Agassi: Giving balls to fans would impact play
NEW YORK -- Andy Roddick was soundly beating Rafael Nadal on Friday night when a point ended with the ball in the stands. The ballboy asked for the ball back. The chair umpire did the same, but the fan, despite crowd pressure to give it back, refused to return it. Another point was played. The ball boy motioned again. The fan reluctantly returned the fuzzy yellow sphere.
Allowing the fan to have kept the ball seems like the natural, fan-friendly thing to do -- a point made by tennis great John McEnroe, while commentating on a USA Network broadcast earlier in the week.
It's not like tennis balls are scarce at the National Tennis Center, where approximately 20,000 of them are used during the two-week U.S. Open. Fans have certainly grown accustomed to taking home a game-used souvenir from Major League Baseball games, where approximately 70 percent of the 72 baseballs the home team must provide per game go home with a lucky fan, according to a baseball official.
Andre Agassi, for one, says fans should not get to keep tennis balls.
"It's not just tradition," Agassi said after beating Sargis Sargsian on Monday. "It's a basic necessity because it's not like baseball where sort of every ball is new. If a ball is newer than the next ball, it plays differently, faster. It would be a serious disadvantage for a returner not to know what ball's being used, whether it's a new one or an old one.
"That's why you notice most players take a few balls, choose them and then give them back, because they're basing the ball they're using on a certain amount of even wear and tear, as well as what serve they want to hit -- if they want it to be a little bit faster."
"I don't mind if the fans get the balls they want," said Thomas Enqvist, who was eliminated in the second round by qualifier Alexander Peya. "As long as I'm not paying for it."
Enqvist knows that it's not the cost that is stopping the United States Tennis Association from letting the fans keep the balls -- with MLB teams paying for approximately three-quarters of the balls that are put in play over the course of the season, letting fans keep the balls that are hit into the stands still cost teams only an estimated $290 per game.
It's that allowing them to do so could affect the play on the court.
"Money isn't the motivating factor here," said Jim Curley, tournament director of the U.S. Open, where fans can buy game-used balls at gift shops on grounds. "A new ball can affect play and the players would definitely use it to their advantage. All you have to look at is how much some players scrutinize certain balls before they decide which ones to serve to their opponent."
New balls -- heavy-duty for the men (which don't go bald as fast), regular-duty for the women -- are opened at the start of each match. The initial set of balls is used for the warmup and the first seven games. New balls are then subsequently rotated in every nine games of the match.
With more play, the felt of the balls becomes undone and the ball gets bigger, thus slowing down. If a fan kept a eight-game-old ball, a new ball would have to be put in play. That could throw off the players, who would be playing with a ball that bounces higher and moves faster than the others, and could be advantageous to big servers, who might be able to get an extra couple miles per hour.
"It's usually easier to break in the final three games of using the balls," Enqvist said, noting the impact the worn balls has on serves.
The state of the balls hasn't helped Roddick's opponents much, though. He's only been broken once in his first three matches. In fact, statistics from Roddick's third-round match against Guillermo Canas on Sunday might suggest that the life of a ball doesn't create as much of an advantage as is believed.
Of Roddick's 21 aces, more (11) came with balls that were at least five games old than balls that were played with for five games or less (10).
So what should the USTA do?
"I know if I was a fan, I'd want to keep the ball," Roddick said. "I'd probably get in trouble for not throwing it back. But, you know, at the same time, I can see both sides of the equation. I'm happy either way." Joachim Johansson, who advanced to the round of 16 with a win over Stefan Koubek on Sunday, said that the wearing of the balls on the hard courts of the U.S. Open lies somewhere between the intense beating the balls take on clay at the French Open, where rallies are longer, and the relatively little wear that takes place on the grass courts of Wimbledon.
"I would like to see fans keep the balls, because anything that makes it more enjoyable for the fans would be good," said Paul Goldstein, who lost to Paradorn Srichaphan in the second round. "But tennis balls wear and baseballs do not."
Goldstein, who played his college tennis at Stanford, said the solution is for the umpire to have semi-worn balls underneath the umpire stand.
"You don't have to open a new can," Goldstein said. "There are plenty of practice balls around."
That ball could either be used in play or be given to the fan as a replacement ball. Another way to solve the problem, players say, is to play the remainder of that stint with only five balls. Losing a ball would not happen that often. Curley estimates that less than one ball per match finds its way into the stands.
If fans were allowed to keep the balls and a new ball was put in play, though, Enqvist said it would become a part of game strategy.
"Spaniards typically put a lot of spin on the ball," Enqvist said. "So after three games, the ball is already big. If I could get a new ball, I'd actually think about putting the ball into the stands."
"It's part of the sport that the balls get changed at one time," Agassi said.
Darren Rovell is a staff writer for ESPN.com. He can be reached at Darren.firstname.lastname@example.org.
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