Why Are Tennis Balls Yellow?

The International Tennis Federation approved “optic yellow” tennis balls in 1972 so that they would show up better on TV. Prior to that, the balls were white or black.
The International Tennis Federation approved “optic yellow” tennis balls in 1972 so that they would show up better on TV. Prior to that, the balls were white or black.

If you've ever watched a video of a tennis match from before 1972, you might have noticed something unusual: The balls are white, not yellow. The ubiquitous yellow tennis ball of the modern sport didn't become a reality until the advent of televised tennis coverage. White balls were hard for television viewers to see, especially when they got close to a court line -- meaning it was difficult to tell whether a ball was in or out of play.

To fix things, the sport's governing body, the International Tennis Federation (ITF), conducted a study and learned that yellow was a much better choice. But while the ITF instituted a rule change in 1972 that allowed balls to be yellow (technically a fluorescent shade called "optic yellow"), white balls continued to be legal.

Most tournaments quickly switched to yellow balls, which was a popular move among fans. Wimbledon, however, remained a holdout until 1986, when it finally conceded that yellow was a better choice. Nowadays, yellow tennis balls are a mainstay of play for everyone from the casual weekend enthusiast to tennis legends like Roger Federer and Serena Williams.

Anyone for tennis?

  • Tennis balls are covered in fuzz or felt to make them playable; otherwise, they'd fly by so quickly that there would be no chance to swing at them.

  • The first tennis balls -- from the 15th century -- were wool-filled balls covered by soft leather.

  • The pressurized tube in which tennis balls are now sold was created by the Pennsylvania Rubber Co. in 1926.

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    • The International Tennis Federation approved “optic yellow” tennis balls in 1972 so that they would show up better on TV. Prior to that, the balls were white or black.
      The International Tennis Federation approved “optic yellow” tennis balls in 1972 so that they would show up better on TV. Prior to that, the balls were white or black.