By Frank Pingue
NEWYORK (Reuters) – Oversized tennis balls have become synonymous with the U.S. Open like New York City streets and traffic, with the felt-covered souvenirs providing fans a keepsake and can’t-miss target for player autographs.
Whether at the completion of a featured match or practice session on a faraway court, a tangle of children’s outstretched arms can always be seen reaching over walls or gates in the hope a player will sign their giant souvenir.
Chicago-based Wilson Sporting Goods Company, which has provided the official U.S. Open match ball since 1978, rolled out the novelty version, measuring 11 inches (27.94 cm) in diameter, about 10 years ago and they were an instant hit.
“The jumbo ball is the most visible and, by far, the most wanted piece of memorabilia on the U.S. Open grounds,” Mary Wallace, Director of Special Events for Wilson, told Reuters at the Billie Jean King National Tennis Center, site of the year’s final Grand Slam.
The balls, which this year come in yellow or orange, are manufactured in Asia and retail for $45, including a Sharpie marker for wide-eyed autograph hounds.
Wallace said about 10,000 of the ubiquitous balls will have been sold on site by the time the U.S. Open ends on Sunday, or more than three times the total aces served up by the game’s greatest players during the two-week event.
Anyone attending the U.S. Open can barely take two steps inside the gates without spotting one of the oversized balls cradled under the arm of a preteen boy or girl armed with a permanent marker in one hand.
New Jersey native Jason Mellor was standing near an outside court while his nine-year-old son Dillon clutched an oversized orange ball while waiting for a nearby match to finish so he could pounce on the players for autographs.
“They are not cheap but it keeps him amused and they have a great time with them so it’s terrific,” said Mellor.
For Timothy Lynch of New York, the oversized ball may not have been great value but he felt it was a way to keep his four-year-old Declan happy while he watched some of the action.
“He saw them, he really wanted it and I figured it would keep him happy in this heat,” said Lynch. “Biggest rip-off at the U.S. Open. But he likes it. Fifty bucks for a tennis ball that will never get used. It’s all good.”
According to Wallace, the ball is perfectly sized and there are no plans to introduce a bigger version, but whether they stick to traditional colours is up for debate.
“There are so many people that are adamant, like it has to be traditional, it has to be the yellow ball. And you have others who are younger kids who are like ‘I want pink, I want green, I want orange,” said Wallace.
“So we are always figuring out, should we bring another colour in or should we stay classic. That’s our biggest dilemma.”
(Reporting by Frank Pingue; Editing by Toby Davis)