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An Evolutionary History of Tennis Racquets
Part I: From Hands to Wood
By most accounts, tennis was first played by French monks in the 11th or 12th century, and the first "racquets" were made of human flesh!
No, this wasn't some medieval horror. It was more like handball, played first by hitting against a wall, then later over a crude net. While not gruesome, hitting a ball with one's handproved a little too uncomfortable after a while, so players began using gloves. Some players then tried using webbing between the fingers of the glove, while others took to using a solid wooden paddle.
By the 14th century, players had begun using what we could legitimately call a racquet, with strings made of gut bound in a wooden frame. The Italians are often credited with this invention. By theyear 1500, racquets were in widespread use. The early racquets had a long handle and a small, teardrop-shaped head. With a more oval head, they would have looked much like a squash racquet. The game itself was somewhat like squash too, in that it was played indoors with a fairly dead ball. By this time, though, it was, unlike squash, always played across a net, not against a wall.
In 1874, MajorWalter C. Wingfield registered his patent in London for the equipment and rules of an outdoor lawn tennis that is generally considered the first version of what we play today. Within a year, Wingfield's equipment sets had been sold for use in Russia, India, Canada, and China. The racquet head had grown by this time to roughly the size seen on wooden racquets into the 1970's, but the shape wasn'tquite as oval, with the head usually wider and often flattened toward the top.
Racquets saw only minor changes between 1874 and the end of the wooden racquet era more than 100 years later. Wooden racquets did get better during these 100 years, with improvements in laminating technology (using thin layers of wood glued together) and in strings, but they remained heavy (13-14 ounces), with small heads(around 65 square inches). Compared to the contemporary racquet, even the best wood racquets were cumbersome and lacking in power.
Part II: From Wood to Advanced Composites
A racquet with a metal head existed as early as 1889 (photo), but it never saw widespread use. Wood's use as a frame material didn't undergo any real challenge until 1967, when Wilson Sporting Goods introduced the firstpopular metal racquet, the T2000. Stronger and lighter than wood, it became a top seller, and Jimmy Connors became its most famous user, playing at the top of men's professional tennis for much of the 1970's using the long-throated, small-headed steel frame.
In 1976, Howard Head, then working with the Prince brand, introduced the first oversized racquet to gain widespread popularity, the PrinceClassic. Weed USA is quick to point out, though, that they had introduced an oversized racquet in 1975. The Weed racquets never took off, but the Prince Classic and its more expensive cousin, the Prince Pro, were top sellers. Both had aluminum frames and a string area more than 50 percent larger than the standard 65 square inch wood racquet.
The light weight, huge sweet spot, and greatly increasedpower of these first oversized racquets made tennis much easier for non-advanced players, but for powerful, advanced players, the mixture of flexibility and power in the frames resulted in too much unpredictability in where the ball would end up. Hard, off-center shots would momentarily distort the aluminum frame, changing the direction in which the string plane was facing, and the lively string bedwould then send the ball rocketing off in a somewhat unintended direction.
Advanced players needed a stiffer frame material, and the best material proved to be a mixture of carbon fibers and a plastic resin to bind them together. This new material acquired the name "graphite," even though it isn't true graphite such as you would find in a pencil or in lock lubricant. The hallmark of a good...
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