Service provider: the evolution of the tennis racquet

30 June 2016

From the royal courts of England to centre court at Wimbledon, from King Henry VIII to Sampras and Sharapova, the tennis racquet keeps changing...

When Henry VIII played the game at Hampton Court in the 1530s, it was just called tennis. Played indoors, with hard balls and heavy racquets, this sport was the root of squash. Henry’s favourite sport is now known as ‘real tennis’ to distinguish it from the new fangled version played on grass, which originated in the 19th century.  

Invented and patented

In the 1860s, Major Walter Wingfield, to amuse his houseguests in Llanelidan, Wales, experimented with a game he called ‘Sphairistike’ which resembled the tennis we know today and was so original he patented it in 1874. He created a portable kit – consisting of balls, racquets and nets – players could use without any fuss on croquet lawns. Wingfield’s wheeze was so popular the sport became institutionalised: the  All-England Croquet Club held its first men’s tournament in 1877.

The early racquets were wooden, with animal gut strings forming a head. Today, they are made of carbon fibre mixed with fibreglass, and sundry other high tech substances, usually with synthetic strings. Most of them are now made in China and Taiwan although Yonex manufacture theirs in Japan.

Court etiquette

A player can take as many racquets onto a court as they like. Andre Agassi famously took 24 to one match in the French Open. There are rules about players who abuse their racquets, although, in the photo below from Wimbledon in 1981, John McEnroe probably argued that he was merely testing his to destruction. In the player code of conduct, to “throw or break a racquet other than in the normal cause of play” is unsporting behaviour. The first offence in a match earns a warning from the umpire, the second loses the player a point and a third costs them the game.

Costly business

Some sportswriters argue that players should be allowed to abuse their racquets as long as they don’t endanger anyone else because it adds to the drama and the racquets only cost a few hundred pounds. The costliest racquet on the market is probably the Wilson Pro Staff 85 Original, the Pete Sampras model made with graphite and Kevlar, which retails at around $2,000. The racquet with which English tennis legend Fred Perry won Wimbledon in the 1930s was sold at auction in 1997 for £23,000.

Crooked racquet

In 1971 German horticulturist Werner Fischer designed the ‘spaghetti string racquet’, so called because it used three layers of string, not woven together, to generate ridiculous amounts of spin. Ilie Nastase used it in 1977 against Guillermo Vilas, who quit the match after two sets. The racquet was then banned.

Lucky charms

Players can be superstitious about their racquets. Convinced that eight is his lucky number, Roger Federer normally takes eight racquets onto a court. Banned Russian star Maria Sharapova always focuses on her racquet strings before a serve. Such quirks seem tame compared to Art Larsen, an American left-hander who won the 1950 US Open. Nicknamed ‘Tappy’, Larsen liked to lightly touch everything on court with his racquet – the net, ball boys, umpire, even his opponent – before a match.

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