Some of those excused early from Roland Garros must wonder if the change from the Dunlop ball to the Babolat was a factor in defeat.
New Babolat balls shake things up at French Open
To the layman perched in the stand, a tennis ball is a tennis ball. Not so to the professional.
Fans may not have noticed that the French Open has switched to a different make of tennis ball, but the players certainly have, and some of those excused early from Roland Garros must wonder if the change from the Dunlop ball to the Babolat was a factor in defeat.
Just as footballers were preoccupied by the Adidas Jabulani ball ahead of the 2010 World Cup, tennis players are talking about the Babolat, and how it seems to be harder and faster, leading to quicker pace at the French Open.
"These are very fast balls," said David Ferrer, the Spanish clay-court specialist. "They have been engineered for fast-court players with a very good serve."
Roger Federer told espn.com that the biggest factor in the Babolat balls, much like the Pirelli supersoft Formula One tyre, is how they degrade.
"There is a great difference when the balls are new or when they get old," he said. "That will be an issue. It might be a bit difficult in the beginning, but in the end, they're not that fast. Sometimes spectators don't even notice that there is a change of balls, but we do. That's a moment when we need to be very focused."
The perception and reality of the Babolat do not track neatly. If the balls are faster, even for one game, we should have seen many of the game's biggest hitters deep in the tournament. But Ivo Karlovic, who holds the record for fastest serve, at 251kph, went out in the first round. As did sluggers Milos Raonic, Tomas Berdych and John Isner, though the latter took Rafael Nadal to five sets. Sam Querry and Marcos Baghdatis fell in the second round and Juan Martin del Potro and Fernando Verdasco in the third.
The final 16 looked rather like one would expect it to at the French Open: the world's best players and several clay-court specialists, including Richard Gasquet, Gilles Simon and Ferrer.
Novak Djokovic, Andy Murray, Robin Soderling and Nadal hit the ball hard, but they are elite players on nearly any surface, using almost any equipment.
On the women's side, Kim Clijsters is a big hitter who went out early, though that could be about a two-month layoff. Meanwhile, the cagey baseliners Francesca Schiavone and Maria Sharapova seemed just fine with the new, "fast" balls.
Still, players are discussing the Babolat ball. Stasilas Wawrinka called it "pretty strange" and Bethanie Mattek-Sands said they were "pretty hard". Iveta Benesova said "they are to the big hitters' advantage, for sure", after losing to big-hitter Samantha Stosur. But the Australian was gone a few days later, too.
French Open officials suggested that was has been seen to be more pace on the courts as being a factor of warm and dry weather.
Djokovic perhaps had the most sensible outlook on the Babolat. "Maybe it's going to favor the servers and the big hitters," he said. "But you never know. I mean, it still is clay."
Tennis this week
Men’s tour this week
Rafael Nadal, the world No 1, survived a stern challenge in the first round of the French Open, coming from a 2-1 set deficit to defeat John Isner. Nadal, however, will surrender his No 1 ranking if Novak Dokovic wins his semi-final match, perhaps against Roger Federer. Djokovic got a pass into the last four when Fabio Fognini, the Italian, withdrew with an injury.
Player Country Points
1. R Nadal ESP 12,075
2. N Djokovic SRB 11,665
3. R Federer SUI 6,795
4. A Murray GBR 5,305
5. R Soderling SWE 4,835
Women’s tour this week
The top three seeds, Caroline Wozniacki, Kim Clijsters, above, and Vera Zvonareva all fell out of the French Open, leaving the No 4 Victoria Azarenka as the top seed, and the defending champion Francesca Schiavone as a real threat to win her second major and Maria Sharapova as perhaps the fan favourite to win at Roland Garros for the first time in her career.
Player Country Points
1. C Wozniacki DEN 10,105
2. K Clijsters BEL 8,115
3. V Zvonareva RUS 7,755
4. V Azarenka BLR 5,425
5. F Schiavone ITA 5,246
Venue: Roland Garros
Duration: through Sunday
Prize Money: US$ 11million (Dh40m) (men); $9.9m (women)
Defending Champion: Rafael Nadal (men); Francesca Schiavone (women)