manage to roll a tennis ball under the huge rear roller as Doug steered it patiently back to its shed.  Many tried … none succeeded.

It is good therefore to see that the tennis ball is coming back into fashion as a practice aid among professional cricketers.  Peter Moores, at Lancashire, has introduced them as a drill used in batting practice and yesterday, while the players were off the field for rain, over in the indoor nets, Paul Horton  was wielding a tennis racket to literally serve short and rapid tennis balls to Ashwell Prince – to get him bobbing and weaving.

In Australia, TM hears that professional tennis players are brought in to provide this practice.  Buck up Lancs..

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