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ITF may make tennis balls bigger in 2002

LONDON — A new tennis ball could make the grass courts of Wimbledon play more like the clay of Roland Garros, threatening the serve-and-volley game mastered by such players as Pete Sampras and Richard Krajicek, said current and former players.

The International Tennis Federation, which runs the Grand Slam tournaments, last year began experimenting with a larger ball aimed at slowing the game down and reducing the dominance of big servers on fast surfaces. It could recommend introducing the ball to the third Grand Slam of the year in 2002.

Speaking ahead of Monday's opening day at the All England Lawn Tennis and Croquet Club, players said some of the sport's traditional techniques would be lost if speed and power were nullified.

"It would kill the serve-and-volley game," said 1997 U.S. Open semifinalist Jonas Bjorkman. "Enough help is given already to slow-court players — I don't think we should change anything."

Bjorkman said clay and hard-court specialists have the advantage of a longer season on their preferred surfaces, while the grass season lasts only about a month. Slow-court experts should try to adapt their game for faster courts rather than changing the rules, the Swede said.

The ITF takes the opposite view, fearing a dwindling of interest in the game caused by powerful serves and quick rallies that have become standard at men's grass-court tournaments.

The new ball is "potentially the best and least radical method of restraining the growing dominance of the serve within the professional game, particularly on fast surfaces," the ITF said.

The slower ball is one of three new types the ITF is developing. The first, harder than the normal ball, is designed for use on slower surfaces, such as clay. The second has standard specifications, like those currently used in major tournaments. The third is about 7 percent larger than the current ball.

The additional wait — about 0.03 seconds — is the difference in reaction time for the receiver between tennis played on a medium-paced hard court and a slower clay court, the ITF said. "All tennis players will be able to testify to the significance of such a difference," the ruling body added.

Ultimately, the ITF cannot impose the new ball on Wimbledon; it can only make a recommendation. Tournament organizers, though, would consider using it once testing is completed in 2002.

"We will continue to use the ball we think is in the best interests of the players and the fans, but will monitor with interest the experiments with the larger ball," said Chris Gorringe, chief executive of the All England Club.

Wimbledon already made a change to the traditional ball. This year, for the first time, an "ultra-high visibility" ball will be used. Manufacturer Slazenger says the yellow ball is 25 percent brighter than normal, increasing visibility for players and spectators alike.

Otherwise, it's exactly the same as last year's, meaning the 20-year domination of serve-and-volleyers in the men's singles could be set to continue. Only Andre Agassi in 1992 and Jimmy Connors in 1982 managed to win from the back of the court during that time.

As well as Agassi, this year's challenge from slow-court specialists will be led by 19-year-old Australian Lleyton Hewitt, boosted by Sunday's victory on grass against Sampras in the Wimbledon tune-up event at London's Queen's Club.

Sampras, chasing a record 13th Grand Slam title and his seventh Wimbledon crown in eight years, heads the list of serve-and-volley specialists, which includes Krajicek, Pat Rafter, Mark Philippoussis, and the British pair of Tim Henman and Greg Rusedski.

The dominance of serve and volley in the women's game has diminished since Martina Navratilova retired from singles. Although she'll be back for this year's doubles, the top six singles seeds, including No. 1 Martina Hingis and defending champion Lindsay Davenport, all prefer to stay near the baseline.

Pat Cash, whose serve-and-volley game took him to the title in 1987, said he'd hate to see the men's game go the same way, courtesy of the slower ball.

"The game's been messed about with enough already," he said. "If we're not careful we will kill off the art of volleying entirely."