The Feel of Wood

As a growing number of players are rediscovering, tennis is at its best when the racket is the traditional size-and made of wood

In late June of 1994 the Sesuit Tennis Center, on Cape Cod, looked like 1974. 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.

Looking around as I walked to the base line to serve, I felt as if I were back at the Kendalltown Tennis Club, in suburban Miami, twenty years earlier. The only thing missing was the once popular Wilson T2000-steel scepter of the brat king, Jimmy Connors. For this was the First Annual Woody Tournament of Cape Cod, the local exemplar of a recent nationwide phenomenon. No steel, aluminum, graphite, titanium, or composite need apply. If it didn't come from a tree, leave it at home.

To some, the premise of the tournament may have been a novelty; my firstround opponent had never before played with wood. To others, it meant merely the resurfacing of a quaint memory--"Can you believe we actually played with these things?" But to me--and to many others, I soon discovered--it was something much more.

In the week before the tournament, as I practiced with my old Kramers (last used in 1982, my first year of college tennis), I was visited by a long-forgotten pleasure: the feel of wood. Sure, it was harder to find the sweet spot on the smaller head; and even when I did, there was none of the space-age power of today's launch pads. It required a lot more skill to hit any particular shot. At the net I really had to volley, with the correct half-swing form; I couldn't just stick out my shield and rely on its innate power. Fundamental technique, remembered deep in the muscles, became critical again.

The game was also more fun.

In 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. And now we have monstrosities like the new Prince Vortex, which uses "a graphite-fiber-reinforced thermoplastic viscoelastic polymer" to create variable flexibility. Fifteen 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. A player like Goran Ivanesevich, who has a Herculean serve and not much more (by professional standards), can reach the finals at Wimbledon.

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 fifteen years' worth of big-head professional tennis will be difficult to overcome.

My brother and I were among the last defenders of wood rackets. As college teammates--his senior year, 1982, was my freshman year--we stood alone with our toothpicks against an approaching army of oversized technological wonders. Through the regular season Ron, with his enviable speed and touch, managed to remain undefeated in the No. 1 position, against a barrage of scientifically enhanced cannonball serves. At the Division 3 national championships in Kalamazoo he was virtually the only player in the sixty-four-man draw using a conventional racket. He remembers it as an immense psychological (not to mention physical) disadvantage--like fighting against rifles with bows and arrows. In the first round he lost a close match to the No. 2 seed.

That fall I showed up at school with two new midsized aluminum Yonex R-1s. Having to compete against the new rackets, I decided there was no point in clinging to wood--it just made me feel weak and small. But at the woody tournament last year, I saw all over again how the ineluctable march of technology had degraded tennis. It's a better sport with wood.

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.

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