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An Evolutionary History of Tennis Racquets

Part II: From Wood to Advanced Composites

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A racquet with a metal head existed as early as 1889 (photo), but it never saw widespread use. Wood's use as a frame material didn't undergo any real challenge until 1967, when Wilson Sporting Goods introduced the first popular metal racquet, the T2000. Stronger and lighter than wood, it became a top seller, and Jimmy Connors became its most famous user, playing at the top of men's professional tennis for much of the 1970's using the long-throated, small-headed steel frame.

In 1976, Howard Head, then working with the Prince brand, introduced the first oversized racquet to gain widespread popularity, the Prince Classic. Weed USA is quick to point out, though, that they had introduced an oversized racquet in 1975. The Weed racquets never took off, but the Prince Classic and its more expensive cousin, the Prince Pro, were top sellers. Both had aluminum frames and a string area more than 50 percent larger than the standard 65 square inch wood racquet.

The light weight, huge sweet spot, and greatly increased power of these first oversized racquets made tennis much easier for non-advanced players, but for powerful, advanced players, the mixture of flexibility and power in the frames resulted in too much unpredictability in where the ball would end up. Hard, off-center shots would momentarily distort the aluminum frame, changing the direction in which the string plane was facing, and the lively string bed would then send the ball rocketing off in a somewhat unintended direction.

Advanced players needed a stiffer frame material, and the best material proved to be a mixture of carbon fibers and a plastic resin to bind them together. This new material acquired the name "graphite," even though it isn't true graphite such as you would find in a pencil or in lock lubricant. The hallmark of a good racquet quickly became graphite construction. By 1980, racquets could pretty much be divided into two classes: inexpensive racquets made of aluminum and expensive ones made of graphite or a composite. Wood no longer offered anything that another material couldn't provide better -- except for antique and collectible value.

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