Tennis players are better conditioned and far stronger than they were 20 or
30 years ago. But the athletes have changed far less than the racket
technology. Compared to today’s composite frames and Kevlar strings,
rackets made of wood or the metal T2000 (popularized by Jimmy Connors) look
like they should hang in a natural history museum. Modern rackets are
significantly bigger and stronger than old models, yet weigh half as much.
No wonder a former technical director of the International Tennis
Federation has said that “we are approaching the limit on reaction time for
the return of serve.”
Men’s tennis offers a cautionary tale for other sports. An absence of
racket regulations has allowed the game to be transformed by technology. At
this point, turning back the clock will be exceedingly difficult. Any
fundamental changes to the game would lead to carping about the loss of
tradition and resistance from players who’ve crafted a style of play for
the game as it was presented to them.
The game’s amped-up power and speed present a kind of Goldilocks challenge.
If points are too long, spectators yawn; if they’re too short, the sport
loses its sweaty elegance. The problem with finding a balance between these
extremes is that playing surface fundamentally changes tactics, style, and
results. Fixing the game on grass could ruin it on clay, where big servers
don’t have nearly as big an advantage. So, how can you recalibrate men’s
tennis so it’s not simply a test of who can hit the ball the hardest?
Change the balls: In the late 1990s, the International Tennis Federation
introduced two new balls, one to speed up play on slow surfaces, another to
slow play on fast surfaces. The “slow ball,” which weighs the same as a
standard ball but is 6 percent larger (extra surface creates more wind
resistance, decreasing velocity), can offer up to 5 percent more time to
read a serve. But players hated the new balls, fearing they would cause
more injuries. Tournament directors sided with the players, and
manufacturers stopped making the balls. That’s probably a good thing. What
happens when players start hitting the big ball as fast as a standard one?
Soon, they’d be slugging those giant tennis balls that kids dangle out of
the stands for autographs.
Raise the net: A higher net would keep servers from pounding down on the
ball-less force means less speed. The problem is that every other shot
would have to be altered as well. What’s more, raising the net would launch
a technological arms race. Michael Chang compensated for his short stature
by using a longer tennis racket-it effectively made him taller. Raise the
net, and players will push to lengthen their rackets.
Change the dimensions of the court: Tennis courts were drawn up when
rackets were made of wood and strings were made of sheepskin. In
professional golf, where players with modern equipment now hit the ball
distances unforeseen years ago, courses have been altered to make them
“play longer.” But this approach wouldn’t work for tennis. There are
between 750,000 and 1 million courts around the world, all of which would
have to be relined. Think of the poor groundskeepers. What’s more, this is
only a temporary fix-what happens when technology catches up to the new
Regulate racket power: John McEnroe and Martina Navratilova have called for
the game to go back to wooden rackets. This kind of Luddism is too drastic-
players would revolt and the fans would fancy the lords of tennis a bunch
Still, fixing the rackets seems like the only sensible solution. While the
sport’s governing bodies obsessively regulate court, net, and ball
specifications, they’ve only just started paying attention to racket
technology. In the early 1980s, the ITF started imposing size restrictions
on racket heads, but 20 years later they’ve yet to limit what rackets can
be made from.
Top-of-the-line rackets are now fashioned from titanium, carbon fibers,
glass fibers, thermoplastic filaments like nylon, metal alloys, and epoxy
resin. One popular racket, the Head Liquidmetal, was developed at Caltech
and supposedly offers more power than titanium because of its amorphous (or
“liquid”) atomic structure. I’m no molecular physicist, but it seems like
these tennis scientists could stumble onto the cure for cancer while
developing next year’s model.
The ITF claims that it’s exploring some new guidelines to limit the power-
generating capacity of rackets. But any such ideas are in the early stages,
and there’s definitely no concrete plan at this point. Banning a particular
material would almost certainly be futile. Keeping a lid on racket tech is
like trying to stop athletes from using performance enhancing drugs-by the
time regulators find out about the newest innovation, something better will
already be in the pipeline.
