New York: When sports fans think of game-used memorabilia, baseball bats, hockey sticks and jerseys come to mind. In tennis, players, not teams or leagues, control many of the rights to their gear, and they have not been selling much of it.
The United States Tennis Association is trying to change that. For the first time, fans at the US Open can buy tennis balls used in specific matches that have been authenticated and sealed for their protection.
If you saw Novak Djokovic beat Julien Benneteau on Sunday and want a souvenir, you can visit a booth at the Open and, for $59.99, buy one of 11 balls from their third-round match. You can also bid for a 12th ball — the one used for match point — at an online auction on the US Open Web site.
“We were never able to attach a product to a moment, not just something signed by a celebrity,” said Lew Sherr, the chief revenue officer at the USTA. “At most, players signed things. We’re trying to add a level of sophistication to authentication in tennis.”
Fans at the US Open and Wimbledon have been able to buy tennis balls used at their tournaments for some time. But the process of authenticating tennis balls from specific matches is time-consuming and labour-intensive. So the USTA formed a partnership with the MeiGray Group, which handles game-used collectibles for the NBA, the NHL and other leagues.
In a business fraught with frauds, ensuring that the chain of custody has not been compromised is critical. If word gets around that some balls are not from the matches they are supposed to have come from, the market for the balls will fall apart.
“People know that sports memorabilia has problems, but our chain of custody is direct,” said Barry Meisel, the president of the MeiGray Group, which is in New Jersey. “With what people have done in the past, you have to protect that secondary market. When collectors go to sell the ball, you want to make sure their product is protected.”
MeiGray, which has a small retail shop next to Court 11, has five runners attend the key matches each day to collect balls. During the late stages of the match, they wait courtside but out of view. That way, they can see where the match-point ball — the most valuable prize — ends up.
Protocol at the Open is that the ball cannot be picked up until the players have shaken hands. During that time, a fan might reach over a railing and pick up the ball. Roger Federer and James Blake hit their match-point balls into the crowd last week. Sometimes, a ball boy will bobble several balls, making it impossible to tell which one was used for the final point.
Match-point balls that are collected are each put in small zippered bags. On average, 12 to 18 balls are used each match, with more for men’s matches than women’s matches and more in later rounds, when the stiffer competition leads to longer matches.
The runners take the balls from the umpire and dump them in a shopping bag and add a piece of paper that identifies which match they came from. The balls are taken to a tent behind the first-aid truck near Court 17. There, they are authenticated using invisible ink that has a synthetic DNA strand unique to the MeiGray Group.