It's All About the Ball

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Imagine pitcher Matt Cain being allowed to spit on the baseball or scuff it up with sandpaper before throwing it. Or Eli Manning forced to throw a frozen football on the tundra in Green Bay. Or LeBron James handed a slick ball with a thin coat of oil.

Seemingly small changes in the ball matter a lot in sports, and I think it had something to do with Rafael Nadal's relatively quick close-out of Novak Djokovic this morning, just as it did with Sunday's Djokovic comeback before the rain ended the proceedings. Every tennis player has hit with "muffins" in hot and humid conditions that make the felt stand up so you can pinch it between your fingers. And everyone knows about balls that become as hard and heavy as rocks on hard courts that haven't been cleaned lately or Rubico courts that have not been watered.

Nadal hits the hardest, fastest-spinning ball ever. The rain and humidity slowed it down Sunday and gave Djokovic fresh life. Conditions were more normal Monday, and a revived Nadal was putting too much juice on the ball for anyone to beat him and he claimed his seventh French Open. That's to take nothing away from his accomplishment. But on clay he is unbeatable, and on hard surfaces, where the ball acts differently, he is not.

Forty years ago in Memphis, there was an interesting experiment. A great handball player, Paul Haber, took on a great racquetball player, Bud Muehleisen, in a "hands versus racquet" match at the University of Memphis. They played with a handball, which was much smaller, harder and faster than the racquetballs of the day. Haber won the match because he was an animal and because he got to choose the ball. A squash player might have had a better chance because the balls are more similar (and the racquet longer).

Here is a video clip of that match.

In every sport I have played in my life, there were subtle differences in the ball — Penn, Wilson, Dunlop, Tretorn (remember them?), Voit, Spalding, on and on. Certainly equipment made a big difference too, especially in racquet sports after the composite over-sized racquets came in 30 years ago. But what didn't get so much attention was the ball. And in a toss-up match, if one player got to choose his or her favorite ball, chances are that that player had an edge. As Nadal did today.

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