Rather than micromanage the legality of space-age materials, perhaps there
should just be a speed limit. The ITF now has a ball-whacking machine at
its Technical Centre that can wield rackets and hit serves in excess of 150
mph. This kind of legislation has worked for golf-in recent years the USGA
banned “trampoline” driver faces that gave golfers an extra kick to those
already monstrous drives. Manufacturers will surely complain that they’ll
be forced to spend on research and development without knowing whether
their rackets will be legal. But this may be the only way to keep the
latest technology in the game without turning rackets into lethal weapons.
It’s likely that restricting rackets would even make the game more popular.
Tennis-elbow-addled fans admired stars like Borg and McEnroe because they
knew how tough it was to hit accurate, firm strokes with wooden rackets
with tiny sweet spots. Taming the equipment will reign in firepower-and
allow fans to marvel at the pros’ artistry. When players like Federer and
Roddick wield their mighty clubs, it’s all too easy to forget they’re
incredibly skillful tennis players, not just ball-spewing cannons.
|The Tennis Story |
|by Deborah Birkett|
|The game we know as modern tennis is not greatly changed from its |
|origins in the Middle Ages. Its name is thought to be derived from the |
|Old French tenez (“take, receive”). Some believe the game originated in |
|the ancient world, but most authorities find little evidence for this|
|claim, tracing its beginning to France in the 11th or 12th century, when|
|monks played a crude handball game called jeu de paume (“game of the|
|palm”) with roughly made balls and bare hands against walls or over a|
|rope in a courtyard. As interest in this game developed, players began |
|using gloves and then paddles, which developed into racquets.|
|Since it would be many centuries before the advent of rubber balls,|
|tennis balls were made of hair, wool, or cork, wrapped in string, and|
|covered with cloth, leather, or later, felt. These were very hard balls |
|that could cause injury or even death. Wood frame racquets with|
|sheep-gut strings were commonly used by 1500, and while wooden racquets |
|were steadily improved upon throughout the centuries, there weren’t many|
|significant changes until the early 1970s, when aluminum and steel|
|racquets were developed. These were eventually surpassed by such |
|superior materials as graphite and advanced composites.|
|The game’s popularity with royalty and nobility grew and persisted|
|through to the eighteenth century, when interest dwindled. This older|
|form of the game is still played by some, and in order to distinguish it|
|from the modern lawn tennis game we now simply call “tennis,” it is|
|referred to by the British as “real tennis,” by Americans as “court|
|tennis,” and by Australians as “royal tennis.” |
|The origins of modern tennis are traced to 1873, when Major Walter|
|Clopton Wingfield introduced the game, publishing its first rule book. |
|Wingfield patented and marketed the game in 1874, calling it|
|”Sphairistik” or “Lawn Tennis” and prescribing an hourglass shape for |
|the court, narrowest at the net. When another player developed an |
|improved rubber tennis ball in 1875, Britain’s Marylebone Cricket Club |
|instituted a new set of standard tennis rules. Croquet’s great|
|popularity meant that there were many croquet lawns available for |
|playing tennis, and the All-England Croquet Club very soon decided to|
|designate one of its Wimbledon lawns for tennis, holding its first|
|championship there in 1877. The first winner was Spencer Gore. At the|
|same time the game was becoming popular in the U.S., and by 1881 the|
|U.S. National Lawn Tennis Association (now the U.S. Tennis Association) |
|had formed. The first American championship was held in 1881 in Rhode|
|Island, and its first winner was Richard Sears. |
|By the late 1800s interest was declining and clubs were losing money.|
|Two British brothers, Reginald and Laurie Doherty, managed to revitalize|
|interest in the game and propel it into the twentieth century, when new |
|championships and international competitions helped to interest players |
|and the public. However, as a sport and interest of the leisure class, |
|the white, upper crust image clung to tennis for many decades. In |
|addition, there was much controversy over professional and amateur|
|status and many supposed amateurs were paid under the table by sports|
|promoters, leading to charges of “shamateurism.” It was not until 1968, |
|which marks the beginning of the Open Era of tennis, that the|
|distinction between professionals and amateurs was abolished. Within 20 |
|years, prize purses for tennis competitions swelled from tens of |
|thousands to several millions of dollars. |
|In 1973, the Women’s Tennis Association launched its tour with a highly |
|publicized and anticipated “Battle of the Sexes” between champions Bobby|
|Riggs and Billie Jean King. This one competition probably did more to|
|popularize tennis than any other event in the history of the sport.|
|King, a winner of 20 Wimbledon titles, trounced Riggs and became a|
|feminist icon and athletic legend in one swoop. Other barriers were|
|broken by Arthur Ashe, who in 1963 was the first African American player|
|to represent the United States in Davis Cup play and the first to be|
|ranked #1 in the world. |
|While the rules of the game have barely changed since the Middle Ages, |
|tennis has evolved from a pastime in which everything from the balls to |
|the players were white, to a lucrative, extremely competitive sport that|
|attracts players from every nation and walk of life. And whether played |
|by professional or amateur, tennis retains the simple appeal it has held|
|for a thousand years.|
Everything about tennis, except its essential rules, has changed from the
way it was played 100 years ago, when balls, clothes, players and
spectators all were white.
