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It’s the oldest, most prestigious tennis tournament in the world. Wimbledon dates back to 1877, when it was first played outside of London on grass courts. And who’s the star of modern Wimbledon matches? It’s not Serena Williams or Roger Federer––in fact, it’s the tennis ball.

In 1877, the All England Club invited tennis fans to attend a new “lawn tennis meeting open to all amateurs.” The first Wimbledon Championship set new dimensions for the tennis court and revised the scoring system to count 15, 30, 40, game––both of which are still used in tennis today. And just like today, weather also affected the first championship match: the July 16, 1877 final was rained out and had to be rescheduled.

Wimbledon was so popular that the hosts introduced a championship match for ladies in 1884, and by the early 1900s, the match attracted players from around the world, building its reputation as a prestigious international tournament.

Thousands of tennis players have competed at Wimbledon over the years, but the sport looks dramatically different than it did in the 1870s. During the first Wimbledon Championship in 1877, vulcanized rubber tennis balls were brand new, and they sometimes came wrapped in flannel or felt.  The signature yellow tennis ball made its first appearance at Wimbledon in 1986.

Today’s tennis balls are pressurized and after manufacturing, they’re stored in sealed cans or tubes to maintain their pressure. A fresh ball bounces higher than older tennis balls because they gradually lose their pressure over time. That’s why some tennis balls are filled with nitrogen rather than compressed air. Because of nitrogen’s larger molecular size, it leaks from tennis balls slower, meaning the ball stays bouncy longer.

And tennis balls matter––major tournaments like Wimbledon can go through more than 50,000 tennis balls at a single tournament. Each of those balls needs to be at the same pressure. By using nitrogen, tennis balls maintain the correct pressure longer.

Filling tennis balls with nitrogen keeps them bouncy, and filling car tires with nitrogen, a process known as inertion, maintains tires at the correct pressure longer. That’s why more and more drivers are leaving behind compressed air and switching to nitrogen. Just like at Wimbledon, it’s all about performance.

Post Author: Genevieve Carlton Ph.D.

Ph.D. - Research Historian from Northwestern University. A writer and researcher she has published pieces for Ranker, Stacker and Atlas Obscura. She has published a nonfiction history book with the University of Chicago Press and a number of scholarly articles with top journals.

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