What's That Racket?

What's That Racket?

What's That Racket?

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July 1 2004 5:27 PM

What's That Racket?

How high-tech equipment is destroying tennis.

Roddick: Slow down there, sonny
Roddick: Slow down there, sonny

This year's men's draw at Wimbledon is more a serving contest than a tennis tournament. Defending champion Roger Federer, who has won 106 of his last 107 service games at the All England Club, will likely face Andy Roddick and his 153 mph serve in Sunday's final. Expect a lot of short points.

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."

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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.

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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 court sizes?

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 of reactionaries.

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.