The Mind-Bending Physics of a Tennis Ball’s Spin

The simple fact is that spin can win tennis matches. But understanding how it is created is harder than it seems; some people even liken it to answering a physics problem without invoking subatomic particles. There are many variables involved in spin, including air pressured balls, taut strings, stiff racquets, twisting hips, thrusting knees,rotating elbows, swinging shoulders and tennis racket string tension.

Many experts say that tennis is as much about talent as it is about technology and math.The physics of a tennis ball’s spin entails a sophisticated dance: holding the tennis racquet at a perfect angle and brushing the ball with it (rather than hitting it head on).

Tennis players who are experts at generating spin have perfected the motion of giving the ball a “weird high five.” If you watch them, you’ll notice that they started low (the racquet at their waist), and then they bring the racquet up and forward—all while twisting their elbows and hips so that the head finishes high above the opposite shoulder. You might notice they tilt the racquet at a certain angle so that there isn’t much face to the ball. Everything is slanted.

What is the best angle for a forward face? Experts say that the magic number is around 50 degrees relative to the ground’s surface. This should put a spin on the tennis ball and makes it easier to ding it with the rim.

Spin is not just about technique, though—it’s also largely about the technology. With a bigger racket, you can benefit from the safety of a larger surface area, so you can swing at a greater angle—and do so fast. Big headed racquets allow you to attack the tennis ball with more angle on your swings. Strong and light graphite frames help you stay agile. Wilson recently released tennis rackets with their new patented technology, called Spin Effect). It has fewer cross strings, which translates to less friction on the mains.

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