Andre Agassi’s baggy shorts and Serena Williams’ bright, skintight halter
tops are the latest fashion, far cries from the days when decorum demanded
pleated white trousers and ankle-length dresses.
| |Women, like Serena|
| |Williams, routinely |
| |serve at 110 mph — |
| |quite a departure|
| |from hitting the ball|
| |in safely with spin. |
Women routinely serve at 110 mph, rather than merely plopping the ball in
safely with spin. Pete Sampras serves more aces in a match than turn-of-the-
century players did in a season.
Middle class professionals, not upper class amateurs, rule the courts, and
hundreds of thousands of dollars, not merely silver cups and platters, are
at stake at the majors.
The Grand Slam events, once small, provincial affairs, now boast multiple
stadiums and draw tens of thousands of fans each day, along with worldwide
television audiences and millions in corporate sponsorships.
Where once the best players — Bill Tilden, Suzanne Lenglen, Ellsworth
Vines, Fred Perry, Don Budge, Pancho Gonzales and Rod Laver, among others —
were banned from the majors after turning pro, now they show up with
agents cutting deals during matches.
Rackets are bigger, lighter and stronger, crafted from space-age composites
rather than wood. The once-ubiquitous racket press, with its nuts and bolts
and washers in four corners to keep wooden rackets from warping, is a
curiosity found only in antique shops. Optic yellow balls made white ones
obsolete 30 years ago.
Even the lawn in “lawn tennis” has disappeared, except for Wimbledon and a
few other events, replaced by hardcourts and clay.
Although a few wrinkles in the rules have come along, most notably the
tiebreaker, tennis still has the same quaint scoring — love, 15, 30, 40,
deuce, advantage. The dimensions of the court and the height of the net
haven’t budged. Faults and double-faults bedevil players today as they
Cyclops, the electronic eye, guards the service lines at the bigger
tournaments, but linesmen still squat in every corner of the court and
matches still are called by the umpires perched high in their chairs.
The pride of tennis, and its curse, through the century has been its
heritage as a sport of the upper crust.
The modern game descended from “a portable court” patented in 1874 by
Britain’s Maj. Walter Clopton Wingfield and sold as a kit, complete with
poles, pegs, netting, four tennis bats, a bag of balls, and “The Book of
the Game” with its six rules.
Laid out on lawns that had been used for croquet, the game was quickly and
enthusiastically taken up by the Prince of Wales, Lords and Ladies of the
Empire and members of Parliament. Sweden’s King Gustav V, Russian royalty
and French aristocrats joined in the rage.
The class lines remained in place when the game traveled across the
Atlantic to high society in America, from Longwood near Boston to Newport
in Rhode Island to the West Side Tennis Club in New York.
For decades, only genteel amateurs — those who could afford to play for
nothing — won the trophies, ran the tournaments and locked the country
club gates to blacks, Jews and others.
The gates widened with the advent of the Open Era in 1968, but vestiges of
the past remain, despite the rise in the rankings of the Williams sisters,
who are among the few pros to have emerged from public courts.
