Consider the tennis ball. The small neon orb is so ingenious in its design that it simultaneously inhabits the highest levels of perhaps one of our most demanding sports, fits snugly on the legs of faulty chairs and is favored by man’s best friend.
The tennis ball is such an unassuming object in our lives that we take its appearance for granted. Who hasn’t stumbled upon one of them, forgotten, in the far corner of their closet or garage?
Despite its passive presence, one of the most frenzied internet debates of 2018 centred on its distinctive colour: Is it actually yellow, or is it green? The shade in question originates from an unlikely source: David Attenborough, the legendary British documentarian known internationally for his “Planet Earth” series, played a pivotal role in how we see the tennis ball today.
The sport of modern tennis was born out of the English game of lawn tennis, which by most accounts was invented in the 1870s. Lawn tennis was an outdoor adaptation of the indoor racket game “real tennis,” which itself was an adoption of the French pastime jeu de paume, or “the palm game.”
The wool cover is being applied to the cemented halves of a tennis ball. Credit: Orlando/Hulton Archive/Getty Images
For nearly a century, tennis balls were white or black. It wasn’t until 1972 that tennis balls took on their bright neon hue. At the time, Attenborough was working as a studio controller for the BBC. In the late 1960s, he had led the charge for the BBC to broadcast Wimbledon, perhaps the most iconic of tennis tournaments, in colour for the first time ever.
Margaret Court competing against Evonne Goolagong in the Ladies’ Singles Final at Wimbledon, 2nd July 1971. Credit: Express/Hulton Archive/Getty Images
An official 1972 ITF rule change required that all regulation balls have a uniform surface and be white or yellow in color. However, despite the difficulties for TV viewers, Wimbledon did not change the ball color to yellow until 1986.
In 1991, the Chicago Tribune ran a story about white tennis balls making a comeback. In reality, as the article states, most manufacturers never stopped producing white balls in smaller quantities. Penn product manager Steve Morris told the Tribune that white tennis balls played on “nostalgia and collectors’ ‘edition sense.'”
Not everyone agreed. Grant Golden, a former United States clay-court champion, declared that the comeback of white tennis balls would “go right down the toilet” because “the yellow ball is perfect.”
A ballboy holds a tennis ball in preparation during the Wimbledon Lawn Tennis Championships in London, England in 1987. Credit: Getty Images/Getty Images Europe/Getty Images
That slight, blurry line between analogous shades led to the great internet debate: Are tennis balls yellow or are they green? The origin of the controversy can be traced back to a now-deleted Twitter post by @cgpgrey who asked users to “help solve a marital dispute” and vote on the colour of a tennis ball. The tweet led to outlets like The Atlantic taking a deep dive into the topic that touched on human perception and colour theory, and, of course, the greatest debate of the 21st century, the colour of “The Dress.”
Serena Williams and Roger Federer during their mixed doubles match on day four of the Hopman Cup tennis tournament in Perth on January 1, 2019. Credit: GREG WOOD/AFP/AFP/Getty Images
Either way, the next time a tennis ball comes rolling out from the recesses of your closet, take a moment to regard the power of its humble design.