Talking Balls: Slazenger’s Long And Illustrious Association With The Wimbledon Championships
The name Wimbledon will always conjure-up images of strawberries and cream, champagne, Henman Hill, rain and of course Cliff Richard; but there is one key association which often goes unnoticed yet forms one of the longest running partnerships in sporting history - and that’s balls.
Sports manufacturer Slazenger was founded in 1881 by brothers Ralph and Albert Slazenger before Ralph left his native Manchester to open a shop on London's Cannon Street selling rubber sporting goods.
By 1902, Slazenger were appointed as the official tennis ball supplier to The Championships at Wimbledon, and it remains one of the longest, unbroken, sporting sponsorships in history which is still going strong almost 120 years later in a double act that the Murray brothers would be proud of.
Things have come a long way since those early days of the world’s most loved tennis tournament when the balls were made of solid rubber, with a wool cloth coating, making them heavy and susceptible to absorbing moisture, something which isn’t great in London’s often inclement climate.
In the beginning, each ball was hand sewn but by 1929 Slazenger had adopted a vulcanizing process which meant the cloth was glued onto the ball core rather than being fastened by needle and thread in the first of many technological advancements over the next century or so.
In 1937 they even worked out that the optimum temperature of a Slazenger tennis ball was around 68 degrees Fahrenheit with the All England Club soon introducing a courtside fridge to maintain a constant temperature for their most valuable assets whatever the weather.
In 1939, Slazenger patented a new ‘K’ cloth system which it claimed would ensure the ball became more durable and rigid as the game became more physical, meaning it lasted longer and its performance remained consistent throughout long and gruelling encounters.
But never wanting to rest on their laurels the manufacturer continued to develop their ball that is now a staple of the two-week tennis spectacular in South West London which is a firm fixture on the British sporting calendar.
As the big hitters got bigger and the ball took greater punishment in 1954 Slazenger introduced a new, state-of-the-art nylon armour covering while also introducing a brighter shade to its traditionally dull outer covering, meaning it didn’t just last longer but was easier on the eye for both players and spectators.
Such was the improvement that in 1982 a fluorescent yellow ball was introduced to aid visibility and replaced the green tinged colour which had been used previously; while by the end of the 1980s a bright yellow ball became the norm and in 1997 a water-repellent barrier called Hydroguard was adopted.
Of course, it’s not just sporting events which are partial to lengthy endorsements, plenty of players down the years have agreed extremely lucrative deals to tie them in with manufacturers and equipment suppliers eager to have them associated with their brand.
In 1922, pro golfer Gene Sarazen became the first member of the Wilson Advisory Staff and his contract with Wilson Sporting Goods lasted for 75 years – one of the longest running endorsement deals in the history of sports.
Sarazen is still seen as something of a pioneer when it comes to endorsement deals, paving the way for current long-term athlete endorsers like David Beckham, who put pen to paper on a lifetime agreement with Adidas and Tiger Woods, who signed with Nike when he turned pro in 1996,
But as sport has evolved in the multimedia age and become more about the individual than the game as a whole, when it comes to major events on the sporting calendar there are few more iconic sporting partnerships on the planet than Slazenger and Wimbledon.