Tennis and the Revenge of Technological Revolution

Edward Tenner

(an excerpt from Tenner's When Things Bite Back:  Technology and the Revenge of Unintended  Consequences)

By the standards of professional sports, tennis officials once were casual about equipment. They strictly policed the dimensions and conditions of courts and nets and the specifications of balls, but well into the 1970s they left racket design and dimensions to the imagination of athletes and manufacturers. As late as 1977, the president of the U.S. Tennis Association could declare, 'You can play with a tomato can on a broomstick, if you think you can win with it." This freedom, far from encouraging a profusion of fanciful designs, was permitting a slowly evolving uniformity. Equipment was not so important as skill--tennis professionals with frying pans can achieve excellent results against lesser players with rackets--but this was not the whole reason for conservatism. A similar advantage for skill as opposed to equipment exists in most sports and has not necessarily stopped invention.

What seemed to set the tennis racket apart was the properties of the materials that went into it. Cutting ash and beech into strips, laminating them, and more recently reinforcing them with a variety of plastics improves racket strength, but these techniques could not overcome an apparent natural size limit of about seventy square inches. A larger wooden or even aluminum racket face would tend to break with the force of the hardest shots, or reduce the speed of play because of weight. (Heavier rackets add little speed to balls, because a slower swing cancels out most of the advantage of the added mass, while lighter and faster-moving rackets do add speed significantly.) Steel rackets had been tried as early as the 1920s--a Birmingham manufacturer introduced a model using piano wire--but it was Jimmy Connors, who won in the late 1960s with the steel Wilson T2000, and Pancho Gonzalez, who used an aluminum Spalding Smasher at Wimbledon in 1969, who signaled the approach of an age of more rapid evolution of rackets.21

The real revolution in materials, however, did not begin until nearly ten years later, and it started at the bottom: with rackets designed to make the game easier for less skilled players. Howard Head, an engineer who made millions developing and producing laminated skis, saw that many amateur tennis players were frustrated by their inability to hit the ball consistently with conventional rackets. The early Wilson and Spalding metal rackets were of little help to the majority of players. Head realized that the absence of official specifications created a unique opportunity. A patent issued in 1974 for his aluminum model (marketed as the Prince in 1976) gave him a legal monopoly on oversized rackets. The original Prince has a surface of 130 square inches, nearly twice the area of conventional models. While sports physicists and engineers recognize three different plausible definitions of a "sweet spot," a zone of maximum efficiency in hitting a ball with any object, there was no doubt that the Prince had a significantly larger one than conventional models. (Because fewer shots twisted or vibrated players' arms, some believe larger rackets have reduced the incidence of tennis elbow, though this is hard to determine. In the early 1990s, half of all amateur frequent players still were reporting symptoms eventually. Midsized racket heads do reduce vibration and twisting, but the largest ones may twist more, and stiffer rackets are poor absorbers of shock.

Equipment that will forgive errors has never mattered much to professionals in any sport; nobody reaches top-level play without consistency. Those who first adopted the Prince racket were well-off, middle-aged, competitive but ordinary players--like Head himself.  In fact, if the larger sweet spot had been its only benefit, bigger rackets might have suffered from a kind of prosthetic stigma in the face of traditional macho designs. But oversize construction has another, unexpected benefit that appeals to professionals. The new rackets--both the Prince and later models made of fiberglass, boron, graphite, and Kevlar in various combinations of materials--are both lighter and stiffer than traditional models. They permit velocities up to 30 percent greater than the old designs. And this improvement in performance had serious consequences for the sport.

(The market for more forgiving equipment can be anything but gentle. A slightly oversized, slower-moving tennis ball, the Wilson Rally, flopped among its intended market of older and less skilled amateurs in the early 1980s. Its weight conformed to regulations, but it felt heavier than standard balls when it hit the strings. Wilson soon had to withdraw it.)

