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The Evolution of Tennis and the Racquet

in cooperation with

Siegfried Kuebler
 

Preface/Instructions: Learn about the history of the sports of tennis and the development of the racquet.  Photo and video production by G-Anne Fixemer.  Click the photographs and get background facts, close-up views, and a 360 degree moving sequence.

Chapters:

  1. From hand to racquet (1000 AD - 1500)

  2. Era of solid wood (1500 - 1930)

  3. Era of laminated wood (1930 - 1985)

  4. From steel to composite (1920s - 2000)
    4.1 Steel racquets (Dayton, Lacoste, Wilson)
    4.2 String technology
    4.3 Weight stabilizing systems
    4.4 Special forms - shaft & throat
    4.5 Special forms - head shape
    4.6 The revolution - the inspection molding process

  5. Personal racquets of players from WTA and ATP

  6. Todays tennis racquets in perfection - From 1500 to Roger Federer

 

 

From hand to racquet

 

What we call the game of tennis took about a millennium to evolve into the game we know today.  Although there is some evidence that early forms of tennis were played in ancient Egypt, Greece, and Rome, most historians agree that the sport originated in French monasteries around the year 1000.  The monks played a game called name je de paume, ''game of the hand,'' in which they used their hand to hit a wooden ball over a rope stretched across the courtyard.  While this actually sounds a bit like volleyball, historians have come to believe that the name ''tennis'' came from the French term tenez, meaning ''take this!''  During the game, the monks would shout, 'tenez!' as they served the ball.  Over the next several hundred years, the game spread throughout Europe, becoming extremely popular with the nobility.  By the 13th century, there were as many as 1,800 courts in France. 

Hand To Racquet
Jeu de paume

Jeu de paume

Era of solid wood (1500 - 1930)

It was not until the 16th century that racquets came into use, and the game began to be called "tennis."  It was popular in England and France, and Henry VIII of England was a big fan of the game, now referred to as real tennis.  Pushing the game, Henry VIII directed the building of courts throughout the country.  The oldest known racquet in tennis history is depicted and described in a book of the Italian priest and philosopher Antonio Scaino from 1555.  The Berlin Tennis Gallery shows a replica of the first known tennis racquet.

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The first tennis racquets around 1500 with drop-shape and diagonal stringing

Replica of The Scanno Racquet from 1555

Solid Wood

The combination of Scaino’s indirect but enduring influence and the cultural prestige of the jeu de la paume perhaps suffice to explain the interest of the Académie Royale des Sciences, Paris, France, in the game.  In 1767 one of its members, the illustrious veterinary doctor François-Alexandre-Pierre de Gersault published a beautifully illustrated volume in large folio entitled Art du paumier-raquetier et de la paume (Paris: Saillant) as part of the prestigious series "Descriptions des arts et métiers".

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A long-established "pastime" of the elite would soon find its influence to the game of tennis. Wingfield later adopted the height of the net from the sport called "Battledore and Shuttlecock", a former version of today´s game of Badminton,  in his famous British patent 685 "Sphairistiké", now called Lawn Tennis of simply said "Tennis". Battledore and Shuttlecock racquets are among the oldest on earth, according to racquet historians such as Jim Warner.

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Charles IX aged 2 holding a battledore

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Antique Battledore racquets

Although the nobles' new favorite pastime spread rapidly over the next few centuries, for the majority of the population it was more of a leisure activity.  All was to change abruptly in the mid-19th century.  In 1844, Charles Goodyear patented a vulcanization process to make natural rubber more durable and elastic – paving the way for the modern tennis ball.  Along with the invention of the lawnmower from 1830, the way was now open for a new sport for everybody.

Charles Goodyear

Charles Goodyear

Antiqe tennis balls

Antique tennis balls

The racquet continued to evolve. The game was practiced as an indoor sport until the mid-19th century. Comparable to modern squash, and due to the need to hit balls out of corners, the racquet head on Real Tennis (also called Royal Tennis) racquets was slightly unwound. This shape is called "lopsided". As seen above on Gersault's publication. The maker of below example was Feltham & Co. City Steam Works, Barbican, London. The company produced some of the earliest lawn tennis rackets, and were one of the premier makers of that time.

