Tennis ball switch grabs focus at French

PARIS — No one went quite so far as to blame a Day 1 loss at the French Open on — or credit a victory to — the different tennis balls being used this year at the clay-court Grand Slam tournament.

There were, though, plenty of opinions about the switch.

The balls are harder, most agreed. They're fluffier, a few thought. They're better, some suggested, for players such as Rafael Nadal, who use a lot of spin. They're faster, at least at first, then tend to slow after a few games. They'll help powerful servers.

Any of those elements could affect matches, players said, and possibly their health.

"In the locker room, a lot of the girls... (are) coming in with a lot of shoulder issues. They say the balls are pretty hard," the highest-ranked American woman entered in the tournament, Bethanie Mattek-Sands, said Sunday after coming back to beat Arantxa Parra Santonja 2-6, 7-6 (5), 6-3.

"I think it kind of translates to they're going fast through the air," said Mattek-Sands, who was 36th in the most recent rankings. "I don't mind that. I actually like it if it's fast-paced."

Under a five-year contract that begins in 2011, the French Open is moving to Babolat balls from Dunlop. It's not every day that a Grand Slam tournament changes its ball brand. Or even every century. Wimbledon, for example, has used Slazenger since 1902. The U.S. Open has used Wilson since the late 1970s. The Australian Open switched to Wilson in 2006.

Mattek-Sands next meets Varvara Lepchenko, who was born in Uzbekistan but lives in Allentown, Pa., and as a longtime resident of the United States is allowed to represent it on tour.

The 85th-ranked Lepchenko authored the biggest upset of a windy, sunny day short on big names at the only Grand Slam tournament that begins on a Sunday, eliminating 18th-seeded Flavia Pennetta of Italy 6-3, 2-6, 6-3.

The other seeded players exiting were men's No. 19 Marin Cilic and women's No. 19 Shahar Peer.

Today's schedule features Novak Djokovic, who is 37-0 this season; 16-time Grand Slam champion Roger Federer; defending champion Francesca Schiavone and No. 1-ranked Caroline Wozniacki.