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The racket: the tennis player's glove

"Tennis is boxing, it's a violent sport, one against the other, and it’s boxing without contact". Andre Agassi was right, shots hit you and you feel them as they do. The difference is that you need an extension of your arm, using a racket as your main weapon to receive and hit. Then you must choose the trajectory, power and speed to hit the ball. A conceptually simple tool of the trade: made up of a frame, to which is attached flat, crossed strings, and a handle. Yet the racket, in its technological evolution of almost 150 years, not only was decisive for the performance and psychological component of the tennis player, but it was also able to redefine the style of tennis.

The tennis racket over time

Nature has given this sport what it could for about a century. Wooden rackets marked an era from 1874 to the end of the 1970s, with the definitive transition to oval form at the beginning of the twentieth century. Of course, in so many years the methods of assembly saw an improvement, but the construction technique remained almost unchanged: a frame built through the stratification of six, seven strips of wood (mainly ash) of different quality and elasticity, compressed and glued together that made each tennis racket unique. The strings were made of natural gut, the leather cover of the handle that after a couple of weeks of play darkened in contact with sweat in the area of the handshake.
One racket in particular invaded the market, becoming popular with both professionals (Laver, Nastase, Panatta, Stolle, Hoad) and amateurs. The Dunlop Maxply Fort, with those thin red (or white) bands at the end of the grip became an icon that John McEnroe brought to the field even in the early eighties. But it was the version in which, together with the wood, graphite sheets were inserted. The materials were about to change, tennis was about to change character.

From pencils to tennis: the graphite revolution

One of the first to leave carpentry was René Lacoste, a great French tennis player and founder of the fashion brand inspired by this sport. The crocodile, as the teammates called it with unconscious foresight, in 1965 realised an aluminium frame which was light and with a good capacity of distribution of the masses. But the real stroke of genius came a decade later thanks to Howard Head, who was already innovating skiing with his Head Ski Company. The entrepreneur began to build racquets with layers of synthetic resins and in 1979 he acquired the patent of Black Ace, the first racket with one hundred percent graphite, launched by Taiwanese Kunnan Lo. A revolution for lightness, precision, versatility, which allowed you to hit a ball at 150 mph.
From that moment on real departments of research and development were born, they began to experiment with various materials such as fiberglass, astroceramics, Kevlar, carbon, boron, aramid. Up to the latest generation such as noryl, vectran, quartzel, dyneema etc. While experience in other industries has helped over time to innovate tennis, as happens for example with the Pro Kennex and the collaboration with the aerospace engineer Howard Sommer: the insertion on the frame of capsules with microspheres that are loaded with kinetic energy allow you to eliminate vibrations in the handle. Technology that not only provides greater performance but also greater playing comfort, less arm fatigue and reduced risk of injury.

When technology changes the sport

More advanced rackets have reshaped the style, characteristics and physical preparation of the tennis player. In the wood age the tactical component, the geometric strategy, the nice game that characterised and categorised the signature of a champion were more marked aspects. Because the tool allowed lower speeds and more varied dynamics of exchange, leading easily to divide the players between strikers of the serve & volley and those more likely to a defense with limited margins of error that pointed everything on a lob or a passerby. And the shots, in general, were flat or with a backward rotation as the rackets did not facilitate top spin responses.
From the eighties until today and probably even more in the future, you play another game of tennis and it is the racket itself that is responsible. The new composite materials have meant that the optimum impact point of the ball (sweet spot) has been extended from the centre to the entire stringbed. This means that you can hit the ball at a high speed from any area of the racquet. As a result, in contemporary tennis, the technical differences between players are very subtle.

Is it the racket that makes the tennis player?

