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What a Racket!

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I play tennis twice a week. Not very well. But I’m a minor fanatic, and even light rain will not dampen my spirits.

I watch all the great tennis players and imagine that maybe I could play like them. Of course simply upgrading my racket would definitely improve my play!

I started with a wooden racket. It was heavy and clumsy, and it made the ball go all over the place. Then came the steel racket, which Jimmy Connors used in the late 1960s, winning Wimbledon with it.

The real breakthrough came when Howard Head, an engineer, developed an aluminium racket which was marketed as the Prince in 1976. There were two major improvements.

Firstly it was lighter. Although the older and heavier rackets allowed for more power with less effort, the lighter racket gave players greater maneuverability and better control over their shots. The new frames had to balance between rigidity and flexibility. Stiffer frames gave the strokes greater power by keeping the head more rigid. But flexible frames absorbed shock better, had less vibration, and thereby reduced the incidence of tennis elbows. Aluminium had just the right balance.

Secondly, the hitting area was increased to 130 square inches. Players also found that the greater surface area of the racket head meant that there were fewer misses.

Machiavelli might even have approved of this racket.

Everyone went out and bought one. But not me. I couldn’t afford it.

It was around this time that the popularity of tennis skyrocketed to well over 25 million players worldwide by 1993. Earnings for top tennis players has also streaked upwards. Top seeded Roger Federer of Switzerland earned $4.7 million, and second seed Andy Roddick of the United States earned $2.1 million in 2003.

Not content, Howard Head experimented with different materials. He tried fiberglass, boron, graphite, and Kevlar. The latter is a flexible lightweight fiberglass five times stronger than steel, and used in bullet resistant vests.

Technology was revolutionizing tennis. There were a few diehards, including John McEnroe who became the last person to use a wooden racket at Wimbledon in 1982. Indeed when Bjorn Borg used a wooden racket, he lost most of his games. By 1990s, there was only one manufacturer left making wooden rackets.

The newer materials increased the velocity of the shots by up to 30%. Serves were now routinely exceeding 100 miles per hour. This has led to a rather boring style of tennis comprising devastating serves and volley, as played by Bjorn Borg, Pete Sampras, and Andy Roddick. Indeed Andy Roddick’s best serve is 153 miles per hour. The Guinness Book of World Records lists William Tatem Tilden (1893-1953) to have the fastest service ever measured, of 163.6 miles per hour in 1931.

When Head introduced an even lighter weight titanium racket containing lightweight graphite fibers in 1998, I succumbed to peer pressure and bought one, despite its exorbitant cost. My playing should have improved, but unfortunately my opponents also bought the same titanium racket, thereby negating any advantage I would have accrued from this purchase.

In 1999 Wilson introduced a new racket made with a material called Hyper Carbon. This was an ultrahigh-modulus carbon fiber: 4 times stiffer, 65 percent lighter and 4 times stronger than most popular tennis racket materials.

Recently, Head has announced a new Liquid Metal racket comprising titanium mixed with carbon fibers, said to have better characteristics, including better shock absorption. The verdict for this racket is still out.

To my dismay, I have discovered that buying new rackets over the years, has not really helped my play. Perhaps psychologically I feel more confident. But this has only helped a smidgen. Nah, I won’t bother upgrading to this new technology. Not unless I’m convinced it will improve my play.

“Pardon, it will improve my play, you say? Mmm, do you trade old rackets for new?”

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