Not long ago I was playing some tennis when something hit me. Rather than the impact of the ball on face it was the impact of the ball on the racket that made me take notice. Old people often say “the game was a lot tougher in my day”, and when it comes to the use of sporting equipment they are quite right.
Until tennis became professional in 1968 there was little competitive investment in racket technology. It is said that from the late 1800s to the mid-late 1900s, specifically 1975, few major developments occurred. While rackets decreased in weight over this time it took the larger racket heads of 1975 to mark a real design development.
Recently I was using a 1960s racket, made of wood and with a small head. Swinging it was like taking part in a weights class and to get power into a shot required an almost tangible effort, like trying to shove a car.
I’d admit that the tension of the strings might not have been adjusted for a number of years (read never) however it was clear that the force needed to play the ball was inherent in the device. Couple this with the tiny sweet spot, where accuracy is achieved, and the racket itself had a high margin for shot error and a high chance of causing player fatigue.
This was compared to using an aluminium frame and large headed racket circa 1980s. Light weight this racket could be swung easily with speed, though even with a short back-swing the tennis ball would fly-off the strings like a rubber bouncy-ball off a brick wall. The large sweet spot helped as well, making almost any shot return possible.
Wouldn’t it be fun to see the greats of today play using the equipment of yesteryear? It would give us a chance to put some of the old footage of Rod Laver and Jimmy Connors into perspective. Sure it would be unfair to judge them equally but it would be interesting to see “fastest serves” and how accurate their shots are using equipment designs from the 1960s?
At least it would make me feel better about getting hit in the head.
(Note: above was submitted to The Sunday Age Sport 19/01/2011.)