MASON, Ohio -- World-class athletes come and go at the Western & Southern Open but the tennis balls remain the same.
Well, the tennis balls' brand.
Penn has outfitted the W&S Open with its signature balls for decades, well before the Women's Tennis Association added the Premier 5 event to its calendar and the tour became an elite combined event.
The balls are part of the same manufacturing run that accommodates every US Open Series event. That means ATP World Tour and WTA players are outfitted with the same kinds of Penn balls at seven tournaments in the North American hard-court season, which culminates with the US Open in New York.
The W&S Open started Saturday with qualifying matches, but its shipment of more than 12,000 tennis balls arrived at the Lindner Family Tennis Center in July. All 170 cases were stowed in a secure storage unit below Court 3.
Dick Clark, the tournament's director of facilities, long has overseen a crew of full-time interns that assist with courts and supervise field service interns that help with the tournament. Those full-time courts interns -- Kasey Berry, Emily Doehrman and Zach Phillips -- know everything there is to know about tennis ball storage and distribution.
Berry said balls are eventually moved from below Court 3 and distributed to other areas on the grounds to accommodate the number of pros that need them for practice and matches.
"When players practice, they actually get the balls from the desk inside the (Paul Flory) Player Center. There's a minimum number of balls that players are allowed to use at practice. Two cans for every practice session," Berry said.
Cans remain unopened until they are ready for use, and if the seal is not removed, the tennis balls could remain viable for years. Jeff Ratkovich, senior business manager for Penn tennis balls and racquetballs, said the key to ensuring the best performance is to avoid storing balls in extreme temperatures for extended periods of time.
"Transporting cartons of tennis balls from the factory to the tournament site does not require refrigeration, but once the balls are delivered to the Lindner Family Tennis Center, we recommend that the cartons are kept in a climate-controlled indoor facility with an ambient temperature between 68 and 77 degrees Fahrenheit," Ratkovich said. "Tennis balls that are stored in extremely hot environments will tend to play very lively, while balls kept in freezing conditions will not have a lot of life to them."
Every ball, once put into play, eventually loses its bounce. Clark said balls are changed during matches after the first seven games and every nine games thereafter. The first figure -- seven games -- accounts for the fact that the balls are used for warm-ups.
Once a match is under way, a player often takes three balls as he or she is preparing to serve. One is kept for the serve, one is tucked into a pocket or part of the outfit, and a third is tossed back.
"They'll switch out balls depending on which ones have more bounce. They can tell sometimes which ones are newer and then occasionally, if they just lost a point with a ball, they don't want to play with that ball, so they just throw it back," Doehrman said.
While the ATP World Tour and WTA compete simultaneously in Mason, not everything on the tours is the same from match to match. Nets, for example, are changed out between a men's and women's match to accommodate the respective tour logos.
It's the same process for the balls.
"We get different balls for the men and the women. We have to make sure all our storage units are stocked with men's balls and women's balls so that when they switch, we do have them ready to go for the next match," Phillips said.
The women use regular-duty tennis balls stamped with the WTA logo while the men use extra-duty tennis balls featuring the ATP logo. Both bear the W&S Open logo. Besides the tours' respective brands, the only difference is the amount of fuzz, Clark said. There's more on men's tennis balls, which makes them slightly heavier.
"If Kasey and I were out hitting balls, we probably wouldn't know the difference. But the pros would know the difference," Clark said.
Used tennis balls are collected and often reused by teaching pro Cathy Thomas, who runs leagues, lessons and clinics on the courts. Others are donated to charity.
Even tennis fans can claim a piece of the action. Player-used balls are sold at the tournament's information booth for $1 a can.