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Feltham lopsided tennis racquet with original balls, 1870

The increased popularity of the sports did not go unnoticed by the Brit Walter Clopton Wingfield, later to become Major in the Britisch army.  Wingfield created his own idea of ​​how to play tennis.  He compiled a set of rules for a game which he named Sphairistike (Greek for ball games, translated into English as "lawn tennis" or "tennis" for short). 

He submitted his concept to the British patent authorities. On February 23, 1874, Wingfield's application was approved with the famous British Patent No. 685.  This marked the end of the more than 300-year-old era of real tennis and the beginning of modern tennis.

Wingfield's invention not only ended the era of real tennis.  The requirements on the racquets also changed during the transformation from indoor-based real tennis to the outdoor-sports of lawn tennis. The subsequent illustration shows the racquet of the Major, commissioned by Prince Edward, eldest son of Queen Victoria, later to become King Edward VII, which provides the most impressive contemporary testimony to Real tennis racquets as they were built between c. 1600 and 1880.

The Wingfield Real Tennis Racquet of Major Walter Clopton Wingfield commissioned by King Edward VII

Wingfield's court was shaped like an hourglass and his rules were highly criticized, but the framework for modern tennis had been set. In the same year, courts showed up in the United States and, by the following year, the game had spread to Russia, India, and Canada. Three years after the invention of sphairistike, the All England Croquet Club needed to raise money to fix some broken equipment. Since the croquet field could be easily modified into a tennis court, the club decided to hold the first tennis tournament, in a suburb of London called Wimbledon. The tournament committee rejected Wingfield's hourglass-shaped court and rewrote many of the rules. Their version became lawn tennis and quickly developed into the most prestigious tennis tournament in the world. The All England Lawn Tennis and Croquet Club has hosted the Wimbledon Championships every year since.

 

The tennis racquet, which had a lop-sided head in the era of real tennis, increasingly developed into a symmetrical piece of sports equipment towards lawn tennis. Those from the 1880s were mostly made with flat tops.

1880s Flat Top Racquets

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1880 Flat Top Racquets

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1880 Flat Top Racquets

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1880 Flat Top Racquets

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1880 Flat Top Racquets

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1880 Flat Top Racquets

1880s Transitional Flat Top Racquets

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1880 Flat Top Racquets

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1880 Flat Top Racquets

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1880 Flat Top Racquets

1880s Special Designs

1880s Standard - Flat Top Racquets

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1885 Lunn & Co. College

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1889 London

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1884 Ayres F H Ltd.

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1888 London

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1883 Ayres F H Ltd. 

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1885 London

1880s Transitional Flat Top Racquets

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1885  Horsman (Horsman Maker)

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1888 London

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1885 Spalding Slocum

1880s Special Features

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1889  Grays - Lopsided

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1885 Slazenger The Renshaw - Strong flat top

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1880 London - Early oval lawn tennis racquet

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1889 Douglas - Gut strings worn out heavily

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1885 London - Cork handle

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1889 London - Cork handle, double strings

The 1880s were also to produce the scene's first legend. It was 1881, when the previous year's champion, John Hartley, an English pastor, confidently entered the court in order to defend his title. But 37 minutes after the opening shot, he had to congratulate his opponent on his victory. It was the the fastest men's final to date. William Renshaw's Championship in 1881 marked the beginning of a triumphal procession to a record that still stands today. Renshaw managed to win the tournament six times in a row until 1886. An all-time record to date. Bjorn Borg was one set away from equaling Renshaw's record in 1981 and was eventually beaten by John McEnroe. Along with his brother Ernest, the two were so popular that an entire era was named after them: The Renshaw Rush. 

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Slazenger The Renshaw, used by W. Renshaw and introduced by Slazenger honouring the champions' achievements

The increasing interest in tennis not only created competing interests on the court. The manufacturers experimented with new designs and features. Two examples from that time are frames with a flat handle (so-called fantail racquets) and those with handles which resemble a fishtail. Jefferies and Slazenger were two of the leading manufacturers by that time.

