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Women use faster balls than men at U.S. Open. Some players are over it.

The No. 1-ranked women’s tennis player in the world says the tighter-weaved balls are ‘horrible’

Iga Swiatek returns a shot during the Western and Southern Open on Aug. 17 in Cincinnati. (Matthew Stockman/Getty Images)

Iga Swiatek is the women’s player to beat at this year’s U.S. Open Tennis Championships. The world-ranked No. 1 player is eyeing a third career Grand Slam trophy to boost a sterling year — but something about the upcoming tournament might cramp her style.

It’s the “horrible” balls, she said.

Men and women use different tennis balls at the New York tournament, the Polish player noted last week. The women’s version feels lighter and moves faster.

“I don’t know why they are different than men’s ones,” she said.

Women indeed use a more aerodynamic ball than the men at the U.S. Open — and it is the only Grand Slam where that is the case. Top-ranked players on the women’s tour have complained that the ball, with a different weave of felt, is difficult to control and may wear out quicker.

Swiatek, whose forehand is arguably one of the tour’s most powerful, said the balls may put her at a disadvantage. On top of the control issues, she said, she cannot buy them in Europe, where she practices.

“I don’t know, like, 15 years ago probably women had some elbow injuries because the balls were heavier and they changed them to women’s balls, but right now we are so physically well prepared that I don’t think it would happen,” she said.

The discontent among Swiatek and other top female players over the balls highlights ongoing criticism that professional tennis is rife with double standards. At the sport’s four most prestigious tournaments — the “Grand Slams” — women play shorter matches than men. While the Grand Slam tournaments offer equal prize money, other elite competitions still pay women significantly less. That’s in addition to comments female tennis players face from players, commentators and officials about their athletic ability, clothing and entertainment value.

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A Women’s Tennis Association spokeswoman told The Washington Post that the organization will “continue to monitor” the ball complaints and discuss them with “our athletes and our sport science team.”

“The WTA has always utilized regular felt balls for hard-court play, and we have now begun to hear from a select number of our athletes that they would like to consider a change to using the extra-duty ball,” she added, referencing the ball men use. “The basis behind using the regular felt ball was that it limited the potential of arm, shoulder, elbow and wrist injuries.”

The balls used by men and women at the U.S. Open are identical in size, weight and bounce, said Jason Collins, a senior director of global product at Wilson Sporting Goods, which manufactures the balls used in the tournament. He told The Post that the only difference lies in the felt covering.

The men’s “extra-duty” ball is fluffier, creating a thicker surface, he said. The felt on the “regular-duty” women’s version has a “tighter weave,” which makes the ball more aerodynamic, Collins said.

“The balls play faster,” he said, “therefore they feel lighter on the stringbed.”

For Swiatek, that means her performance is hindered, and she is worried about injuries, she told reporters last week. “Right now we play powerful, and we kind of can’t loosen up our hands with these balls,” she said. “I know that there are many players who complain, and many of them are top 10.”

One of those players is Paula Badosa, the world-ranked No. 4 player from Spain, who posted a photo of a regular-duty ball can next to the extra-duty ball canister. The regular-duty canister notes that those balls are “ideal for clay and indoor surfaces,” while the extra-duty are “ideal for longer play on hard court surfaces.”

The U.S. Open is an outdoor hard-court event.

“Very unfavourable conditions for the players and for the spectacle,” she wrote on Instagram, punctuating the statement with a poop emoji, according to comments translated by Reuters.

“Then we complain that there are a lot of errors and there’s a loss of tactics and intelligence on points,” she wrote, adding, “faster courts and balls impossible to control.”

After Ashleigh Barty won the Australian Open this year, her coach, Craig Tyzzer, told reporters that the faster U.S. Open balls would dampen her success at the tournament. Barty, then ranked No. 1, announced her retirement shortly after winning the major tournament in her home country.

“The U.S. Open really needs to change … the fact they still use a different ball for guys and girls. It’s a terrible ball for someone like Ash,” Tyzzer said, adding: “If they keep that ball the same, no one like Ash will win that tournament.”

But not every player wants change. Madison Keys, an American ranked No. 20, who defeated Swiatek at last week’s Cincinnati tournament, told reporters during a news conference that the regular-duty ball was her “favorite.”

“I mean, it’s what we practice with all of the time,” she said, adding that she also liked them because they “don’t get as fluffy.”

Exactly when and why the rule went into effect is unclear. The WTA spokeswoman declined to specify. A WTA representative told the Wall Street Journal in 2019 that the rule went into effect in the early 1980s at the request of players who said the extra-duty balls were tough on their arms.

Collins said that “nothing is preventing us from providing any particular ball in our assortment” as long as the WTA permitted it. “We will always work closely with our partners to make the best ball chosen for that respective event,” he added.

Jessica Pegula, an American ranked No. 8 in the world, told reporters last week that she’s also “not a fan” of the regular-duty balls. As a member of the WTA players council, she said she would “get something together and maybe make it more consistent.”

Laura Hills, a sports sociologist at Brunel University London, told The Post that she’s not surprised some players are protesting the ball difference. Even a small disparity — like a seemingly lighter ball — can have a negative effect on both professional and aspiring players.

“For many players, something like that can be demoralizing as women increasingly come up against practices that create a sense that men’s sport is better,” she said in an email. “Women are consistently having to battle to get a foothold in sport and to be perceived as legitimate, so each double standard is another barrier that has to be addressed.”

Nancy Spencer, a professor of sport management at Bowling Green State University, said she wanted to play high school tennis when she was younger, but there was no team for women at the time. She eventually played in college and became a tennis instructor.

Despite how far tennis has come in recent years, she said the sport can be resistant to change, citing the contentious fight up until 2007 to pay men and women equal prize money at Wimbledon. The faster balls, she said, is yet another obstacle.

“All taken together,” she said, “it shows that we still have a ways to go.”

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