Tennis

Soderling’s quest for the perfect tennis ball

It’s a cold Saturday evening in Stockholm and Robin Soderling is out with his kids at an ice-skating rink.

It has been two years since he retired. He loves his free weekends and the time he gets to spend with his family, but there’s one thing he misses the most: being on the court and hearing the crowd roar.

If healthy, Soderling might have been playing at the Australian Open along with contemporaries Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal. From 2008-2011, Soderling was soaring high on the professional tour. He reached a career-best ranking of 4, but most notably, was the man who ended two of the most commanding streaks in tennis history — he defeated Nadal at the French Open in 2009, ending his 31-match winning streak, and defeated Federer a year later, breaking his 23 consecutive Grand Slam semifinal appearances.

Tennis magazine had said of the match against Nadal: “If you were playing tennis that day, you probably remember it well: When the news came across, the earth shook a little at clubs and parks all over the world. Those were the aftershocks from Paris.” Speaking to The Hindu over the phone, Soderling says he still remembers that day quite well.

“But now when I watch these players — many of whom I’ve played and beaten, like [Stan] Wawrinka and [Marin] Cilic — there’s a tinge of regret. They have gone on to win Grand Slams. And I am here sitting on a couch.”

In 2011, Soderling contracted mononucleosis, an illness that enveloped him in overwhelming fatigue. For two years following that, he tried to resume his training regimen, but his body had other ideas. “I would not be able to walk ten steps from my bed to the bathroom,” he says. He retired four years later.

As he was letting his body contemplate a comeback, he began pondering about other avenues. He was the director of the Stockholm Open ATP tournament in 2014. But it was his endless fascination with the ‘tools of the trade’ that ultimately led him to start his own venture - RS Tennis - producing tennis balls.

At most tournaments, conversations tend to be mostly about the players or maybe the surface and conditions. Not much is spoken about equipment and even less about tennis balls.

“Someone asked me a few years ago, ‘What is the perfect tennis ball you’ve played with?’” Soderling says. “I didn’t have an answer. I remember the best racquet. But balls? There were a lot of good balls, but I didn’t find that ball that I really liked. That’s when I started to think about it.”

What started as a “fun experiment” slowly turned into something bigger. Tennis players creating — or lending their names to — brands isn’t anything new. But this is probably the first time a tennis player is manufacturing his own tennis ball.

“I knew from the beginning that this will not be a company that will produce something and I will just put my name on it. I will be the one that really develops the products,” Soderling says.

The process took a year and a half. This included scouting for raw materials and field trips to a factory based in Thailand.

“The people working in those factories in Thailand had no idea about the deep connection between the player and the ball. They were just talking really technical stuff. For me, it was more about the feel. They had never had a player there.”

Feel and felt

For the regular tennis audience, players trying to get a feel of the ball is usually that part of the match that doesn’t merit any serious thought. Before every point, the server requests the ball person for a ball or two. Sometimes even four. Most are sent back, one goes straight to the pocket and one takes the upward flight to be put into service.

What goes on behind this seemingly innocuous ritual? Players try to get a feel of the felt — the fabric that covers the ball. This is crucial because the felt changes during the course of play. Players will either look for a less-fluffed ball, which will travel quicker, or a high-fluffed one, which will slow the rally’s pace.

Soderling says he designed the RS tennis ball keeping his preferences in mind. His game style involved pretty long swings; he was a player who could hit big even if the conditions were slow. “The felt of the RS Tennis ball makes it slightly slower than average which gives all types of players an extra moment to prepare their shots. If someone just wants to hit winners and have a super fast ball, this is not for them.”

He gave the finished product first to his friends at the local clubs and then to the pros. The positive comments received were just the valuation he needed. “I had a decision to make: whether to keep it as a hobby or go for it more seriously. I decided to bring in a very tight team and we went for it.”

The balls were sent to the ITF and ATP for certification, and within two years, they were used at the Stockholm Open and the Memphis Open ATP tournaments.

While the ultimate goal is to have RS Tennis balls at a Grand Slam tournament, Soderling feels he still has a long way to go. He has also expanded his business to include more equipment, like strings and grips. He plans to launch his products in India this year. He fondly remembers his lone Chennai Open tryst in 2009 even though he played “really really bad.”

“I love the country, I know tennis is huge there. We are currently in the process of looking for distributors, but we will be there soon.”

Competition

His competition includes companies like Wilson, Babolat, Slazenger and Dunlop which are the official ball suppliers for the Grand Slams. They produce up to 100,000 balls for the major tournaments.

The tennis balls may look the same, but each manufacturer boasts about their advantages. “And my biggest advantage is me,” says Soderling. “They may have the money, but none of the companies have an actual tennis player helming their production.”

Fuzzy logic

Why are tennis balls covered in felt?

The layer of fibrous felt acts as a controller. The fuzz reduces the ball’s speed — both off the racket and through the air — and limits its bounce off the court’s surface.

What do players look for when they inspect balls before serving?

They try to get a feel of the felt. This is crucial because the fuzz changes during the course of play. A less-fluffed ball will travel faster, a high-fluffed one slower. How does this matter? Professionals choose less-fluffed ones to improve their serve’s penetration. Alternately, they will pick fluffier ones to slow down the pace (if, for instance, the receiver’s style is based on power).

How is the Soderling ball different?

Soderling says he designed it based on his preferences and claims he shares a close connection with it. “The felt makes it slightly slower than average,” he says, “which gives all types of players an extra moment to prepare their shots.”

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Printable version | Feb 26, 2021 10:35:57 PM | https://www.thehindu.com/sport/tennis/soderlings-quest-for-the-perfect-tennis-ball/article22533911.ece

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