It’s an old story. A venture to Paris filled with hopes for sun and blue skies. Instead, the air is cold and blustery, the skies are gray and there is some rain, too.
It is hardly great tennis weather this week, and it is definitely not French Open weather at Roland Garros. And that is wreaking all kinds of havoc for players used to dripping with sweat under the late-spring sun and seeing balls jump off their rackets, fly through the warm, dry air, and pop off the usually hard red clay.
With temperatures stuck in the mid 50s, a crisp wind and intermittent rain throughout the first day of the tournament, Simona Halep, Coco Gauff and Johanna Konta were among those wearing tights and long sleeves. Andy Murray wore tights, too, as he lost to Stan Wawrinka, who wore a short-sleeved turtleneck.
The wardrobe changes may help the world’s top tennis players adjust their body temperatures, but adapting to a ball that feels like a rock coming off their strings may prove harder.
Victoria Azarenka, a United States Open finalist who made quick work of Danka Kovinic in her first-round match Sunday, had a warning the other day for anyone hoping for some semblance of what this tournament has delivered in the past.
“It’s not going to be a regular Roland Garros where the balls bounce high enough and the courts are fast,” Azarenka said. “We will have to adapt every day.”
“It’s cold, it’s heavier, it’s more difficult,” said Dominic Thiem, who won the U.S. Open two weeks ago on the strength of his searing forehand.
Getting warm is one thing. Thermodynamics is another.
Rafael Nadal, the 12-time French Open champion who will play a first-round match against Egor Gerasimov of Belarus on Monday, is not so happy, especially since his game relies on super-heavy topspin that makes his shots bounce above the eyes of his opponents.
“These are new balls and balls that are much slower than in previous years,” Nadal said during a news conference after training last week. “But given the cold and humid conditions, they are very short.”
Indeed, in addition to changing the timing of the tournament from spring to fall because of the pandemic, tournament organizers did change their ball sponsor and supplier to Wilson from Babolat. But Guy Forget, the tournament director, said the Wilson ball passed a series of performance tests and no ball can overcome the inevitable effects of the chilly and damp weather conditions that are expected to continue in the coming days.
Cool humidity makes the ball wet, and subsequently heavier. A wet ball also picks up clay, which also adds weight.
There are also far less obvious forces that will jostle the memories of anyone who endured a high school physics class.
Warmer temperatures increase the speed and kinetic energy of the molecules inside the ball. When a ball hits the ground, it compresses, then springs back to its full size. The faster those molecules move, the more kinetic energy and bounce they produce.
Also warm air is slightly less dense than cold air, allowing a ball to travel faster and longer because there is less drag, especially with a tennis ball, which does not have a smooth surface.
“How much faster will depend on the assumed temperature difference between warm and cold weather,” said Adrian Bejan, a professor of mechanical engineering at Duke University and an expert in thermodynamics.
Bejan said higher humidity can help and on a hardcourt, damp air, which is a little less dense than dry air, might allow the ball to move faster. But the additional clay that the damp ball picks up during each point may very well diminish that effect.
“Some of those balls we were using you wouldn’t give to a dog to chew,” said Daniel Evans of Britain, who lost to Kei Nishikori of Japan in five sets on Sunday. “It’s tough to get that ball to go anywhere.”
Forget, who was once ranked as high as No. 4 in men’s singles, had this advice for players obsessing about the nontraditional behavior of the ball at a time when nothing about Grand Slam tennis is as it usually is: Deal with it, just as you would deal with the slippery grass that characterizes the first few days of play at Wimbledon compared with the hard, dry ground during the second week of the tournament.
“This is part of what tennis is, playing in different conditions,” Forget said. “You have to adjust to it.”
Adjustments can be both psychological and technical. The most basic move that players are making is loosening their strings. Looser stings increase the trampoline effect. John Isner, the big-serving American, has lowered the tension of his strings by roughly 15 percent.
Not everyone is feeling bothered by the changes.
“Me, I like the balls,” said Daniil Medvedev, the rising Russian with a quirky arsenal who has struggled to advance at Roland Garros and plays his first-round match Monday. “Tennis is a fun and interesting sport. Sometimes one player doesn’t like something, but another player will like it. So far, I love it.”
As it nearly always does at Roland Garros, the conversation may begin and end with the performance of Nadal. He struggled at the Italian Open earlier this month. That tournament also took place in cooler than usual temperatures, and Nadal lost in straight sets on clay against Diego Schwartzman as his ball lacked its usual life.
Nadal spent much of the pandemic training in the balmy climate of Mallorca, Spain, where he is from. One day into the tournament in Paris, one thing is very clear — he is not in Mallorca anymore.
“We have to stay positive,” he said. “We have to play with these balls, I have to find the best game.”
Karen Crouse contributed reporting from Paris.
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