Home >Mint-lounge >Features >Wimbledon | More than a singles game

If the plush green Centre Court at Wimbledon wears a balding look by the end of the second week, it’s not just a consequence of the players’ feet near the baseline. For, the brown patches at the All England Club come from “spin, spin, spin", says Bob Thurman, vice-president for research and development at Wilson Sporting Goods Co. “Whacking the ball at the baseline is a winning strategy because of the topspin players hit with," Thurman told the The New York Times in August.

How do players generate so much spin on a tennis ball? How is someone able to hit the ball so hard? The answer: It’s a mix of skill, strength and the years of technological advancement that have gone into the game and its equipment.

There was a time, in the 11th and 12th centuries, when bare hands were used. Since then, racquets have come in and evolved considerably, and particularly so in the past four decades. There are constant new developments in racquets and strings. Pete Sampras, for instance, used natural guts at the beginning of his career in the late 1980s and was using synthetic guts by the time he retired in 2003.

Today, racquet and string technologies are big business, with major companies investing time and money to innovate and develop racquets that will make modern tennis more powerful, and perhaps more entertaining. There are many factors that a tennis player considers in a racquet—playability, durability, feel, power, strung weight, control and comfort: a far cry from the 1940s, when maverick world No.1 Bobby Riggs once played with a broom.

Racquet evolution

Major tennis racquet manufacturers like Head, Wilson, Babolat, Prince and Yonex work on racquet innovation, with the help of, or specifically for, players. It is by observing Rafael Nadal’s game in 2004 that Babolat developed the first aerodynamic racquet, the AeroPro Drive, says Jean-Christophe Verborg, director of international competition and partnerships, Babolat, over email.

Verborg adds that innovation starts with observing a player on court and developing equipment that is adapted to his type of play, by researching on materials and structures. “Physically, as tennis gets more powerful, products need to evolve and then find ways to anticipate the needs of players, and propose innovations to help them improve their game," he says.

Ralf Schwenger, Head’s director, R&D racquetsport division in Austria, says over email, “We try to involve the player in the development from an early stage. So his feedback and needs can be used. Over the years, we try to create several slots where the top player can test new prototypes."

Babolat has come up with a racquet with a chip that captures biomechanical information and links to a person’s computer, smartphone or tablet via a wireless connection. This topspin-friendly racquet has been demonstrated recently to pro players like Nadal, Jo-Wilfried Tsonga, Li Na and Kim Clijsters, says Thomas Otton, communication director, Babolat.

The advantage of the connected racquet is that players can post data on a dedicated social networking site to monitor their performance online and improve on it. There is an entire online community that will offer advice and amateur players can even compare themselves to the pro players of Team Babolat, Otton adds.

Over the years

Wooden racquets were used before the 1960s and were more like squash racquets with a long handle and teardrop-shaped head. The racquets were heavy, with small “sweet spots"— the areas on a racquet that offer the best impact on the ball. Dunlop, Slazenger, Wilson and Spalding were the major manufacturers, with the Dunlop Maxply being one of the most popular brands—it was made from six kinds of wood from three different continents. All the top players, like Rod Laver, John McEnroe and Björn Borg, used it.

Major innovation started in the mid- 1960s when stainless-steel racquets began to replace wooden ones. In 1974, Jimmy Connors used a Wilson T2000 all-steel racquet (an invention of William A. Larned) to beat Ken Rosewall, who was using a wooden racquet, in the Wimbledon final. Thereafter, Wilson T2000 became the choice of many tennis professionals. Connors played with it before switching over to graphite in the mid-1980s.

In his new autobiography, The Outsider, Connors writes: “Wilson had officially stopped making my racquet (T2000) years before but had kept unofficially making them for me. Once I made the decision to give up my T2000, I had a word with Wilson to see what they could do for me. Generous as ever, they applied modern technology to my requirements and produced a racquet that became known as the Pro Staff."

The new graphite racquets were steadier and had vibration dampeners. They where injected with foam to make them lightweight. Prince Graphite, one of the more popular brands, was used by Michael Chang, Monica Seles and Gabriela Sabatini from the late 1980s. Wilson and Head soon introduced thick-framed graphite racquets.

From the late 1990s, all the major tennis racquet manufacturers came up with their own technologies and innovations. Head had the titanium technology, Wilson its Hyper Carbon racquets—every manufacturer focusing on more power and a bigger “sweet spot".

Head has patented the Graphene technology to reduce the weight of the mid-section. “It is important for us that the player experiences the advancement on the court. We do not develop our racquets for lab machines or other measurements but we develop them to excite the player on court, to enable him to improve his tennis, to allow him to have even more fun when playing the sport," says Schwenger. His team is responsible for the development of racquets and accessories worldwide.

String secrets

While racquet innovations have plateaued a bit in recent times, game- changing variations in strings have been playing a major role in research and development. Tests at the Chicago innovation centre of Wilson racquets, in the US confirm that string patterns are one of the key variables affecting spin.

Verborg gives the example of how Nadal changed his racquet string. His uncle and coach, Toni Nadal, told Babolat in 2009 that one of Rafa’s concerns was the need for more power. As strings account for 50% of the performance of the racquet, Babolat suggested that Nadal should test a new string (the RPM Blast) that was in development for more power while enhancing spin.

In November 2009, Nadal tested the RPM Blast. His reaction: “Not bad!"

He played with it at Melbourne Park in 2010 to a huge buzz and Babolat launched the RPM Blast string after the Australian Open.

Tightly strung racquets give more power, loose-strung ones have better ball control. High variants of tennis racquets usually come unstrung, as players prefer to string them with their choice of tension, says Afroze Khan, CEO and co-founder of Tennishub.in, an online store for tennis products. For instance, Federer used to string his racquets at about 27kg, whereas he now uses Wilson gut and Luxilon and strings them at 22kg. He has been using string tension as low as 21kg when playing on slow courts with heavy balls. Roger Federer told The Wall Street Journal (WSJ) in November 2010: “I remember when I was playing in the late nineties, most players used gut and most players played attacking tennis; serving and volleying much more as the courts were much quicker then."

Borg was known to string his racquets so tightly for more power that they used to snap randomly even when they were not in use, reported the WSJ in the same article. At night, Borg would give all the racquets to his coach so that if and when they snapped, it was the coach’s sleep that was disturbed and not his.

Behind this innovation lies another subplot: As the standard of the player’s game improves and he starts winning tournaments, the brands he uses begin selling well. Novak Djokovic is the reason why Head has better sales figure than the others, says Khan.

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