How David Attenborough and Color Cameras Turned Tennis Balls Yellow

Close-up shot of a tennis racket lying on the ground with two tennis balls resting on it. In the upper left corner, an inset image features an elderly man with white hair, wearing a blue tie and dark suit, speaking animatedly.

Most people know David Attenborough for being the calming and authoritative voice of nature documentaries. But few know that he is the reason tennis balls are yellow.

With Wimbledon just about to start, its Instagram page shared an illuminating story about how Attenborough was influential in changing tennis balls from white to yellow.

In the mid-1960s, color television was still rolling out into viewers’ homes. The traditional white tennis ball had been used for decades until Attenborough, then a young television executive, sent four color broadcast cameras to Wimbledon in 1967.

Attenborough was working for BBC television at the time and he wanted his station, BBC Two, to be the first channel in Europe to broadcast color television and honed in on Wimbledon as the perfect program to show in color.

“It is a wonderful plot,” he said. “You’ve got drama, you’ve got everything. And, it’s a national event.”

But the arrival of color television created unique challenges for sports broadcasts, particularly in ensuring that viewers could easily follow the game. The white tennis ball often blended into the background on the grass courts, making it difficult for viewers at home to track its movement.

After the 1967 Wimbledon tournament had been completed, Attenborough suggested that a fluorescent ball would be more visible to the cameras with the aim of enhancing viewers’ experience.

The International Tennis Federation (ITF) conducted extensive research to find a color that would be visible on both color and black-and-white televisions. They tested several colors, and fluorescent yellow was determined to be the most visible against the various surfaces used in tennis courts.

Attenborough had to wait five years for the ITF to approve the change but he got his wish and the players started serving optic yellow tennis balls instead of the white ones. Since then, the yellow tennis ball has become a standard in the sport, used in all major tournaments and recreational play worldwide.

The balls made their debut at the U.S. Open in 1973 and were adopted everywhere except for, ironically, Wimbledon, which kept using the white balls until 1986.

Image credits: Header photo partly licensed via Depositphotos and Copyright House of Lords 2020 / Photography by Roger Harris.