Why Tennis Balls Are Yellow In Colour? Sir David Attenborough Has A Big Role In The Modernization

In 1972, research showed that yellow balls were more visible to television viewers, prompting the switch. However, Wimbledon, known for its tradition, didn’t adopt yellow balls until 1986. Read on to know the details

Yellow tennis balls are now a common sight on TV screens, especially during the Australian Open, but this wasn’t always the case. The shift from white to yellow tennis balls is an intriguing story, with British broadcaster and biologist Sir David Attenborough playing a significant role.

Lawn tennis traces its roots to medieval French monasteries and courts, where monks and royals played a game called “royal tennis” using leather balls stuffed with wool or rags.

Over time, tennis balls evolved into their modern form: hollow balls made from felt-covered rubber with a diameter of 6.54–6.86 cm.

Modernization Of Tennis Balls

The modernization of tennis balls began in the 1870s after Charles Goodyear developed a vulcanization process using Indian rubber, according to a history document by the International Tennis Federation. Initially, the balls were either black or white.

In 1972, research showed that yellow balls were more visible to television viewers, prompting the switch. However, Wimbledon, known for its tradition, didn’t adopt yellow balls until 1986.

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What Role Did Sir David Attenborough Play?

The push for yellow balls was championed by Sir David Attenborough, who joined the BBC as a controller in 1967.

He was responsible for transitioning BBC 2 broadcasts from black and white to color. Using his filming expertise, he realized that viewers had difficulty seeing the ball against the white lines, leading to the adoption of yellow tennis balls.

John Lloyd, James Harkin, and Anne Miller, known from the comedy quiz show QI, authored the book “2,024 QI Facts To Stop You In Your Tracks,” in which they noted, “Yellow tennis balls, which look better on color TV, were the idea of David Attenborough when he was Controller of BBC2. (They used to be white.),” as reported by The Sun.

“I Wanted To Be First”

Sir David Attenborough himself explained in an article for RadioTimes how he hurried to introduce color.

He wrote, “We had been asking the government over and over again and they wouldn’t allow us, until suddenly they said, ‘Yes, OK, you can have it, and what’s more you’re going to have it in nine months’ time,’ or whatever it was.”

Attenborough added, “I mean, a ridiculously short period. They had no idea of the complexity involved. Even then, the cameras were changing. The engineers didn’t want to buy a complete set of studio cameras that would be significantly outdated within a year. So I had to predict when we would start – and, in a childish sort of way, I wanted to be first.”

He explained he wanted to beat West Germany in introducing colour, after the US and Japan had already done so.

“And it suddenly dawned on me that the one thing we did have was outside broadcast units,” he said. “I thought, ‘Blimey, couldn’t we deploy them?’ And then I thought of Wimbledon. I mean, it is a wonderful plot: you’ve got drama, you’ve got everything. And it’s a national event, it’s got everything going for it.”

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