Within only five years of the Prince's introduction, larger rackets had taken over tournament play. The move  began with Pam Shriver and helped make women's tennis one of the few female sports that could compete in media attention and cash with their male counterparts. But the effect on the men's game was much more complex. For individual stars, there was no alternative. Some leading male professionals were determined to show that they could win tournaments with wood-but they failed. John McEnroe was the last to use a wooden racket at Wimbledon in 1982; when Bjorn Borg tried one at the Monte Carlo Open in 1991, he lost twelve of seventeen games to a Spanish player ranked fifty-second but playing with a graphite fiber model.  By the early 1990s, wooden rackets had become a niche product, available mainly from a single manufacturer in Cambridge, England.23

The triumph of metal and composite rackets, combined with the entry of stronger and better-conditioned young players, transformed the men's professional game.  By the 1990s the sometimes monotonous serve-and-volley game was a thing of the past, with only a few of its specialists left on the tour. On the other hand, the new rackets multiplied the advantage of a powerful serve, especially on a fast surface like grass. Serves clocked at over 100 miles an hour became routine, and a number of top players have even been able to surpass 120 miles an hour. These results are all the more impressive because most top professionals are not yet using the most radical designs, exceptionally stiff wide-bodied rackets that they feel don't allow enough topspin. A growing number of serves are aces that no player could return, and more and more games have become serving contests.  In the 1994 men's Wimbledon tournament, Pete Sampras defeated Goran Ivanisevic with a magnificent display of technique, but his 125-mile-per-hour serves bored many fans. The longest rally was just eight strokes, and the correspondent for the Guardian, David Irvine, appealed for action 'to save the grass-court game from self destructing.' As of the mid-1990s, every proposed solution to the revenge effects of larger rackets in men's professional play appears to have unintended consequences. Higher nets or less lively balls in tournament play would affect not only the service but all other shots. Different court dimensions for professionals and amateurs would confuse training and make thousands of courts unusable at least part of the time. Requiring players to have both feet on the ground while serving would rob professionals of the benefits of countless hours of practice-possibly giving an advantage to some competitors better adapted physically to the new rules. New restrictions on rackets would not only raise questions about the usability of older models but invite U.S. antitrust action by manufacturers who might consider themselves penalized. And converting Wimbledon from grass to clay might affront tennis traditionalists more than any new racket design ever could.

The irony of the new rackets goes even further: they are not as profitable for the manufacturers as they once were. The large racket, for all the benefits it may give the average player, did not do very much for the tennis boom of the 1970s. According to the records of the Tennis Industry Association (TIA). the number of tennis players had already peaked in 1974, two years before introduction of the Prince in 1976. Participation remained stagnant, then began a sharp drop through the early eighties, bottoming out at ten to eleven million adults by the middle of the decade. This is not entirely surprising; a higher-performance product often needs a broad base of consumers eager to upgrade. What is unexpected is that participation continued to decline so sharply despite greater ease of learning and play. The TIA attributes the slump of the 1980s to the rise of aerobics and health clubs, but it still is not clear why these should have competed so successfully to the detriment of tennis but not of other outdoor sports. Could one reason be the higher price of the new rackets?  Less affluent players might simply have rejected the prospect of a new $150 investment just to remain competitive. This cost would not, of course, deter a serious player but might give casual ones second thoughts. And some otherwise satisfied with their old rackets might have found the sweet spot unacceptably small, especially once their opponents began to play with large-head models.25

Just as the first boom in tennis ended before technological innovation, a recovery of participation began around 1985, three years before the introduction of wide-bodied rackets in 1988, with thinner but deeper frames that added stiffness--once more at a higher price point of $200 to $250. There was no doubt that these rackets made learning easier for beginners and gave serious players stronger shots. Compared with wood they had fully twice the hitting area and were often twice as stiff, yet weighed 35 to 40 percent less. In the early 1990s the industry was expecting to regain something of the popularity it had reached at its peak.

Once again, though, technology failed to save tennis. Instead of continuing to rebound, the sport was foundering by the mid-1990s, despite but also partly because of its success in innovation. The number of players continued its slow recovery from the trough of 1985, reaching 25 million by 1993, yet the sale of tennis balls--a measure of activity--dropped significantly between 1990 and 1993. Manufacturers and retailers were quick to blame inadequate marketing, but the game's explosion in the 1970s appeared to owe little to marketing campaigns, and even companies as adept as Nike have not been consistently successful. Whatever the reason, racket manufacturers began to slash prices in the mid-1990s and stores cut back on their space for tennis equipment. Meanwhile the higher quality of the new equipment seemed to work against the industry. The New York Times reported that the new metal rackets were lasting far longer than wooden models and needed less frequent restringing. This has not stopped the introduction of still more powerful rackets, but these show little prospect of bringing back the boom of the 1970s.

Tennis shows how unpredictable technological change can be in any sport. For two decades, equipment improved for the average player as for the professional, yet participation never approached the peak of the wood-racket era at the end of the 1970s. The added power of male professionals did not seem to increase the game's appeal to spectators; if anything, the intensification of the game began to bore them.