Few Filipinos, including those who play the sport, know that the tennis balls of Wimbledon have been made in a Dunlop Slazenger factory in Mariveles, Bataan for some 20 years now.

This is a topic I would have loved to write about more than a year ago. The occasion arises today as the Wimbledon tournament has just ended. This is the pinnacle of the grand slams of tennis contests.

This fact alone means that since he started playing Wimbledon tournaments, Roger Federer has hit literally thousands of Bataan-made tennis balls on his way to his eighth championship victory this year and to the pantheon of his greatest sports glory.
Each year, the Wimbledon organizers order around 2,000 dozen balls. That makes 24,000 balls per tournament year. The balls are marked “Slazenger Wimbledon.” Players probably also practice with their own similar tennis balls, so that further adds to the total number of tennis balls consumed during each tournament.

Tennis ball factory in Bataan. During my summer road trip a year ago, I dropped by the first of the country’s export processing zones in Mariveles, Bataan. The idea was to have a feel of past Philippine industrial history.

After a visit and discussion with officers of the Freeport Area of Bataan (FAB), the new office in charge of the export processing zone, I made a request to visit one of the factories to get a feel of more recent industrial experience in the zone.

As a long time tennis enthusiast, I have had a longing curiosity about how a tennis ball is made. To see the Dunlop Slazenger tennis ball plant that had long been located in the zone since the 1970s would be one way of satisfying that wish.

The manager on the site, who was the plant engineer, was initially suspicious and very formal despite the introduction from the FAB administration. He became more receptive when he discovered that I was once a government official who had played a role in economic policy duties from the past. Realization that I was an avid tennis player further led to a more pleasant exchange of ideas about the company’s experience in the zone over the years which was positive.

The tour of the factory covering the process of making a tennis ball was a breeze. I saw how small rubber clumps of about 1.5 centimeter cube are transformed into half-empty hemispheres. Pairs of these half-spheres were then machine-glued together to form into hollow, bouncy and naked rubber balls. These rubber balls were then dressed and coated with fuzzy fibrous yellow exterior cloths, labeled, and then packaged into canisters for warehousing.

Dunlop’s longevity in Bataan. Dunlop’s experience in the zone was mainly very positive. As an export manufacturing locator, British and Australian investors set up in the zone in 1977.

Ever since it moved to the country, the plant has expanded its operations from its original capacity. The closure of high-cost plants of the company located in other manufacturing sites – in Germany, United Kingdom, France and South Africa – benefited the plant expansions that took place in Mariveles over time.

Today, the factory employs around 800 workers year round. The company built its factory in a part of the zone which is separate from the standard factory buildings that were built for other locators.

The tennis ball factory built its plant in the first of the country’s export processing zones, the Bataan Export Processing Zone (BEPZ). The zone was enabled by an act of Congress in 1968, at about the time of the creation of the Board of Investment.

Success in tennis balls did not multiply to other sports equipment and apparel manufacturing. Given our success in making the tennis ball, why is it that this experience did not spread to other sports or to related sports gear and apparel wear?

Indeed, a natural progression from tennis balls would be to make the racket itself. Within a reasonable amount of time among contemporary neighboring competitors, Thailand, Indonesia and Vietnam were able to create a wide variety of new industries once they had gained a foothold in one particular industry. It is as if an infection spreads quickly once the germ of success is experienced.

Take the case of sports shoes. Initially, the sports shoes used across the globe was a staple of success for export performance stories in East Asia.

First it was Japan, then it was in South Korea, Hong Kong and Taiwan. Then it spread to Thailand, Indonesia, and of course China. The sports shoe manufacturing industry for the world has led to the direct and indirect employment of thousands of workers and their families – indeed, millions –in the region through the multiplier effect, but our country has not reaped the full benefits from this phenomenon.
The case of body wear apparel is even more telling. There was a time when the country was among the major candidates to reap big gains from this industry because of the large number of workers that we have.

Many Filipino workers continue to be highly dependent on this industry, but in relative terms, our dollar earnings from garments exports have never reached multi-billion dollar numbers. The big players in that industry that employ masses of workers and produce for the world’s goods have moved to other countries.

Let me go back to the tennis racket. Today, many tennis rackets are produced in countries that are among our neighbors. I have yet to see a Philippine-made tennis racket, but high quality rackets are made in China, Thailand and Vietnam, just to mention a few producers.
Making mention of all these facts do not give the reason why we have not achieved as much in industry. In many past discussions in this column, I have detailed many reasons and circumstances why broader industrial expansion has evaded us.

In explaining them, I have stressed two major points of economic reforms that continually need to be made: labor market reforms and the removal of protectionist investment provisions that are embedded in our laws and economic practices.