1890s Special Features

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1895 Gradidge of Woolwich - Fantail handle

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1893 Slazenger The Demon - Fishtail handle

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1898 Slazenger Special Demon - Fishtail handle

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1892 Jefferies & Co - Diagonal Strung

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1893 Jefferies Fantail - Fantail handle

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1895 The Match - Barrel/Hammer handle

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1895 Ekert The Club - Trans. flat top, glas-type head

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1895 Slazenger Special Demon - Fishtail handle

During the 1890s, the racquet gradually evolved from a flat top to an oval racquet head. The following testimonies show that this shape became the market standard across all established manufacturers.

1890s Standard - Oval, round, transitional flat top shape

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1894 The Court

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1895 Wright & Ditson Longwood

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1896 Ormond Club

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1896 Ormond Club

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1895 Slazenger ICH Dien

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1895 The Match

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1897 Slazenger The Renshaw

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1899 Slazenger The Renshaw

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1995 Victor The Comet

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1895 Wright & Ditson

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1892 Wright & Ditson

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1898 Ormond Challenge

The tennis racquet of that time was relatively heavy and usually equipped wich a grip which could be played comfortably by men only. Progressive manufacturers catered to the demands of women and children and, in addition to the standardized frames designed for men's tennis, offered lighter models and those with smaller grips. 

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Ortrud

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Child Racquets

Racquets hardly changed in the first decade of the new century. Some manufacturers deviated from the norm and made round or square shapes. 2 beautiful examples from the manufacturers Ekert Hamburg and Victor USA:

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Ekert & Co. 1900

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Victor The Comet Nr. 354, 1902

The sport had developed further on the international stage. After the end of the Renshaw brothers' careers, the public interest leveled off briefly. In 1895, even Wimbledon suffered its first and only deficit in the history of the tournament. That changed abruptly when the Doherty brothers entered the scene in the mid-1890s. Between 1897 and 1906, Reginald and Lawrence Doherty were the dominant players of the scene. In 1903, the brothers were the first non-European team to win the Davis Cup, triggering an unstoppable boom not only in Great Britain but throughout the entire continent.

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Slazenger Doherty, 1903

Regarding strings, the Slazenger company had come out with a patent for 2 additional main strings in 1898. This pattern became very popular and was applied until the 1920. Many other manufacturers took over the patent from Slazenger for their own racquets and risked sensitive disputes with Slazenger. The strings themselves usually had a much thicker diameter compared to today (up to 2 mm). The multiple so-called trebblings were used until about 1910.

1900s Standard - Oval shape

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1905 Slazenger Pastime

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1909 Paris Pear Type

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1906 Challenge

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1906 Bussey Special Champion

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1900 Steidel Practice

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1900 Steidel Victoria

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1908 Williams? Favourite

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1906 Prosser T. H. & Sons

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1904 Ormond Favorit

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1906 Bussey Geo G. & Co. Special Champion

1900s Special Features

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1906 Slazenger Ulbique - Fishtail

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1903 Ormond Champion - Double strings

As we can observe from the above figures, the wedge was made convex up to this time. This changed around the beginning of World War I. Incidentally, 1914, more precisely May 15th, was also the start of the success story of a company that would become the largest sporting goods manufacturer in the world in the following decades, Wilson Sporting Goods. One of the first companies to market frames with a concave wedge was German manufacturer Hammer. The "Spezial" is listed in Siegfried Kuebler`s "The book of tennis rackets" as one of the first racquets of Hammer to sell. The company would develop to become one of the leading manufacturers in the 1920s and 1930s. 

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Hammer Spezial, 1914

In the following years, the construction flipped between concave and convex wedge until about 1920.

1910s Standard - From convex to concave wedge

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1913 Slazenger Carlton

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1914 Slazenger Lambert Chambers patent

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1914 Slazenger Eclipse

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1914 Slazenger Special Score

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1911 Mikado II

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1913 F.J. Bancroft Pawtucket R.I.

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1918 Club

1910s Special Features

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1910 A.R. Dawson Champion - Fishtail handle

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1910 Champion - additional piece of weed between the shoulders and the wedge

In the 1920s, tennis became increasingly professional. Helen Wills and Suzanne Lenglen were the first superstars in women's tennis, Bill Tilden and the 4 French Musketeers dominated the men's competition. Most racquets from this period often show red or green cross strings. 

