Sunday, June 12, 2011

Altitude, the Ball, and Habits

I live at a relatively high elevation, roughly 5,300 feet (1600 meters) above sea level.  The air up here is roughly 16-18% thinner, measured in density or pressure.   In order to compensate for this difference in atmosphere we play with a ball that is roughly 9% lower compression than the standard low-altitude tennis ball.  A lower compression ball will not move as fast as it comes off the racquet.  But our high-altitude ball is the same volume, weighs the same, and has the same nap as the low-altitude ball.  There exist larger balls that are approved for play at altitudes above 4,000 feet, but I haven't seen one of those in many years.

It doesn't seem to me, both thinking about it and from my extensive experience playing at both lower and higher altitudes, that a 9% difference in compression compensates adequately for our differing environment up here (and higher).  Maybe it's not a big deal to tennis federations and ball manufacturers.  How many tennis players live at altitudes above 5,000 feet?  Not many relative to the total tennis market.  So this isn't a huge issue to anyone but us high-altitude tennis players.  But what are the ramifications of learning to play and playing at this altitude with a ball that compensates for roughly half the difference between sea level and our altitude?

I think there are two main problems.  First, we cannot control the ball as well as our counterparts at lower elevations.  We have to impart way more topspin, hit the ball much slower, or hit the ball much lower to get it over the net and into the court.  This affects how kids learn to play the game and how the game is played by adults.  Second, we develop bad reaction habits in two respects.  First, we think that our finishing skills are better than they are so we relax after hitting a shot that, if played at lower altitude, would come back.  That is, our opponent at a lower elevation would get to a marginal ball that our opponent up here cannot get to.  So we think our finishing skills are better than they are.  Second, we give up on, don't chase, a marginal ball that we could have gotten and played at lower altitude.  We learn that certain shots are not within our range, so we don't go for them.  But our range is partially determined by the amount that the air slows down our opponents' shots.  So we learn to not try to get balls that we could get, at the margin, at lower elevations.

These are significant detriments to developing and mastering tennis skills and to playing the game in a way that succeeds at lower elevations.  So what can we do?

We can use an even slower ball and slower courts.  I may have written about this before, but there exist balls that are 25% to 30% slower than regular low-altitude tennis balls.  Penn makes one (called the Control +, I think, with a green dot on it) and so do Wilson, Prince and Tretorn (the Fun Lite).  These balls are both lighter (so the air slows them down more) and lower compression (so the initial velocity is lower) than "regular" balls.  That means they are also much slower than the 9% lower-compression high-altitude balls we play with up here.   These balls over-compensate for the thinner air up here, but in many respects that's better than our current under-compensating balls.

Since our environment (dry) isn't conducive to inexpensive clay courts, most of our courts are fairly quick.  So we have thin air (fast) and hard courts (faster than most clay).  Unless we can get slower courts, perhaps a ball that compensates for both our thin air and our predominantly faster courts would allow us to develop better players in Denver, Salt Lake City, Mexico City, Johannesburg, and Quito.

Those balls exist now.  Why do we continue to use balls that do a half-assed job of simulating the game the rest of the world plays?

UPDATE:  I just attended a USTA Player Development workshop focused on high-performance training.  The workshop was in Denver.  Mile High City.  I asked for help with the effects of the thin air.  "I can't help you," said Paul Lubbers, USTA Coaching Education Director.  Well there you go.  As I said, we're on our own.

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