Wimbledon, the most influential tournament, remains firmly in control of
the doyens of the All England Club. The U.S. Tennis Association, which runs
the mightily profitable U.S. Open and branches out nationally through
sectional chapters, retains an air of exclusiveness despite an avowed
commitment to grow the game in inner cities.
The International Tennis Federation, based in Paris with a haughty,
rarefied air of its own, and the ATP Tour, based in Florida, are barely on
The WTA Tour, launched in 1973 and given a boost that year by the “Battle
of the Sexes” match between Billie Jean King and Bobby Riggs, still can’t
get equal pay with the men at three of the four majors.
These kinds of divisions in the hierarchy of the game have plagued tennis
throughout the century, at various times splintering the sport and
hindering its growth among spectators and players.
The huge, gaudy cup that Dwight Davis offered in 1900 to winners of an
international team tennis competition essentially pitted three Harvard men,
among them Davis as captain, against three British counterparts.
Though Davis Cup matches would expand to include dozens of countries, and
become the most influential and democratic of tennis events before the Open
era, it always stayed under the control of the sport’s main powers.
The men and women who played at all the major tournaments had to be rich
enough so they could afford to travel and practice and play throughout the
year without any hope of prize money.
Those who had the audacity to try to earn a living from their talents had
to give up their amateur status and the chance to compete at Wimbledon, the
U.S. Nationals, Davis Cup and the other major events.
From the ’20s until the creation of Open tennis, when the major tournaments
no longer could afford to lock out the biggest names, players made sporadic
attempts to create pro tours.
Lenglen, an immensely popular Frenchwoman, pioneered professional play in
1926 when she went on an American tour and won all 38 matches against Mary
Pro tennis then languished until Tilden, winner of seven U.S. singles
titles and three Wimbledons and one of the biggest sports stars of the
Roaring ’20s, joined several Europeans on a tour in 1931. Tilden won his
pro debut against Karel Kozeluh of Czechoslovakia before 13,000 fans at
Madison Square Garden.
Tilden toured, playing before crowds large and small, until the 1940s when
he was pushing 50. He paved the way for Vines, Perry and Budge to leave the
amateur ranks and play for prize money.
Yet the pro life, despite the occasional jackpot, was more often a slog
through the hinterlands on all kinds of courts, from slick wood to fast
canvas to patchy grass. Tilden would drive all day and sometimes all night,
play a match, then move on.
There would be other tours, some successful, most not.
Bobby Riggs and Jack Kramer, two of the best players of the 1940s as
amateurs and pros, became the greatest promoters. Pancho Gonzales, twice
the U.S. champion before turning 21, became the top pro of the 1950s as
Kramer took over as boss of the pro game.
The great Australian players of the ’50s, Frank Sedgman, Lew Hoad, Ken
Rosewall, Rod Laver, were quietly put on sporting goods firms’ payrolls so
that they could keep their amateur status. Eventually, they, too, would
turn pro and be banished from the majors.
Kramer kept pushing for open tennis, frequently raiding the ranks of the
amateurs and stiffening the resolve of the powers at the top until he had
to yield to failure at the box office in 1962. For a brief period, pro
tennis was dead.
That began to change in 1963 when Laver, fresh from his Grand Slam sweep,
joined Rosewall and Hoad on their own pro tour while fellow Aussie Roy
Emerson began to dominate the amateur game. The Aussies, including Margaret
Smith on the women’s side, would rule tennis for most of the rest of the
Finally, in 1968, open tennis between pros and amateurs arrived, some 40
years after the issue was first raised, and tennis changed irrevocably.
The first U.S. Open champion that year turned out to be Arthur Ashe, a
black man who could never have gained access to most tennis clubs in
“In the 1970s,” tennis Hall of Fame writer Bud Collins observed in his
encyclopedia of the game, “tennis became truly the ‘in’ sport of the great
middle class, first in the United States, then abroad.
“In a single decade, the sport threw off and trampled its starched white
flannel past and became a favored diversion of the modern leisure class —
attired in pastels and playing tiebreaker sets in public parks and clubs.
… All this was inspired by the advent of open tennis.”
If only that had been envisioned early in the century by those who
controlled tennis, the history of the game, its greatest players, and,
perhaps, part of our culture, might have turned out different.