The Science of Wimbledon tennis

The science on show on the courts of Wimbledon.
11 July 2017

Interview with 

Tom Crawford and Georgia Mills


Grab your rackets, your strawberries and cream and - as long as you’re old enough - a glass of Pimms; because Wimbledon’s underway… and to celebrate we’re having a rally of our very own!

Female - And it’s a match of the titans today. Georgia Mills and Tom Crawford have come armed with their top tennis facts. It's anyone’s guess who will be crowned champion. It’s you're Quick Fire Science on Wimbledon. And they're off!

Georgia - Once upon a time, tennis rackets were made out of wood which was weak and warped over time. But now, we use carbon fibre set in glue which is high strength and low weight.

Tom - And not all rackets are vegetarian. Some strings are made from cow intestines but most are the polymer nylon.

Georgia - If you hit the ball in a certain way, you create top spin which makes the ball fall sooner than a ball without it. This relies on something called the magnus effect: Whilst the ball is spinning through the air, a thin layer of air around it is also rotating, and the differences in pressure between the air on top and the bottom of the ball creates a force.

Tom - This is what pushes the ball faster towards the ground and is why you have to use top spin with your balls if you want to be too fast for your opponent. Rafael Nadal is one of the best. He could spin a ball at 3,600 rpms.

Georgia - Over the course of Wimbledon, they sell around 320,000 glasses of Pimm’s. If one person managed to drink that and miraculously didn’t die, it would take around 36 years to sober up. Cheers!

Tom - Wimbledon is one of the very few tournaments that still use grass instead of clay or acrylic. The grass used is perennial ryegrass, scientific name Lolium perenne because of its resistance to wear and impressive regeneration capabilities.

Georgia - Grass courts make it slightly less predictable where the ball is going to bounce but also makes for a faster game. This is because grass as a surface isn’t very even and also has less friction.

Tom - The winner of a coin toss decides if they want the first serve. But the odds aren't exactly 50/50. Coins have a 51 per cent chance of landing on the side that was faced down at the start.

Georgia - Plus, some statistics have shown a very small advantage to being the first serve on the first set although this effect does seem to disappear if the players are very evenly matched.

Tom - It’s not just balls that are served. Over 28,000 kilograms of strawberries are consumed by hungry punters. That’s the equivalent weight of 4 African elephants. Luckily, there's 10,000 litres of cream on hand to go with them.

Georgia - The ball’s yellow colour may be iconic, but Wimbledon used traditional white balls until 1986. The yellow ball first started being used when research showed that they showed up better on television.

Tom - Each tennis ball is hollow and is filled with a gas which is usually nitrogen that’s held at a pressure higher than the air outside. This means that over time, the gas leaks out which is why the balls need to be replaced.

Georgia - This is why when you open a new can of balls, you get that lovely popping sound as the cans are pressurised to keep the balls in tiptop condition. It’s also why you'll often see the players squeezing their balls on the pitch to see if the pressure is good enough.

Female - Game, set, match. What a game ladies and gentlemen, what a game!


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