Back when tennis rackets were racquets, their heft was that of a wooden club built to double as a snowshoe. Sneakers were canvas-topped galoshes. Hard courts were no more than parking lots with nets.
"And if you didn't want to carry around an extra 15 pounds," remembered Sidney Wood, then a Wimbledon singles champion, now a super senior tournament threat at 72, "you tried not to perspire in your woolen sweater and flannel pants."
Now, by golly and by graphite, the name of the game is high-technology tennis. Shoes with adjustable shock absorbers are afoot. In hand are composition, computer-engineered rackets (regular, mid- and manhole-sized) that are more likely to be endorsed by wind tunnels than autographed by players.
Yellow balls. Two-tone balls. Soft balls. There's even a new hacker's delight from Wilson, a 7% oversize ball for slower play, longer rallies and greater enjoyment.
But those courts? Sadly, barely a quiver of improvement since before Bill Tilden. From gray parking lot to green parking lot is about all. Grass and clay back East. Concrete and asphalt out West.
Until right about now . . . and a sudden, belated devotion to playing surfaces as the latest throe in the dynamism of modern tennis.
NBC president Grant Tinker has ordered a new court for his home and it will be a soft, five-laminate, rubberized, outdoor carpet. Called, cutely, Esprit de Court. At the Racquet Club of Irvine and at the Westshore Tennis Club at Westlake Village and the Pasadena Athletic Club there is look-alike lawn tennis on synthetic grass stabilized by fine sand. That's Omnicourt. There's a plastic mesh said to play like clay and a synthetic rubber and fiberglass surface giving the footing of a boat deck with none of the nausea.
"It's all pretty radical, but an advance that is going hand in glove with other developments such as racquets, shoes, things like that," said George Peebles. He has been building courts of all surfaces for 25 years as owner of Pacific Tennis Courts, with branches from Hawaii to Panorama City. That also covers Peebles' playing territory as a 67-year-old tennis bum and doubles partner of Bobby Riggs. "Nothing has really changed with court surfaces since 1966 and acrylic surfacing. And that was the only change for, oh, 20 or 30 years when you just put down raw concrete with bathroom tiles for lines."
"When I was 40," once said associate U.S. Supreme Court Justice Hugo Black, "my doctor advised me that a man in his 40s shouldn't play tennis. I heeded his advice carefully and could hardly wait until I reached 50 to start again."
So let the record show that tennis accommodates all. Further, let it be known that advances in equipment (from Space-Age knee braces for the lame, to Day-Glo orange balls for the myopic) since the sport exploded in 1970 have allowed almost indefinite participation by older players. Ergo, local and national senior tournaments have formed (with the Montecito Country Club, Santa Barbara, as site of the nationals) where 45-year-olds are callow first-graders among the truly serious veterans who play in a division for 80-year-olds and the rest.
Hard courts, however, have not been quite so easy on the courtiers.
Van Zerbe is the 77-year-old director of tennis at the Montecito Country Club. In father-son doubles (partnered by his middle-aged lad, actor Anthony Zerbe) he once was ranked 15th in the nation. Three months ago, the older Zerbe underwent hip replacement surgery.
"You can bet that 65 years of playing on cement had a lot to do with it," he said.
Jack Kramer is a legend. Davis Cup, Wimbledon and Forest Hills and three-time father--of California hard court tennis, the serve-and-volley game and professional tennis.
He also limps from bad hips. "Until I turned pro and was forced to play around the world, I played nothing but concrete," Kramer recalled. "It's a pounding."
Resurfacing the Court
So Kramer, as a compromise with doctor's orders, is resurfacing the court at his home at La Quinta--with the cushioned Esprit de Court.
Zerbe, although banned from hard courts until his hip was ready, did play tennis during convalescence--on his club's grass, the original court surface currently being imitated and replaced by man-made piles, even at Wimbledon where a lone Omnicourt has been in experimental use for almost two years.
"Last year, maybe one out of 100 who called would inquire about the possibility of soft surfaces," reported Paul Geyer of Pacific Tennis Courts. "Now 25% of the callers are inquiring about those surfaces and of all the courts we are doing now (250 a year) about 10% will be soft surface."
Cartilage damage. Shin splints. Stress fractures. The results of slamming bones against concrete, say sports physicians, are quite predictable. Even among younger players. Especially among older hitters.