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Power the Name of the Game

Designers look back for inspiration to create next generation of tennis rackets.

June 26, 2005|From Associated Press

WIMBLEDON, England — Designers have been using the latest materials and technology to improve tennis rackets for decades.

Now, some are looking back a couple of millennia to Roman civilization for inspiration.

Prince, which has been making rackets for 30 years, has expanded the traditional pin-size string holes on the rim into ovals -- a design based on the principal of the arch.

The six ovals on the top and seven on each side are said to expand the sweet spot by up to 54 percent.

"It's more powerful for sure," said Prince user Mashona Washington, who reached the third round at Wimbledon last week. "With today's game, the girls are hitting the ball so hard, so big, you take any little extra help you can get."

The arch technology may not be for everyone, but most designers agree that rackets need to be light, aerodynamic and powerful.

"At Wimbledon, if you look 10 years ago, the speed has changed dramatically -- the player can stand more and the racket can, too," said Herfried Lammer, director of research and development for Head, which supplies rackets for Andre Agassi and Marat Safin.

"They were heavier, too. Now you can react faster. If you used a racket made five years ago, it wouldn't be possible to compete on tour."

Head's Flexpoint technology puts dimples and control holes on the top and side of the racket. Head says that reduces the height of the frame, increases flexibility and responds to the impact of the ball like a human hand.

The new racket "gives me longer ball contact so I can hit the ball harder and feel I've got better control over the ball," Agassi said.

Steve Haake, from the sports engineering department at the University of Sheffield in England, has been working with the International Tennis Federation for the past 10 years looking at rackets, balls and surfaces.

"Looking at the new technology, it does make a difference," Haake said. "But how much is the player and how much is the racket technology? The racket is under 10 percent. You can't necessarily win a race just by having the best car."

Weight has been one of the biggest changes. Wooden rackets weighed 14 ounces, while rackets today weigh 10.5 ounces or less.

"With a wooden racket, you'd probably get tired much quicker than you do now," Haake said.

Jimmy Connors was the first big-name player to make the switch from wood, using a metal Wilson T-2000 racket in 1974 when he won the title at Wimbledon by beating Ken Rosewall, who was still using wood. In 1975, Arthur Ashe won at Wimbledon with a composite racket from Head.

Bjorn Borg won all 11 of his Grand Slam titles from 1974-81 with a wooden racket. When Borg came back in 1991 at the Monte Carlo Open -- still using wood -- he lost in straight sets to Jordi Arresse, who was using a graphite model.

Over the decades, metal frames changed to aluminum, then to carbon fiber, also known as graphite, then to titanium and now have Kevlar in them.

Before 1970, all racket heads were the same size. Then there was mid-size, widebody and oversize, all differently affecting the sweet spot -- the area where higher ball velocity can be developed.

The ITF now says that a racket cannot be wider than 12 1/2 inches or longer than 29 inches, including the handle.

"In today's game, the speed is maybe one of the most important features," said Roberto Gazzara, director of research and development for Prince. "You make the same effort to swing a racket, but the racket swings better because it is more aerodynamic. You can get to the ball faster, you can swing faster, you can hit harder."

All the major manufacturers released new rackets for the professional season at the Australian Open, but most tennis players are reluctant to switch rackets in the middle of the year.

Nikolay Davydenko went from Head to Prince just after the Rome Masters in May. Later that month, he reached the semifinals of the Hamburg Masters, and won at St. Poelten. He then reached the semifinals of the French Open -- his best Grand Slam showing.

He retired from Wimbledon in the second round with a wrist injury.

Maria Sharapova, the defending Wimbledon champion, plans to switch to Prince's new racket at the end of this season.

Two-time defending Wimbledon champion Roger Federer, Venus and Serena Williams, Lindsay Davenport and Justin Henin-Hardenne all use Wilson, which has the n-code racket.

Wilson says the new racket, which has tiny silicone oxide crystals injected into voids in the carbon fiber frame, is twice as strong and about 22 percent more powerful than its previous version.

But seven-time Grand Slam winner John McEnroe doesn't put too much faith in the tweaks in racket technology.

"The guys, they're bigger, stronger, better, and better prepared," he said. "They have coaches, trainers, nutritionists. And what's ironic is that they're telling these guys they have to make rackets with more power."

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