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 hand proved 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 the year 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, Major Walter 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't quite 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.

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 first popular 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 Prince Classic. 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 increased power 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 bed would 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 racquet quickly became graphite construction.

By 1980, racquets could pretty much be divided into two classes: inexpensive racquets made of aluminum and expensive ones made of graphite or a composite. Wood no longer offered anything that another material couldn't provide better -- except for antique and collectible value.

The two key properties for a racquet material are stiffness and light weight. Graphite remains the most common choice for stiff racquets, and the technology for adding stiffness without adding weight continues to improve. Probably the most famous of the early graphite racquets was the Dunlop Max 200G, used by both John McEnroe and Steffi Graf. Its weight in 1980 was 12.5 ounces. Over the 20 years since, average racquet weights have decreased to around 10.5 ounces, with some racquets as light as 7 ounces.

New materials such as ceramics, fiberglass, boron, titanium, Kevlar, and Twaron are constantly being tried, almost always in a mix with graphite.

In 1987, Wilson came up with an idea for increasing racquet stiffness without finding a stiffer material. Wilson's Profile racquet was the first "widebody." In retrospect, it seems strange that no one thought of the idea sooner to increase the thickness of the frame along the direction in which it must resist the impact of the ball. The Profile was a monster of a racquet, with a frame 39 mm wide at the middle of its tapered head, more than twice the width of the classic wooden frame. By the mid 1990's, such extreme widths had fallen out of favor, but the widebody innovation carries forward: most frames sold today are wider than the pre-widebody standard.

The racquet makers have, to some extent, suffered from their own success. Unlike wood racquets, which warped, cracked, and dried out with age, graphite racquets can last for many years without a noticeable loss of performance.

A 10-year-old graphite racquet can be so good and so durable that its owner has little motivation to replace it. The racquet companies have met this problem with a stream of innovations, some of which, like the oversized head, wider frame, and lighter weight are evident in almost every racquet made today.

Other innovations have been less universal, such as extreme head-heavy balance as seen in the Wilson Hammer racquets, and extra length, first introduced by Dunlop.

What's next? How about an electronic racquet? Head has come out with a racquet that uses piezoelectric technology. Piezoelectric materials convert vibration or motion to and from electrical energy. Head's new racquet takes the vibration resulting from impact with the ball and converts it to electrical energy, which serves to dampen that vibration. A circuit board in the racquet's handle then amplifies that electrical energy and sends it back to the piezoelectric ceramic composites in the frame, causing those materials to stiffen.

The medieval French monks would be impressed.