Tennis Courts and Equipment: How Physics Affects the Speed of Play (Basic)

UTAH MEN'S TENNIS Ben TasevacModern day tennis is a game of power, speed and spin.  Improvements in tennis rackets allow players to hit the ball harder and faster than ever before.  This faster pace has made the tennis serve more dominant in tennis matches, which means that tennis points can happen quickly.  There is some interest in slowing down the game to make points last longer. One approach is to engineer tennis balls differently, so that the balls themselves can be selected to adjust the speed of play. Another approach is to consider the properties of the court surface.

There are three main types of court surfaces used in tennis: grass, clay, and acrylic.  Each court is considered to have its own “speed.” Grass courts are firm and have a slippery surface.  When the ball hits the surface, it tends to slide and will have a low bounce.  This means that the player has little time to react and move, making grass a “fast” paced surface.  Clay courts, made of small pieces of crushed rock, are considered to be a “slow” surface. This is because the rough surface prevents the ball from sliding when it hits the court. This causes the ball to bounce much higher, giving the player more time to move and to choose how and where to hit the ball.  Acrylic courts are “medium” paced surfaces.  They have an asphalt or concrete base with a playing surface that is made of acrylic paint mixed with sand.  These courts are the most commonly used and require the least amount of maintenance when compared to either grass or clay surfaces (Lees 2003).

Three types of balls have been developed for use on the different types of court surfaces.  The balls vary in size and firmness. The standard ball is the type 2 ball.  It is intended for use on medium paced surfaces.  The type 1 ball is the same size as the type 2 ball, but it is firmer.  This means that it will not change shape as much when it hits the court, so it is a “fast” ball.  Type 1 balls are designed for use on “slower” surfaces such as clay.  Type 3 balls are larger than type 2 balls.  This means that they have a harder time moving through the air, so they will travel slower.  “Slow” type 3 balls are designed for use on “fast” surfaces such as grass.  With a variety of tennis balls to choose from, players can adjust the speed of play to complement court conditions.

Learn the technical details of how physics affects the speed of play.

By: Lindsay Sanford, University of Utah
Lindsay received her B.S. in Mechanical Engineering from Washington State University and is currently pursuing a PhD degree in Bioengineering. In her spare time, she likes to travel, hike, read, and play with her two year old son.  She is also an avid runner and tennis player.



Lees, A. 2003. Science and the major rackets sports: a review. Journal of Sports Sciences. 21(9): 707-32.

Articles by Lindsay Sanford.

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