1920s Standard - Oval shape, concave wedge

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1922 Halley & Co. Opresto

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1925 Hammer Meteor

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1928 Wright & Ditson The Park

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1926 Hammer Meteor

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1923 Bancroft Premier

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1923 Steidel Club

1920s Special Features

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1924 S.B. Special - Double Strung

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1928 Wright & Ditson X-Pert - Open throat

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1922 Dayton Steel - Steel frame and wires

Era of laminated wood (1930 - 1985)

At the end of the 1920s, tennis encountered an insurmountable problem. The sport has become so popular that the manufacturers could no longer meet the increased demand. All frames made between 1500 and 1930 were made with more or less the same basic material: solid wood. That was extremely laborious. The wood was bent in hot steam or a water bath, which in turn led to a large number of fragments, and thus rejects. But not only the manufacturers had a problem with the old method. For the players, the smallest hairline crack in the frame of solid wood rackets often meant its soon end. And so the manufacturers came up with a revolutionary new concept.

 

A process that was already known from the furniture industry was adopted. Instead of making the frame with 1 piece of solid wood, several layers were placed on top of each other and glued. And so it would be the Dunlop company that made the first mass-produced laminated wooden racquet. The Dunlop Maxply not only bears the name of what later became the most famous wooden racquet of the scene, but also the name of its manufacturing process. Maxply = Max + ply, the method of maximum plies or layers.

Laminated wood

The First Game Changer in the Sports of Tennis - The Dunlop Maxply (from 1935 Maxply Fort)

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1932 - 1985 Dunlop Maxply (Fort)

1930s Standard - Laminated Wood

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1935 Hoppe Dresden Extra

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1936 Hammer Tauberperle

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1932 Dunlop Corinthian

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1939 Wilson Don Budge Pro

1930s Special Features

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1936 Hazell´s Streamline Red

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From 1935 The Hazell´s Streamline Family

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1937 Hazell´s Streamline White

1937 Hazell´s Streamline Green

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1937 Hazell´s Streamline Blue

With the outbreak of World War II in 1939, terror and annihilation determined the public live in Europe and many parts of the world. Also for the sports of tennis, the consequences were significant. The major tournaments had to be paused. In Wimbledon, an aircraft bomb destroyed the Center Court, so that the Championships had to take place in ruins when it was rerun in 1946. During the war years, tennis rackets could almost exclusively be manufactured by non-European companies. In 1938, Wilson launched a further development of Dunlop's multi-layer process. The Strata Bow procedure. Rackets made based on the Strata Bow technology were rated as the best ever type of wooden racquets by many players.

1940s Standard - Laminated Wood, butt leather under or over main leather strip

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1948 Hammer Start

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1947 - 1985 Wilson The Jack Kramer Autograph

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1949 Hammer Spezialmodell Hans Nüsslein

The 1950s were still overshadowed by the consequences of World War II. The Open Era was a long way off, yet. It was the decade of the greats Maureen Connolly, Tony Trabert, and Ken Rosewall.  In Germany, the Marshall Plan helped the German manufacturers get back on their feet. Amongst the main producers of that time were the companies Hammer and Becker. Illustrated below, the most popular rackets of Hammer and Becker.

1940s Standard - Laminated Wood, butt leather entirely covered by main leather strip

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1950s Hammer family

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1955 Slazenger Jupiter

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1950 Becker Rot-Weiß

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1959 Erbacher Rext

At that time only a few forward-thinking protagonists recognized the potential of the white sport. One of them was Jack Kramer, who historically was perhaps the most important developer of the sports of tennis. He introduced his own professional league long before the Open Era and paid the players handsomely.

