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Tennis Ball Machines - The Pros And Cons

Updated on December 22, 2012

Essential To Help Your Tennis, Or Essentially An Expensive Indulgence?

A Worthwhile Investment In Your Tennis Game?

I'll come clean right from the outset. I think there are many good reasons to buy a tennis ball machine, and in most cases these will significantly outweigh it's shortcomings. However, it's best to go into any purchase armed with all the facts, and the people selling them certainly aren't going to highlight the downside of their products.

There are a handful of manufacturers in the North American and European markets vying with each other for your business. Some, like Playmate, specialize in the upper end of the scale - ball machines for clubs, schools and tennis coaches. Match Mate, after merging with Sports Action Machines produce models from the economic Rookie and iSAM, to the expensive SAM Robot. Sports Tutor with their Tennis Tutor and Wilson ranges and Lobster and Silent Partner, produce mainly battery powered machines for the individual from beginner models to the advanced player. Lobster have recently introduced the Phenom AC models to grab a slice of the home court/tennis club market.

All makes have plenty to offer the tennis enthusiast at whatever level, and after sales support and service seems to be responsive, possibly due in part to the fact that it's quick and easy to get a poor reputation in the age of the interactive internet.

So lets get the drawbacks to buying any of the above out of the way first so we can get to the positive stuff!

The Downside Of Tennis Ball Machine Ownership

Well probably the most obvious one is cost. The cheapest ball machine is the Tennis Tutor Twist, but it's still $229 and won't appeal to any but beginners, (and maybe dogs). As with everything in life, you get what you pay for and a machine with enough speed and variety of shot to challenge an average player will likely cost at least $700.

If you're looking for pre-programmed shot sequences or a degree of programmability, spin and a high level of court coverage, $1500+ would be a good bet. If you're after the durability of a tennis club ball machine with programmability then you could be paying $3500 - $10,000, and if you want your ball machine to 'serve' at you, then $12,000 is reasonable. If you want the best there is, SAM Robot will set you back $28,500.

Another possibly overlooked cost is tennis balls. You'll look a bit silly loading up the hopper of your 300 capacity SAM P1 ball machine with 4 packs of three tennis balls! Luckily, most ball machines favor pressureless tennis balls which are better value and last longer, but you could still be paying another $100 - $300.

Then you'll likely need a mechanism to pick up potentially hundreds of tennis balls scattered around the court at the end of the day. A Tennis Tube will get the job done - eventually, but you'll need to find another few hundred dollars for the optimal speedy answer - the Ball Mower.

Ball Mowers - Fun, Fast And Costly

Playmate Super Deluxe Ball Mower
Playmate Super Deluxe Ball Mower

If You've Got The Money, A Ball Mower Will Make Light Of Rounding Up Your Tennis Balls. This Is A Particularly Well Made Model From Playmate, Who Make The High End Ball Machines. If You Want To Maximize Your Time Practicing And Minimize The Time You Spend Picking Up Tennis Balls A Ball Mower's The Answer, But Can be As Expensive As A Basic Tennis Ball Machine.


Weighing Up Portability, Reliability & Warranty

Another common complaint of tennis ball machine owners is that they're heavy, bulky and awkward to get around. Many of the most popular battery operated portable machines are in the 25 - 50lb range with wheels and towing handles, but don't fare too well on uneven ground. Also, as ball machines by their very nature tend to be box-shaped, the lift into the vehicle can be challenging for some.

It's a difficult nut to crack for manufacturers, as a lighter weight tennis machine can often be a less durable machine, as plastic gets substituted for metal. Luggage or tennis carts have proved a solution for somewhere their ball machine rolling wheels were too small for all but flat ground. Lobster ball machines have large wheels for easy rolling but even they can be a difficult dead lift.

Another often overlooked by-product of ball machine ownership is the occasional need for replacement parts. After perhaps a couple of years' ownership of a regularly used machine, throwing wheels and other moving parts can wear and need replacing. This might involve simply buying the necessary part from the manufacturer and fitting it yourself, or shipping the machine back to them for more major work.

All ball machines come with a 1 - 3 year limited parts and labor warranty, but if you want further peace of mind, these can usually be extended for a little extra money.

Ball machine batteries have a lesser period of warranty, usually 6 months, as batteries are usually the first thing to need replacing. A battery can be charged between 500 and 1000 times, depending on how carefully it's been recharged during it's life and ball machine usage. A smart charger will prolong your battery's life and is free with some machines but extra with others.

Lobster Fast Charger With Trickle Charge Feature

Will Your Ball Machine Measure Up To Manufacturers' Specifications?

It's a common fault where manufacturers describe features and performance, that they give 'best case scenario' figures for ball speed, the amount of court time a battery will give on one charge, ball firing accuracy, spin effectiveness, 'lob' heights etc. So when viewing tennis ball machine features, where there is a range of performance given, (like with court time, for example), it's best to assume the lower figure to avoid disappointment. Then if your ball machine does perform to the upper limits of manufacturer specifications, you'll be much happier.

One reason for seemingly sub-standard performance is your ball machine battery approaching the end of it's charge, or indeed approaching the end of it's life, where it will fail to hold much of a charge. Also, manufacturers don't often mention the fact that applying top or backspin to the ejected ball will lower the ball speed in direct proportion to the amount of spin being applied.