Today's rackets allow powerful shots from any position, equally strong responses to a deadly service, and surprise flashes that were previously unimaginable. Certainly, however, players with characteristics that are more in line with each other are brought onto the field: great physicality, resistance to holding long swaps, ability to play on any surface. More cross-field regulars than long-time ghosts.
An evolution, therefore, also in man. Take for example Pete Sampras, comparing him to the operating system of a computer is an upgrade of McEnroe, from which resumes the ability to go to network but with a more powerful service, a tennis player very strong on fast fields such as concrete or grass.
Roger Federer? Improved upon the game of Sampras and acquired the overbearing exchange from the bottom. And we go on with Rafael Nadal, with whom we move almost entirely away from the serve & volleyball back on the edge of the field line along with his physicality and tightness in the thrust and response of great power. But are we really sure that it is the racket that designs the tennis player? Certainly, athletes adapt to a changing sport, they also play it with the tool they hold in their hands. However, this sport will never be completely affected by technological developments. And perhaps we should keep in mind what John McEnroe said: "Every match deserves to be thought of in the same way as a painter in front of a still white canvas. At least, that's tennis that I'd like to see.

Top 10: the rackets that have made history

A ranking of the most important rackets in the history of tennis? Someone will turn up their nose, because everyone has their own favourites. But these belong rightfully into the Golden Roll for innovation, victories and popularity.
Dunlop Maxply Fort
It's the mother of the rackets, at least the wooden ones. Certainly one of the longest lasting: introduced on the market in 1931 it became an almost obligatory choice for generations of professionals (Rod Laver with his customisations) and enthusiasts.
Wilson T2000
The T2000, in 1967, marked the first major commercial success for a non-wood racket. Billie Jean King and Clarck Graebner won with this Wilson the US National of the same year. But it was with Jimmy Connors and his victories at Wimbledon in 74’ and 82’ that this model entered the myth. Combined with the fact that, once production was over, (desperate) Connors looked for someone who could still produce the T2000.
Head Prince Pro
Less weight and flatter than the wooden rackets that were coming out of the scene. In 78’, with Prince Pro, eighteen-year-old Pam Shriver defeated Navratilova at the US Open and fought Chris Evert. The racket was much appreciated by amateurs because they could give more power in the shots.
Dunlop Max 200G
He marked Dunlop's transition from aluminium to graphite in 1980, one of the first to use this material. Steffi Graf and John McEnroe showed the potential in international competitions, convincing the company to go even further in the production of carbon fibre and nylon in search of lighter weight.
Prince Graphite 100
Inside this frame there is the trend, in materials and dimensions of the nineties that bigger is better, following the choice made by Dunlop with Slazenger's Max Predator, the first big size of the period. The Prince Graphite 100 in the hands of Michael Chang allowed a great effectiveness in service, network and cross-field.
Yonex R-22
The Japanese brand already had a model in the catalogue in the seventies, but it is with the arrival of graphite and this expanded version of the cross-section (isometric, the first of its kind) that the success in the following decade. It was in the hands of Martina Navratilova in 1984, when she triumphed at Roland Garros, Wimbledon and the US Open.
Wilson Pro Staff
85’ and 95’ frames and Kevlar braided graphite on the entire racket head. A combination that gave back what everyone called the Pro Staff feeling. Pete Sampras, Stefan Edberg, Jim Courier, Jimmy Connors, Steffi Graf and Roger Federer made it even more famous.
Head Radical
Developed to maximize the style of a champion like Andre Agassi. The American tennis player rewarded the brand by winning seven of his eight Slams with Radical. It entered the court in 93’, becoming the best-selling racket between 1999 and 2004.
Babolat Pure Drive
The brand that first put the strings on its racquets in 1875, pulled out the Pure Drive with which Andy Roddick won the US Open in 2003. It was the relaunch of a brand that will continue its presence on the market with further innovations of the latest generation.
Babolat Play
The first connected racket was developed and marketed by Babolat. A racket with sensors in the handle that record power, rotating shots, top spin, point of impact of the ball and other statistics giving an overview of the game via an app. Approved by the Federation, Play is used by many champions.

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