 

The aforementioned champions Connolly, Rosewall, and Trabert, along with 2-time Grand Slam Champion Rod Laver, represent the transition to the Open Era like no other player. Before the advent of the Open era of tennis competitions in April 1968, only amateurs were allowed to compete in established tournaments, including the four majors. There was no prize money and players were compensated for travel expenses only. The financial pressure on the organization of the amateurs was huge. Tony Trabert's exit is the best example to describe the situation by that time. Having reached the top amateur ranking in 1955, Trabert turned professional in the fall of that year. Trabert explained: “When I won Wimbledon as an amateur, I got a 10-pound certificate, which was worth $27 redeemable at Lilly White's Sporting Goods store in London. Jack Kramer offered me a guarantee of $75,000 against a percentage of the gate to play on his tour."

The manufacturers also knew how to put their contract players in the limelight. Photos of the top players were often printed on the frames.

1960th Standard Wooden Racquets

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1967 Wilson Stylist Tony Trabbert

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1968 Wilson

Maureen Connolly Autograph

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1967 Wilson Stylist Maureen Connolly

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1967 Wilson Maureen Connolly Personal

With the beginning of the Open Era ("Open" to all players) the Grand Slam tournaments agreed to allow professional players to compete alongside amateurs. The manufacturers competed for the best players in the world. In the 70's and 80's, many Autograph racquets were designed and marketed.

1960th Standard Wooden Racquets

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1980-1984 Snauwaert Vitas Autograph

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1978-1982 Head Vilas

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1975 Garcia Harold Solomon Autograph

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1971-1980 Wilson Stan Smith Autograph

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1975-1981 Bancroft Billie Jean King Personal

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1975-1979 Head Arthur Ashe Competition

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1979 - 1982 Wilson Jack Kramer Pro Staff

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1983 Adidas Nastase Pro

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1981 Adidas Nastase Competition

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1983 Adidas Ilie Nastase

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1971-1977 Wilson Billie-Jean King Autograph

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1976-1985 Chris Evert Autograph

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1982 Dunlop Maxply McEnroe

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1977-1985 Donnay Borg Pro

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1979-1981 Snauwaert Fibre Composite La Grande Rod Laver

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1980 Le Coq Sportif Endorsed by Roscoe Tanner

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1979-1983 Snauwaert Brian Gottfried

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1975-1976 Snauwaert Jan Kodes de luxe

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1981 Le Coq Sportif Yannick Noah Crescendo

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1981 Spalding Pancho Gonzales

Historians are often asked what the very last wooden racket was. Depending on which criterion is taken into consideration for "last", we need to mention 4 historical racquets.

1. The last wooden racket to win Wimbledon, John McEnroe playing the Dunlop Maxply Fort, in 1981.

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Mc Max 81

2. The last woody to win a Grand Slam tournament, Yannick Noah winning the French Open, playing the Le Coq Sportif, in 1983.

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Mc Max 81

3. The last wooden racket to win an ATP tournament. Miloslav Mecir became the last player in tennis history to win a tournament with a wooden racquet winning the trophy of Indian Wells on March 19, 1989. It was also the last title of his career, which was shortened by a back injury.

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Mc Max 81

4. The last wooden tennis racket made. Grays was most likely the last company in the traditional era to produce wooden rackets. The Grays light was the last model of the company before wooden tennis racquets would all but disappear from the scene

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Grays

From steel to composite (1920s - today)

Many of today´s senior players experienced the metal tennis racquets that were widespread in the 1970s. Metal racquets  existed much earlier than what is generally known. The comparably heavy raw material steel was applied as early as the 19th century. At that time, the much lighter aluminum could not be made sufficiently strong in order to held the tension of the strings. The first commercial metal racquets came out in 1922. The Dayton company located in Ohio, USA, designed a steel frame in which the strings themselves were made of wound wire. The distribution was managed by Wilson.

Steel to Composite
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Grays

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Dayton steel, 1922

In 1953, one of the famous 4 Musketeers, René Lacoste, had his own vision of a steel construction. He designed his concept and eventually launched the first steel frame made in Europe. Lacoste's basic idea was to use very light steel. He compensated for the loss of stability by wrapping a wire around the frame. The strings were put around the wire on the inside of the racquet head.

