Source: International Tennis Hall of Fame
1900, FISHTAIL (left) Named for the shape of the handle. A popular model was called the Demon.
1925, DAYTON STEEL (center) Although heavy, this model was durable. Usually strung with piano wire. Cost: $10.
1930, SPALDING TOP-FLITE (right) This lightweight, open-wedge wooden model was the rage from 1927 to 1938.
1955, JACK KRAMER AUTOGRAPH (left) Made by Wilson. Endorsed by the tennis champion and later tournament promoter.
1973, T-2000 (center) This Wilson Steel model, introduced in 1967, was made famous by Jimmy Connors.
1978, PRINCE CLASSIC (right) Pam Shriver used this largerheaded racket in losing the U.S. Open final to Chris Evert.
1980, BORG PRO (left) The wooden Donnay was the model of choice for Bjorn Borg, who strung his racket very tightly.
2003, MORE CONTROL DB (right) Used by Martina Navratilova to win Wimbledon mixed doubles final. Cost: about $200.
Lighter, Faster, Stronger
By RON DICKER
Howard Brody, who serves on the International Tennis Federation's technical commission, remembered when a man at his Philadelphia tennis club took a 26-inch wheel rim from a bicycle and stitched it up with string to make it into a tennis racket.
That was 25 years ago, when tennis was undergoing one of its rare radical shifts in equipment. Wood rackets, in vogue pretty much since the 1500's, were giving way to metal rackets, made of anything on the elements chart that could be molded into a stronger, lighter extension of one's arm.
The hitting surface doubled in size in some cases, allowing pros more mobility and recreational players a chance to improve quickly. And the rackets did not chip or warp.
"The oversized new material, that was revolution," Brody said by phone last week. "Everything before that was evolution."
The resulting technology will be wielded by the world's best players at the United States Open beginning today.
Players do hit harder than ever with less effort while wood rackets gather dust in suburban garages and generate looks of curiosity in sports museums. But have nonwood rackets made the game better?
"It takes away a big component of the game, which is being able to play more precision tennis," said José Higueras, who won 15 singles titles in the 1970's and early 80's. "Now everybody can hit five, six, seven feet beyond the baseline, which was pretty impossible to do back then."
Lleyton Hewitt, the 2001 Open champion, said, "Times have changed. You can just tell by the spins and power of the metal and graphite just how different the game is."
Taking a cue from the Moors, French monks in the 12th century began to play a version of tennis with their hands. Players graduated to gloves for a while. Then in the 14th century, the Italians began making wood rackets with long necks and a teardrop-shaped head strung with cow intestine.
A salute is owed to Maj. Walter C. Wingfield, the Englishman who in 1874 standardized the equipment and rules close to what tennis is today. During the next century, technology slowed and rackets remained virtually the same size: weighing 13 to 14 ounces with 65 square inches of hitting surface.
A popular metal racket finally emerged in 1967 when Wilson Sporting Goods bought the patent for a steel one shaped like an ice-cream cone from the French tennis giant Rene Lacoste. Wilson called it the T2000, but it was better known as Jimmy Connors' racket. Connors, the winner of five United States Open singles titles, blasted flat groundstrokes with his strings tightened at a high tension. Weekend warriors tried the same and sprayed balls across municipal courts everywhere.
"Jimmy was the only guy who could play with it," said Jay Schweid, who strung Connors's rackets and still handles the equipment of many top pros. "The sweet spot was the size of a quarter."
In 1976, a recreational player named Howard Head unveiled the first oversized racket for the Prince company. It was made of aluminum and had twice the hitting surface of a conventional wood racket, giving casual players an opportunity to hit more solid shots.
Around the same time, Tad Weed, a former Ohio State football star, had developed his own aluminum racket, with 139 square inches of string area, compared to 110 for the Prince.
The rules committee began to panic, Brody said, and decided to draw the line at the dimensions of the Weed. Racket size was limited to 29 inches in length, including the handle, and 121/2 inches in width. The hitting surface could not surpass 151/2 inches in length and 111/2 inches in width.
The bigger edge for advanced players arrived when manufacturers began mixing carbon fibers with a plastic resin to create what were called graphite rackets. They were stiffer and lighter for maximum power and could accommodate larger striking areas without breaking or bending.
Remember this name: Kevin Curren. He was the last player to use a wood racket in a Grand Slam final, the 1984 Australian Open. He lost.
Graphite, with the help of titanium, has brought the weight of rackets down to 7 ounces in some cases. But trials continue with other substances and other constructions. Manufacturers have experimented with Kevlar, used in bulletproof vests. One racket from several years ago was hollow and filled with liquid, which would rush through the swing to the point of contact for added momentum. A double-handled racket for two-fisted swings once hit the market. A racket with an electric current to stiffen the frame was also developed.
"The players don't go with trends and newest technology," said Schweid, whose operation is in the basement of the U.S.T.A. National Tennis Center, the site of the Open, "they go with the equipment they played with in the juniors. You look at a player who's been on tour for 10 years. They haven't changed their racket all that much."
Hewitt is not eager for the next innovation to arrive. Even if sponsors tempt him with the newfangled, he is sticking with what got him here, he said. He expected racket technology to move along at the same slower pace it has in the past few years.
"There will always be companies trying to make little things better, and what has happened in the past will keep happening," he said.
But what will the next revolution be?
"If I knew I'd be rich," Brody said.