Big Dream Runs a Tad Small
But the "other" inventor of the oversize racquet isn't complaining
If a man can make a better mousetrap,
the world will make a beaten path to his door.
-Ralph Waldo Emerson
"Opportunity was knocking the door off the hinges for the late Howard Head and Tad Weed in the mid-1970's. They were inventors, visionaries and, most important, lousy tennis players.
Independent of each other, they came up with the same Big Idea at the same time: the oversize tennis racquet. The concept was born out of their personal on-court frustration at trying to hit a tennis ball with a 68-square-inch hitting surface - tiny by today's standards. They made the racquet face bigger, which completely changed the face of the game. Today, you can't even find a racquet with a head size less than 85 square inches.
This better mousetrap, which at the time looked like a conventional racquet blown up like a balloon, provided an easy-on access route to recreational tennis and may well have been the game's greatest technical innovation ever.
But a funny thing happened to Tad Weed in his race to the patent office in 1975. He didn't have all the resources or marketing savvy of Howard Head, who had struck gold in them thar ski hills with the invention of the metal ski years before. Head reportedly spent a cool million to secure the exclusive rights to the 85- to 125-square-inch hitting area in 1976 and to begin production. By the time Weed wrangled a patent three years later, he had to settle for Head's leftovers - his patent would cover only racquet faces over 125 square inches.
While the tennis world initially snickered at Head's racquet, calling it things like "illegal" and "snowshoe," it was laughing out loud at Weed's super jumbo 135-square-inch line. "Both racquets looked odd," recalls Weed, now 62. "But Head's racquet only looked half-odd." But the "criticism" that Weed and Head liked best was, "These racquets make the game too easy," which was what they were both trying to accomplish in the first place.
Head joined forces with a ball machine company called Prince, and his oversized concept quickly turned it into the world's largest manufacturer of tennis racquets, a position the New Jersey-based company held until just a few years ago. Weed, meanwhile, had retreated quickly to his hometown of Columbus, Ohio, and has spent the last 20 years churning out a couple of thousand racquets a year to fiercely loyal cult of "Weedies," mostly older, less mobile recreational players.
This article was written by Bill Gray and published in the February 1997 issue of Tennis Magazine, pp. 55-56.
There has been little fame and only a modest fortune for Tad Weed, who figures he's created a million-dollar company. "I am certainly not dissatisfied," he says, then adds with a wishful laugh, "but I guess I'd be a lot happier if I made more money"
One thing that's making him happy now, though, is that several other companies, including market leader Wilson, are introducing Weed-sized racquets this spring after Weed's 17-year patent on the jumbo frames ran out, which the other racquet companies say is strictly a coincidence.
But Weed looks at it as a personal testimonial to his Big Idea. "Wilson especially lends credence to what I've been crying about with a small voice in the wilderness for a very long time," he says.
In other words: Build it and they will come...even if it takes 17 years for them to show up."