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Lacoste steel, 1960

Lacoste quickly reached its sales limits. Lacoste has always been in the high-price sector. As a result, he had only moderate success in marketing his new product. This did not go unnoticed by the 4th President of Wilson Sporting Goods, William B. Homes. Homes figured that what was achieved with the Dayton in the 1920s would also work in the next decade. No sooner said than done, Homes booked a flight to Paris and negotiated a Wilson license from Lacoste. This move should bring Wilson record sales for years. Back in the US, Homes had his engineers make individual changes to the Lacoste construction. The new racquet was given the name T2000, named after the successful A2000 baseball glove. Advertised for the first time in 1967, it came onto the market in 1968. With Billie-Jean King and Jimmy Connors, Wilson signed the American top players of the scene who made the T2000 world famous. Jimmy Connors won the Wimbledon Championships in 1974 and 1982 with it. After the release of the T2000, store shelves were soon filled with dozens of metal racquets from competing manufacturers. Wood continued to be the dominant material. But the success of the Wilson T2000 was the beginning of the end of the wood era.

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Wilson T2000

The success of the "new" material, steel, encouraged many manufacturers to experiment with new designs. Everyone wanted to bring the most innovative idea to market. There were no specifications as to what a tennis racquet had to look like. John McEnroe once said, "You can go into a match with a baseball bat, the referee won't send you off the field." And so the 70s and 80s were characterized by numerous curiosities coming onto the market. Below we show the most striking inventions between 1970 and 2000.

String Technology

String Techniques

Learn about the most iconic strings in tennis history. Last but not least, it should be a special form of stringing that led to the ITF taking away all freedom from the manufacturers in interpreting how a tennis racket should be constructed.

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Wilson T2000

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Wilson T2000

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Wilson T2000

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Wilson T2000

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Wilson T2000

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Wilson T2000

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Wilson T2000

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Wilson T2000

Weight stabilizing systems

In order to optimize playing characteristics, some players put additional weights on the racquet frame. Jimmy Connors, for instance, used to play his Wilson T2000 with over 400 grams. Some clever manufacturers invented dynamic weight shift systems.

Weight stabilizing
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Rassel

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Liquid

Special forms - shaft & throat

Some manufacturers changed the dimensions in the shaft area compared to a standard racquet. This should improve playing characteristics and the touch.

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Rassel

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Liquid

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Rassel

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Liquid

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Liquid

Special forms - shaft & throat

Some manufacturers changed the dimensions in the shaft area compared to a standard racquet. This should improve playing characteristics and the touch.

Specials Shaft & Throat

Special forms - head shape

The industry by that time was very inventive in the design of the racquet head. The change in the playing characteristics, but above all the visual differentiation from competing products of the tennis market, were the main drivers for the new developments. Some of the most innovative inventions of the time are shown below

Specials Head Shape
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Rassel

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Liquid

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Rassel

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Liquid

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Liquid

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Rassel

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Liquid

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Rassel

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Liquid

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Liquid

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Liquid

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Liquid

The Revolution - The Injection Molding Process

The innovations shown above stirred up the scene. However, most of the professional players sticked to their classic woodies, some of them until the mid of the 1980s. Only with the invention of the injection molding process with a core that can be melted out did the majority of professional players switch to the new composite frames. The injection molding process has been stopped in 1990, but historically we can say that Dunlop stands for the 2 most significant changes in the history of tennis, the maximum layer process for wooden racquets in the early 1930's and the injection molding process in 1982.

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Rassel

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Liquid

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Rassel

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Liquid

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Liquid

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Rassel

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Liquid

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Rassel

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Liquid

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Liquid

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Liquid

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Liquid

Injection Molding
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Dunlop Max 200G

Personal racquets of players from WTA and ATP

A selection of personal racquets that the Berlin Tennis Gallery received from players from WTA and ATP. We would like to take this opportunity to thank all players and manufacturers for their support.

Persoal rackets
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Rassel

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Liquid

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Rassel

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Liquid

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Liquid

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Rassel

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Liquid

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Rassel

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Liquid

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Liquid

Todays tennis racquets in perfection -

From 1500 to Roger Federer

Tennis racquets have existed for over 500 years. Every new product generation contains the experiences of the past. Today, the tennis players´ "extended arm" has reached the level of perfection. The personal racquet of Roger Federer is an example for the complete tennis racquet.

Federer
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Liquid

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