The lifespan of each tennis ball at practice is getting shorter.
The strong winds of winter that pervade the Los Angeles Tennis Center hardly simulate the conditions that the UCLA women’s tennis team can expect to face on the indoor courts in the Boar’s Head Tennis Club in Charlottesville, Va.
Coach Stella Sampras Webster knows that in order to properly prepare the team for the ITA Division I National Women’s Team Indoor Championship, she needs to inject a little bit of creativity into her practice sessions – and it all comes down to changing the tennis balls in practice more frequently.
“Everything‘s going to be faster indoors,” Sampras Webster said. “What we do basically to get ready for that is use new balls. We’ll switch the balls in practice more often than we normally would so they get used to the quick ball.”
New tennis balls sail through the air at a quicker pace compared to their well-worn counterparts because the felt fuzz surface of the balls isn’t as frayed, creating a more compact, aerodynamic entity that cuts through the air with greater ease.
Tennis balls fresh from the can also contain a higher internal pressure that diminishes over use. Running tennis balls through the gauntlet of serves, forehands and backhands causes that pressure to drop, compromising the height and velocity at which the balls bounce off the ground.
Although it isn’t the same thing as an enclosed environment, Sampras Webster is confident that the faster moving targets at practice will keep her players on their toes enough to get used to the briefer backswings and the sprightly footwork that characterize indoor tennis.
While there already are measures in place to brace the players for treading on unfamiliar territory, there’s still one trick up the players’ sleeves, literally, that can turn things into a Bruin advantage. And that’s combining the fast-paced action with a powerful tennis stroke.
“When we go indoors it tends to favor the hard-hitting players … we’re fortunate to have a really hard-hitting team,” said senior Courtney Dolehide. “So even though we don’t practice indoors all year round, like some of the other teams we’ll be competing against, we still feel confident going there.”
Tennis balls aren’t the only thing moving at a quicker pace at this point of the Bruins’ season. The indoor championship will see the continuation of the experimental format initiated by the ITA for the 2014 season which endeavors to end matches sooner, thus making them more “spectator-friendly.”
Five games and five wins later, it appears the No. 5 Bruins have made a smooth transition to the new set of rules, even if the players may still harbor some gripes about the changes.
“For me personally, I thought it was going to be a lot worse than it is,” said sophomore Catherine Harrison. “But I know the doubles goes really fast, and that’s the only thing collectively as a team we don’t like.”
There is, however, some good news for detractors of the new format, who according to Sampras Webster’s sources includes players, coaches and, ironically, fans. The indoor championship will mark the culmination of the inaugural format change trial run, and the players and coaches can expect to revert to the familiar rules once the outdoor leg of the season begins.
For now, the team will have to put its best foot forward toward, showing it is adept at handling the series of quick-themed obstacles as it navigates the final stretch of the indoor portion of the season. But with several Bruins, Dolehide and Harrison included, who made last year’s ITA All-Tournament Team returning this year, the team will be able to do so knowing it has thrived under change once before.
“It’s just a different feel that we have to get used to,” Harrison said. “But we obviously adapted well last year, so I think we’ll do the same thing.”