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

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.

After playing in the Cape Cod tournament I became obsessed with wood rackets. I had feverish dreams: wandering through sporting-goods stores, finding Maxplys and Kramers on the racks selling for thousands of dollars. Or playing matches with wood rackets that fell to pieces as I hit the ball. I dreamed of wood rackets the way others dream of childhood--as belonging to a better, more innocent world, a paradise lost. I set out on a mission: to acquire at least one Dunlop Maxply in playing condition. Although my Jack Kramer was certainly a classic model, the Maxply was my idea of the consummate wood racket. Of medium stiffness, it was just right for a balanced mixture of serve-and-volley and base-line play. And its spartan design emphasized its sylvan origins: it really looked like a piece of wood.

Introduced in 1931, by the 1960s and early 1970s it had become the most popular racket in the world, and it still brought to my mind images of the great players who had used it, from Lew Hoad to Rod Layer to McEnroe.

But where would I find one? All summer I scoured tag sales in vain. Surely there had to be some wood rackets in a basement somewhere, waiting to be exhumed and sold off with the LPs, eight-tracks, and typewriters. The closest I came to success, however, was at the local public courts, where I spotted a ten-year-old boy knocking a ball against the battered backboard with an actual Dunlop Maxply, circa 1976. As the boy and his father walked off the court, I approached and asked if they were interested in selling the relic. But I must have betrayed my zeal, for the father's eyes lit up. "This baby?" he said. "Sorry, I love these old rackets." He probably thought from my enthusiasm that he had a collector's item on his hands. But as far as I knew, I was the only market for old Maxplys, and I had just a few dollars to offer.

As it turned out, though, I was not alone. I began to hear about other woody tournaments around the country. "They're cropping up everywhere," a Dunlop product manager told me. The Waltham Racket Club, an indoor club outside Boston, had had one the previous winter. A Dunlop sales representative I got in touch with had played in one in Maine the previous summer. An invitation-only tournament took place in Los Angeles in the fall.

And then, this March, I received a faxed announcement with the automated sender information "From: WOODY H.Q. Wood is Good!" A drawing underneath depicted a 1920s tennis player in long white pants. The ornate announcement made my mouth water. "The Woody Tennis Championships," it read. "A Gentlemen's Grass Court Event." Grass courts!--the one ingredient missing from the Cape Cod tournament. What wood is to graphite, grass is to asphalt. One is natural, bucolic, reminiscent of the game's origins on lush country lawns; the other is synthetic, modern, with the ambiance of a strip mall. And although the play at Wimbledon (the only major tournament still played on grass) might suggest that grass exacerbates the trouble with today's game-power shots skid away even faster, lessening the potential for long rallies--it is the perfect surface for woodracket tennis. One needn't hit a 120 mph serve to have a chance; the quickness of grass allows a serve that is well placed to set up a winning volley. Yet the pace remains slow enough with wood that one needs, and has a chance to use, every shot in the book. The chip return, the slice approach shot, the defensive underspin lob, all find their strategic moment. And the feel of grass underfoot complements the feel of wood in the hand: these are the conditions for which the game was designed. Although I grew up playing mainly on hard courts, tennis with big rackets on asphalt sometimes seems as much an abomination as baseball indoors on AstroTurf.

This attitude is not just nostalgia. You'll never find a downhill race restricted to wood skis, or a rage for tackle football played with leather helmets and no facemasks. Woody tournaments are burgeoning because of a growing conviction that tennis is a better sport when played with conventional rackets. Recently, influential tennis personalities such as Bud Collins and Martina Navratilova (finally) have urged the ITF to consider returning to wood. If the racket companies look back to the great tennis boom of the early 1970s, when the wood racket reigned, and if woody tournaments continue to spread, then who knows?

Such hopeful visions resurfaced as I gazed at the grass courts of the PGA West Tennis Club, in La Quinta, California. Four rectangles of chalk embroidered a level green basin carved out of an elegant lawn and framed by a 180-degree vista of snow-peaked desert mountains.

In my bag rested two aged Maxplys, rescued from Boston thrift shops.

Granville Swope, the man behind the Woody H.Q. fax and a codirector of the Woody Tennis Championships, had invited me to come out and play in the tournament. I could hardly decline. Since the age of ten I have dreamed of playing on grass, and in these dreams, even in recent years, the rackets have always been made of wood.

The reality was no disappointment. The grass, fastidiously manicured for the pleasure of the wealthy, played true. My painful shin splints dissolved on the soft putting-green surface. An impressive gathering of players--teaching pros, former Division 1 college players, some veterans of pro tournaments--knocked around white balls with the wood rackets they'd grown up with, showing little difficulty in the transition. Although some players still served at speeds over 100 mph, most serves were returnable, and long rallies were common. Touch volleys won out where brutal overhead smashes, deadened by the grass, were often lobbed back with ease.

On the day of the finals (which I was not in) I practiced on a back court in bare feet. I was running along a field with a stick in my hand, chasing a flash of white.

These days, when I play tennis, it's almost always with one friend or another who has far less experience than I have on a tennis court, and I use a wood Maxply. At that level wood isn't even a disadvantage--I wouldn't want to utilize the full power of a big racket. We're playing just for fun, and it's more fun with the wood: I can feel the ball with my muscles as I hit, and I can place it instead of pulverizing it. When I play a competitive match, I resort to my modern oversized racket--the joy of wood is lost if I spend the whole match fighting uphill against superior power. The most fun, however, is when my brother and I find time to go to the deserted public clay courts we discovered out in the country. We bring our wood rackets. Long base-line rallies, carefully planned approach shots, and volleys that need to be crisp and angled to win the point: we can almost imagine that big-head rackets went the way of spaghetti strings, and that tennis is still the game it should be.

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