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.

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.