Tennis Ball Machine Buying Guide
There are so many features available on a tennis ball machine today that narrowing down the models can be a huge undertaking. It doesn’t have to be. With a little guidance you can zero in on the one best for you. Here’s that guidance.
Naturally, like every other product around, tennis ball machines come in a range of prices. Some are as low as a few hundred dollars. Others sell for more than a few thousand. The first cut to slim down your list is simple: how much do you want to spend?
In general, you get what you pay for. Or, more accurately, you don’t get what you don’t pay for. That can be ok, though. Often, you don’t need a lot of things you’d pay the large differential for. Do you care whether you have pro-level speeds or completely random oscillation? Does it have to have such a large capacity you don’t have to re-fill it for an hour? Last, but not least, how often will you use it?
The rate at which your machine fires tennis balls can vary from a couple of seconds to half a minute. The latter setting might be useful for novices who really don’t need (or want) to be challenged at the level of an expert.
Still, remember, even the lowest price tennis ball machine is a hefty investment. Get one that won’t become obsolete as you improve. On the other hand, realize that an interval of two seconds is faster than top players could exchange volleys from baseline to baseline.
As important, how easy is it to set the feeding interval, and can you do it remotely? Some have a switch with a couple of selections like “Fast” or “Slow”. That’s almost useless. A switch that at least lets you select “2”, “5”, “10”, “20” is a must. Better still, a dial that lets you zero in on the exact interval you want is best.
Naturally, you want a machine that feeds them reliably. Look for user reviews that state a machine had no more than 1-2 hung balls per hour. Just about any machine can hang sometimes. But you don’t want to have to free up the feeding mechanism often. That interrupts the flow of your practice session.
Your tennis progress is roughly correlated with the speed of a ball you can handle. If you’ve ever played someone very skilled, you know they can fire something you could never hit, even if the ball zoomed past reach.
A tennis ball machine should be able to simulate that, or approach it. The fastest tennis serve recorded is just over 160 mph (~263 km/h). A good tennis ball machine should be able to do at least half that.
Believe me, if you’re not familiar with tennis ball speeds, even that smaller figure is plenty fast enough for most players. Still, as you improve, you want a unit that will continue to challenge you. A superior one would reach 120 mph, but that will cost you more, natch.
Even relatively slow balls can be a tremendous challenge if they’re accompanied by hefty spin. Most balls will spin a little just from air friction and slight out-of-round imperfections in the ball. That’s particularly true in real play, since a hit ball is inevitably squashed a little bit (sometimes a lot) by the pressure from the strings. After all, it’s that rebound that produces a portion of the forward motion.
Spin can take many forms but the two basic ones are topspin and underspin. Either type, and their combinations or variations, can give you grief on the court. But, they’re also a healthy challenge and part of every real game. A machine that allows you to specify the type and amount is a big benefit.
Many models will let you select one or the other type. Typically, to get one that lets you vary the amount will cost you more. Sometimes “more” is a little, sometimes a lot. Just one more area where you have to balance your budget against your long-term tennis development goals. Your machine will last a long time, though. Consider spending a little more upfront so you don’t get better than your machine within a few months.
To get much benefit out of a ball machine, even a novice will need to do more than simply return balls the same way every time. Hitting a fired ball over and over again using the same swing is beneficial, but only to a limited extent. Best to simulate a real game as closely as possible. That’s where oscillation comes in. It means, essentially, the ability of the machine to fire balls in different directions, both horizontally and vertically.
But, like a lot of things, “different” – or better still, “random” – comes in degrees and varies from model to model. Some will launch a ball in any of 2-6 directions, which is still somewhat limiting if it repeats the pattern. Some can be set to serve in practically any spot on your side of the court.
The latter, of course, is more beneficial for the experienced. But the dedicated novice will soon find they need that ability, too. That’s the best way to up your game to the next level.
Best of all is the type of machine that lets you program the oscillation. “Program”, here, doesn’t mean anything as sophisticated as the software on your cell phone. Though, there are models whose selections can be set with your iPhone, using it like a remote control! It does mean you can set it in advance to change “unpredictably”, which is another fine way to simulate a real game.
Hit balls move not just left and right but up and down, obviously. So, since once again the idea is to simulate real play, a tennis ball machine should allow you to adjust the angle of the hit. You want to practice handling lobs as well as ground strokes.
