Updated: Aug 17
13 July , 2020. I take a look back to the 1970th. White shirts, white shorts, and short white tennis dresses adorned the green hard courts, along with white caps and floppy white "Aussie" hats. The tennis balls were white too. Most striking of all, looking thin and frail hanging from the arms of the
players, were the wood rackets: Dunlop Maxply Fort, Wilson Jack Kramer Autograph, Chris Evert Autograph. From the early 1970s, when racket manufacturers were experimenting with new metal designs, a bread-and-butter advertising campaign bragged of "the power of metal, with the feel of wood." Every kid learning the game quickly came to know that steel was for power and wood for control. The consensus, though, was that the strength you got with metal was not enough to make up for the loss of touch. Connors swore by his T2000 (customized with lead tape to weight the head), but for the most part wood held its ground.
Then, in 1976, Howard Head stepped in and changed tennis forever. Having given the world the metal ski and the composite tennis racket, Head had retired from his namesake company and was wishing that he could get more power into his tennis game. The result was the first big-head racket, and a new company, Prince. At first the comical green giant of a racket that was the Prince prototype
met with general resistance. Older women on the courts were suddenly volleying much better, but the main reaction to the Prince Classic was laughter. The company's next model, the sleek black Prince Pro, helped win over some male players, but for a few years the oversized racket remained an object of scorn. However, by 1981, although Bjorn Borg and John McEnroe were still winning championships with wood, most junior players had made the switch. The power of the big rackets was too much to forswear. In 1982 Chris Evert won the U.S. Open with a conventional-sized racket, but the majority of players at the Open wielded big rackets, and for the first time more than half of all rackets sold were oversized. That was the year Martina Navratilova switched to the big elliptical head of the Yonex R-7 just three weeks before the French Open and won it for the first time. Navratilova became the first player to win a major tournament with a big-head racket (Mats Wilander became the second the following day), and helped to make 1982 the Year of the Switch. "When big rackets first came out," she said at the time, "I thought they should have been outlawed. But since they weren't, why shouldn't I use one too?"
In 1980 the International Tennis Federation had convened to discuss its options regarding oversized rackets and "spaghetti strings," another 1970s innovation, in which the strings were kept loose and
wrapped with coils of various materials to produce unprecedented spin on the ball. The ITF passed tennis's first official specifications for strings and rackets, outlawing spaghetti strings but allowing oversized rackets. This enabled the introduction, in 1987, of wide-body rackets that made the normal oversized rackets relatively as weak as wood ones had been. In the 90th we already had monstrosities like the new Prince Vortex, which used "a graphite-fiber-reinforced thermoplastic viscoelastic polymer" to create variable flexibility. 40 years after the ITF' s anemic regulations were enacted, most tennis fans lament the state of the professional men's game, in which a typical point consists of an ace, or perhaps one or two cannonball shots after the serve. The power that professionals can summon from state-of-the-art rackets is simply too much for the delicate touch game of yore to survive. Players like Goran Ivanesevich, who had a Herculean serve and not much more (by professional standards), dominated the game.
Revisionist proposals for improving the game have surfaced from time to time: make the balls heavier; make the court larger; take away the second serve. But this is like curing halitosis by distributing nose plugs. Is the solution too simple to see? Bring back wood. Major-league baseball requires wood bats for a similar reason--so that players don't start hitting a hundred homers a season, and 12-10 doesn't become a routine score. But tennis-racket companies are making too much money to let wood return without a fight: in 1975 the Dunlop Maxply--as good a wood racket as then existed--cost $25; by 1980 a decent oversized racket cost at least $100, and now many popular models cost more than $150. If the players and fans had made a stand in 1980, they could have persuaded the ITF to require conventional equipment for the pros, as in baseball. In fact, they could do it now without impinging on the racket companies' wealth, because most amateurs would still buy oversized rackets, just as softball players and amateur baseball players (even in the NCAA) use aluminum bats. But 40 years' worth of big-head professional tennis will be difficult to overcome.
In April of 1991 Bjorn Borg reappeared on the professional tennis circuit after a mysterious nine-year absence--mysterious because when he retired, at the end of 1981, he was twenty-six years old, in the best physical shape a human being can be in, and had won five of the past six Wimbledons, not to
mention the past four French Opens. Borg had said he was simply sick of tennis. But perhaps he was also sick of what he saw tennis becoming. Although he and McEnroe fought their historic battles with wood in their hands, big-head Huns were visible on the horizon. How were these aging touch-and-speed players supposed to hold their ground? Sure enough, by 1983 McEnroe was wielding a midsized graphite Dunlop. Connors was still standing by his stash of old T2000s, but after that year he would never win another major tournament. And Borg was gone with the wood. When he resurfaced after ten years, he looked like one of King Arthur's knights on a Connecticut Yankee's backyard court. Young, powerful paladins battled one another on the red clay of Monte Carlo, blasting serves with the latest generation of oversized, widebody rackets. And there was Borg stepping onto the clay, pigeon-toed as ever, dangling from his right hand a black wood anachronism, custom-made by Gray's of Cambridge to replicate his old Donnay model. He never had a chance. Although he was still in top physical condition, his shots looked ludicrously soft, floating lazily across the net before taking a beating from Jordi Arrese's oversized racket. Six-two, six-three, and the comeback was over for now. Borg quietly canceled his plans to enter the French Open.
The next summer he was back, resigned to the times, swinging a bright-orange big-head racket. At the U.S. Pro Championships, a nontour event at the Longwood Cricket Club, near Boston, he strode to the court through a tunnel of admirers befitting a rock star, his sharp Viking features humbly tilted to the ground. And he almost pulled it off, winning his first match before losing in the quarter finals to Alexander Volkov, the twenty-second-ranked player in the world, 7-5 in the deciding third set. It would be his last gasp. A few months later the comeback was over for good, and Borg moved to the Master's circuit with his old nemesis Connors, who now also sported a flashy new oversized racket.
Get the shot from the shop!
Mail to the editor