Like in many sports, the greatest tennis players need the right equipment to get the best out of their game. As a result, tennis racket manufacturers are also looking to improve the performance of their product to help players reach their peak level.
The days before rackets
When the earliest form of tennis was first played by Monks in 11th century France, there were no rackets. The ball was simply hit using a bare hand. Can you imagine Federer and Nadal contesting a match that way today?
Playing with bare hands eventually took its toll and players moved on to gloves which later featured webbing between the fingers to increase the surface area and make the ball easier to strike. From there the natural progression was to move on to a wooden paddle similar to those used in table tennis but much larger.
By the 14th century, the first rackets featuring a frame and string design were produced in Italy. The heads were much smaller than today’s rackets and the strings were made from animal gut using a similar method to that used in the production of strings for musical instruments.
This wood and frame design stood the test of time with just the shape and design evolving over the years. When metal rackets first appeared in 1889, they were not popular with players who preferred the tried and tested wooden versions. So much so that it was another 78 years before the first mass-produced metal racket appeared.
Launched in 1967, the Wilson T2000 metal finally gave players a viable alternative to the traditional wooden racket. It was stronger, lighter and was used to great effect by top players such as Jimmy Connors. The next major change came with the introduction of the Prince Classic aluminium racket, which was light and bigger again. However, the rackets proved too soft for some of the game’s hardest hitters, and so the next generation of rackets used graphite. These became the racket of choice for professionals while many amateur players stuck with the cheaper aluminium models.
By the early 80s, wooden rackets with gut strings were now just museum pieces, and the race to develop the perfect modern racket began. Wider bodies and shorter handles appeared while synthetic strings made of materials such as nylon, Kevlar, Zyex and polyurethane became the norm. Many of today’s players use a mix of strings to tune the racket to the exact way they like it. For example, current favourite in the 2019 Wimbledon betting odds, Novak Djokovic, uses a hybrid mix with Babolat Natural Gut 17 for the main strings and Alu Power 16L for the cross strings.
A glimpse of the future
The overall weight of tennis rackets has dropped dramatically with some weighing as little as 200 grams while the average weight is around 250 grams. Some frames now use a combination of Graphite with Kevlar or titanium to reduce weight while maintaining strength. There are even electronic rackets which create tiny vibrations via a circuit board to stiffen the racket during play while also recording data. With so many changes to racket design in the last 30 years alone, it will be fascinating to see where this leads us in the coming years.