Some units, even good ones, are as simple as one of two settings, such as 50 degrees or 60 degrees. A cheap one will allow only one setting of, say, half that. Like speed or spin, the best machines let you select any degree you want. Once again, you typically pay more for that. Only you can decide how important this feature is to you.
Not surprisingly, there are different ways to produce all those aspects of the ball trajectory. One is effected by the manner of “propulsion”. A machine that uses air pressure just shoots the ball out via the force of compressed air. A different type uses spinning wheel propulsion, a pair of spinning wheels that launch the ball.
Which is better? Well, in part it’s matter of manufacturing cost and complexity and not something the buyer has to care about. But on average machines that use spinning wheel propulsion tend to be higher end models. The method used influences how much speed the machine can provide for a given amount of spin. It also influences how much spin it can produce in the first place. A mechanical wheel can exert more rotational force more easily than air flow around the ball’s surface.
Beyond variations in how the ball is launched, there are other features of a tennis ball machine that influence convenience and value. Here, I’ll cover a number of them.
First and foremost among the convenience features is capacity. If you had to refill the hopper every 10 balls, you would quickly tire of using a tennis ball machine, just to exaggerate to make a point. More realistically, frequent refills interrupt the flow of your practice session. You need enough play, a long enough session, to simulate a real game, at least partly.
A cheap unit may hold only 50 balls. That might sound like a lot but consider some elementary arithmetic. Launched every 10 seconds (which is slower than it sounds), it would take 500 seconds to empty the hopper. That’s just over eight minutes. A more realistic interval of five seconds halves that to four minutes to empty the hopper.
Even the longer total is not very long, even for a novice player. Hard to develop a good rhythm or simulate even a short game that way.
A medium-to-good machine will hold 150 balls or more. A lot more than that and you’re talking a high-end machine. Naturally, we’d all love to have one that could hold 500 balls, enough to have a truly long workout without having to refill at all. But even a more realistic 300-capacity machine is going to cost you big bucks. Only you can say where to draw the line, based on your budget and workout goals.
Size & Portability
The dimensions and weight will obviously affect how easy it is to pack, transport, and unpack / setup your tennis ball machine. A big one might not fit in your trunk or through the SUV hatch, and not everyone has a flatbed truck available to move one. Even if you can fit the unit, a heavy one is clearly going to be tougher to move. Very few tennis aficionados are also weightlifters.
Here, only your personal qualities and circumstances can be your guide. Personally, I like a machine that’s under 50 lbs. I like, too, to have a hopper that’s reversible so I can flip it over for easy storage and transport.
Portability & Power
Dimensions and weight are two important aspects of portability, but not the only ones. Another is whether the machine is battery powered or requires a cord and electrical outlet.
You might think at first glance that a battery-only model would always be preferred. Overall, that might be true. But batteries today last only so long, usually around 4 hours max. Recharging one can take more than 24 hours. So, if you want to use your machine for a long time every day that can be a limitation.
Also, a battery-powered machine will require a new battery after a while. That can be as short as two years or as long as four, but eventually they all wear out. Rechargeables can only be recharged so many times. Replacements can run anywhere from $40 to $100 or more. Factor that in to your total cost of ownership over the lifetime of the machine.
If you do get a battery-powered machine – and most buyers will want to because of the convenience and potential difficulty of finding an outlet near the court – look for one with a battery life indicator. Good to know if the unit is about to run out of juice before you put it in the car.
There are several power accessories available. ;Some are replacement batteries. Not bad to have a spare if you want to be able to swap one out and continue playing. Some models let you plug even a battery-operated machine into an outlet using an onboard connector. You generally have to buy a transformer separately, though. They can run anywhere from $100-$200.
Another accessory may or may not come with your model: a remote control. Whether it’s needed, and worth the cost, is strictly a personal decision. Keep in mind that you don’t want to interrupt your rhythm to make changes at the machine. On the other hand, using a remote control is going to do that to an extent anyway. A good one will let you set speed, spin, oscillation, and more.
Those are a lot of factors to consider in buying your tennis ball machine. The main ones, apart from price, are speed and oscillation with spin a close second. Still, the more you know the better choice you can make. That knowledge lets you optimize your investment and maximize your practice.