To improve your tennis game and make the best buying decision for a new tennis ball machine you need to understand all of the features ball machines offer.
Before you start researching and choosing a tennis ball machine, it’s best to understand what all of the features and terminology mean. I’ve tried to be as detailed as I can with my reviews on this site, but I thought it would be helpful to put together a Buying Guide to answer a lot of the basic questions you may have. Buying a new ball machine can be a daunting process and very confusing if you don’t understand how machines work and what each of the features really mean. They’re not cheap, so it’s best to research and understand as much as you can before making the investment. This Buyer’s Guide will help you make an educated buying decision.
Tennis Ball Machine Firing Options
If you are an “old school” player who may have started playing junior tennis in the ’80’s (Agassi big hair/wig days) then you’ll remember pneumatic tennis ball machines. They were the only type of ball machine available at the time and a few are still sold today, so we’ll give you a quick overview on how these machines work. These ball machines look like leaf or snow blowers or cannons; basically an engine with a long tube attached to the end. Balls fire out with a big “whoomp” sound. Pneumatic ball machines work by air pressure. A vacuum cleaner motor supplies the pressure to the ball which gets lodged in the throat of the tube. It is retained there by a collar that is slightly smaller in diameter than the ball. When the pressure builds up enough, the tennis ball is shot out. Although you can still find these pneumatic machines today, in fact Lobster still makes several, many manufacturers have graduated to more advanced ball machines that use counter rotating wheels.
Counter Rotating Wheels
Most tennis ball machines on the market today operate using the counter rotating wheel principal. Two wheels rotate in the opposite direction and have a small space in between them. The tennis ball rolls down a chute and gets squeezed by the wheels and then shot out from the pressure. You can see how this principal works when driving a car and having your tire run over gravel, which then shoots out from the spinning tire.
So which ball firing option is better?
Pneumatic tennis ball machines are much noisier than counter rotating wheel machines. Also wheel machines are better able to put spin on the ball and vary speed easier. Most pneumatic ball machines will come with a spin adaptor that you stick on the end of the tube, but generally these do not work nearly as well as counter rotating wheels.
Pneumatic tennis ball machines also require a lot of electricity to work and therefore cannot be designed to work with battery power. So if you purchase a pneumatic machine you have to use it on a court that has an electric outlet.
The only real advantage of pneumatic machines is that they tend to be cheaper than wheel powered machines. All of the ones we’ve found are under $900, making them a relative bargain compared to most ball machines on the market today. So, if you’re looking for a cheap, basic ball machine and can’t afford a more sophisticated model, then a pneumatic machine may be just the fit for you.
Tennis Ball Machine Power Types
All portable tennis ball machines use sealed lead-acid batteries, which are different from car batteries and gel cell type batteries. They are sealed and will not leak even if turned upside down. Sealed lead acid batteries are rated by the number of Amp/hour reserve charge they carry. They do not have a “memory” like many other types of batteries, so they do not need to be completely discharged before being recharged, they can instead be recharged from any level of discharge. Of the ball machines I’ve reviewed on this site battery life ranges from 4-8 hours.
To recharge a battery powered tennis ball machine you simply plug it into any household outlet. Charging time is usually about 10-12 hours. Several ball machine brands also offer a fast charger for around $100 extra. The fast charger knocks recharge time down to about 3-9 hours.
An AC powered tennis ball machine can only run on household current, which in North America is 120 volts, other countries 220 volts. If you want to use this type of machine then the court where you are playing must have an electric outlet. The main advantage of these machines is that you can use them as long as you want and not have to worry about the batteries running out, nor do you have to worry about charging the battery. Also you won’t have to eventually buy new batteries when they are no longer chargeable.
Several tennis ball machines reviewed on this site offer AC power as an option on their battery powered machines for an additional charge ranging from $50-100. Several offer both AC and battery power (AC/DC) for an extra charge as well ranging from $200-250. The Jugs tennis machine comes standard with both AC/DC at no additional charge. AC/DC machines are like laptop computers where they can operate on a battery or you can plug them in. AC/DC is a great option if you are not sure if you’ll have access to an AC outlet or if you want to run your machine past the battery time.
Spin Options for Tennis Ball Machines
Most ball machines today offer various levels of spin control. Wheel driven machines put spin on the ball by varying the relative speed of the upper and lower wheel. When the upper wheel spins faster than the lower, the ball fires out with topspin. When the lower wheel spins faster than the upper the ball fires out with backspin. To get a no spin flat ball, both wheels simply spin at the same rate.
Pneumatic ball machines generate spin on the ball by using friction in the cannon tube or with an attachment to the tube. When the bottom or top of the ball is rubbed as it fires out of the machine, the ball acquires topspin or backspin. Generally you are not able to control the degree of the spin on pneumatic machines. With wheel driven machines you can turn a knob on the control panel to set the amount of spin you want.
Tennis ball machines that don’t offer spin control usually have the wheels on their machines arranged in a horizontal plane rather than a vertical plane. Changing speed on vertical wheels simply makes the ball spin off to either side, not with topspin or backspin. Sidespin is uncommon in tennis, so usually ball machines designed like this do not offer spin control.
The oscillator on a ball machine is the mechanism that allows it to throw balls to different locations on the court. Most ball machines offer random oscillation in which the machine sweeps the court from side to side, similar to a fan on a hot summer day that turns back and forth across a room. Random oscillation is a great way to simulate an actual opponent that will vary his or her shots.
When balls are thrown at the same level or distance in a random pattern it is called horizontal oscillation. Taking oscillation a step further is vertical oscillation. This is where tennis balls are thrown at varying depths on the court, such as close to the net, or into the backcourt. Tennis ball machines achieve vertical oscillation by varying the angle of elevation so that the higher the ball is thrown the deeper it lands in the opposite court. Many ball machine brands achieve vertical oscillation through a mechanical component that varies the angle of elevation within a fixed range.
How fast a machine fires balls is a very important factor. Ball machines on the market today range in speed from 10 to 95 mph (16 – 153 kph). Intermediate players usually practice ground strokes at speeds ranging from 40 to 60 mph (64 – 97 kph) however a higher top speed is needed as players progress in ability. Also, to practice rapid fire volleys, you need a fast firing speed. In addition, when the tennis ball machine puts spin on the ball, it reduces the speed on one of its propulsion wheels relative to the other, which reduces the overall top speed of the ball fired. In all of my reviews on this site I discuss the speed of the ball machine.
Overall, ball machines today have achieved dramatic results in terms of simulating actual opponents and real life game experiences. By varying the oscillation type, spin, and speed, ball machines today can provide a pro-level workout. A well researched decision on the best tennis ball machine will help you to improve your game and reach your full potential as a tennis player.