Teuila Fuatai

Teuila Fuatai is a reporter for the NZ Herald

Wimbledon tennis balls made with NZ wool

Tennis balls emblazoned with Wimbledon 2013 - and featuring NZ wool - are placed on a court during a match. Photo / AP
Tennis balls emblazoned with Wimbledon 2013 - and featuring NZ wool - are placed on a court during a match. Photo / AP

Tennis balls used at Wimbledon are made with New Zealand wool which travels 40,000km around the world before being served up at SW19, new research has found.

Quintessentially British sports equipment manufacturer Slazenger has been the official ball supplier for the grass tennis major championship since 1902, with its headquarters based at Shirebrook in Derbyshire.

But their official ball now flies 80,000kms between 11 countries and across four continents before being manufactured in Bataan in the Philippines and then travelling back 10,700kms to Wimbledon.

After their marathon journey, they are smashed around the courts for just nine games before being ditched as too old, soft and fluffy for the top players.

Warwick Business School in England studied the supply chain, and found clay was shipped from South Carolina in the US, silica from Greece, magnesium carbonate from Japan, zinc oxide from Thailand, sulphur from South Korea and rubber from Malaysia to Bataan, where the rubber is vulcanised - a chemical process that makes the rubber more durable.

Wool then travels from New Zealand to Stroud in Gloucestershire, where it is turned into felt and then sent back to Bataan.

Petroleum naphthalene from Zibo in China and glue from the Philippines are brought to Bataan where Slazenger, which was bought by Sports Direct in 2004, manufacture the balls.

Finally, tins are shipped in from Indonesia and once the balls have been packaged they are sent to Wimbledon.

New Zealand Wool Services (WSI), which is the country's largest wool exporter, provides the wool used in top-line tennis balls.

"The wool has to be the cream of what we produce in the way of colour and also at the top end of quality", marketing executive Malcolm Ching said.

Balls around the world

The company, along with two to three other New Zealand exporters, dealt with an international organisation who manufactured tennis balls for sporting corporations like Slazenger. WSI sells wool to a company that makes the covers for tennis balls, he said.

"They actually take the raw wool and turn it into a very, very fine fabric that is then attached to the rubber tennis balls."

The high-quality of New Zealand wool made it ideal for tennis balls, Mr Ching said.

"We tend to make it from wools that inherently have a good crimp characteristic ... and that is what goes in to adding to the bounce factor.

"It has a natural ability to absorb a high degree of moisture and also release that moisture again."

The wool used was sourced from a variety of sheep breeds, he said.

Dr Mark Johnson, Associate Professor at Warwick Business School, was stunned to unearth the surprisingly long and complex journey to one of the world's biggest sporting events.

"It is one of the longest journeys I have seen for a product," he said.

"On the face of it, travelling more than 50,000 miles (80,000kms) to make a tennis ball does seem fairly ludicrous, but it just shows the global nature of production these days, and in the end, this will be the most cost-effective way of making tennis balls."

However, revelations that world-famous Kiwi wool is being bashed around centre court by Novak Djokovic and Serena Williams surprised New Zealand Slazenger today.

"That's news on me, and I've worked here for years," said a woman who answered the phone at its Auckland office.

Slazenger shut down its UK factory in the early 2000s and moved the equipment to the Philippines.

But the firm still gets felt from Stroud, as it requires more technical expertise.

"Shipping wool from New Zealand to Stroud and then sending the felt back to the Philippines adds a lot of miles, but they obviously want to use the best wool for the Wimbledon balls," Dr Johnson said.

- APNZ

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