Some of the basic models in each manufacturer's model ranges have a smaller battery fitted. If you'd like a better margin of 'safety' for longer practice sessions, buy the next model up in the series with the bigger battery. Alternatively buy an external battery pack accessory to take the strain when the ball machines's main battery is exhausted.

Lastly, a minor point, but worth a mention. Tennis Ball Machines produce sounds as they operate, and especially when they deliver tennis balls. It's not loud, and the more expensive machines have more of a quiet whirr, but it might be enough to make you slightly self-conscious if you're by yourself and the only one using a ball machine at the local tennis courts.

Probably the most noticeable noise is produced by pneumatic ball delivery machines, like Lobster's 401 Tournament machine, where there's a whoosh as each ball is delivered by air pressure. The sound levels are similar to that produced by a vacuum cleaner, but you can only use these machines with an AC power outlet.

Make Sure Your Ball Machine Battery Outlasts You

The Benefits Of Owning A Tennis Ball Machine

I hope you're not too depressed, because there are many good reasons to buy a ball machine, that comfortably outweigh the downside. The most common reason for buying a tennis ball machine, of course, it to work on your tennis game.

Even if you have a good network of tennis playing friends, it's very unlikely that any of them will want, or be able to feed you the shots you need to work on your weaknesses. Tennis ball machines, even basic models, can deliver with accuracy the same shot (or a variation) over and over until you're happy with the result. It's the same as playing the piano - the more you practice your scales, the more nimble your fingers will be when you take on the more complicated pieces. In tennis, the more you practice simple tennis drills, the better you'll be able to cope with a complex match situation.

If your budget is a bit bigger, some of the better ball machines can deliver pre-programmed sequences of play to approximate match play to make it more fun and realistic. After all, who wants to practice scales all the time! This kind of ball machine should advance your tennis in leaps and bounds.

Tennis ball machines give you the freedom to work on your tennis game solitarily if you choose. This way can be the most rewarding as you can 'store' improvements in your game, ready to unleash on your unsuspecting opponent next time you're in a match situation at the club.

If you're serious about improving your tennis game, a ball machine might even save you money in the long run, as you won't need to hire out the charge-by-the-hour club machine, and you can hone many areas of your game without constant need for the charge-by-the-hour tennis instructor.

The Freedom To Practice When & Where You Choose

The truth for many of us of whatever age, is that there isn't an 'on demand' tennis partner waiting in the wings for your next urge to practice your tennis strokes. Trying to organize a 'real' partner can sometimes be a very frustrating experience.

Your tennis ball machine is ready to go whenever you are, and if it's battery powered, you won't even have to worry about location. No more synchronizing schedules - just grab your tennis machine and head for the courts when you get the urge and the weather's right.

It's a common fear that you'll feel lonely and miss the interaction of a friend on court. If that's your problem, just set your ball machines to a wide horizontal oscillation (if possible) and a quick rate of fire, and see how long you feel sorry for yourself. You'll have much more important things to worry about, like how to catch the next breath!

Match Mate Rookie - A Basic Fun Model

A Ball Machine For Fitness And Fun

You don't have to be wholly intent on working on your tennis game with a ball machine. You can just use it for fun and fitness. Basic ball machines are simple to operate, not much more than 'point and shoot', so you can be happily whacking tennis balls within minutes of arriving on court.

These machines quite often have a random horizontal oscillating facility, or in other words, they can fire balls at you randomly in a sweep across the court from right to left and vice versa. This setting is great for getting the heart pumping and the fitness improving from day to day. Some machines also have control over how wide this arc is, so you don't do yourself an injury on day 1.

The top machines from Lobster in particular can oscillate vertically and horizontally at the same time, for complete court coverage and a really good workout for the fitter ones among us. Some find satisfaction from directing the tennis balls back at the machine, where the machine is punishing their lungs with it's tireless deliveries. Though this is ok for some machines of aluminum construction, a few of the more portable machines have delicate plastic ball hoppers which might break from a direct hit (though you'd probably get great satisfaction before counting the cost!)

You don't even have to have a fitness agenda for your ball machine. You can just play for the fun of it. For the challenge of man or woman against machine. For the fleeting fun sensation of striking a tennis ball in the center of the 'sweet spot' on the racquet, where minimum effort translates to maximum controlled speed. For getting out in the fresh air on a sunny day and hitting the stresses and strains of everyday life out of your system.

Lobster Elite Grand Slam IV For Triple Oscillation & A Whole Lot More

The Two Age Groups That'll Appreciate A Ball Machine Most

The young and the elderly will probably appreciate a ball machine most, though any age group will benefit. The young in particular will love every aspect of pitting their wits against any and everything a machine can throw at them. They'll likely even enjoy mundane tasks like ball pick-up, especially if you're lucky enough to have a tennis ball mower. If you want to keep them away from computer games for a while, and encourage them towards fitness, a ball machine will oblige.

The elderly quite often have a harder time to arrange partners, so they'll love the chance of a tennis partner 'on tap'. Fitness is even more important in this age group, and a ball machine can engage an 'opponent' at any level of health and proficiency with a quick adjustment of the dials.


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