A Poor Craftsman

In this article, Paul Bailey goes on at some length about how great Roger Federer is, arguing that he’s in fact the greatest tennis player of all time. I think it’s pretty early in his career to be making that claim; the two people you’d normally consider for that position are Rod Laver, who swept the four Grand Slam titles in both ’62 and ’69, and Pete Sampras, with 14 Grand Slam wins altogether. And that’s ignoring the women’s game entirely, where there’s Steffi Graf with 22 Slam titles, and Martina Navratilova, who’s record I urge you to treat with the appropriate amount of awe because it’s insane and that woman is some kind of cyborg professional-tennis-playing machine.

Anyway, Federer: yes, he’s scary good. But the other claim that gets a lot of play in his article, and indeed in the world, is the idea that it’s only partly about the athletes, and mostly about the technology:

“With the hardening of professionalism and before the arrival of Federer, a certain gracefulness began to disappear from the game. That was exacerbated by the advent of new technology. Wooden rackets had to have small heads and short strings, the frames not strong enough to keep longer strings in tension. Graphite gives more strength and size to the frame, without adding any weight, giving a larger sweet spot. The power of today’s game is only partly generated by the players themselves. Much of it comes from their rackets.”

This is a common lament that you hear from a lot of long-time tennis fans, but it’s also just plain old not true.

Around 1997 or thereabouts, Tennis Magazine took one of the biggest hitters in the game, Mark Philippoussis, and gave him three racquets, a classic wood-frame raquet, an an extra-long oversize frame that (A Dunlop, I think), and put the radar gun on him, while he hit a few serves. The racquets had been strung by his personal stringer, and when they clocked them, what they found wasn’t all that surprising – he was hitting them within a few miles per hour of each other with all three frames.

The original graphite frames were pretty much the same size as the wood frames of the day, and even today you can buy frames off the shelf at your local pro shop that are no bigger than the wood frames from the bad old days. The thing you can’t get, though, is any frame made with the single-stem design. Not a lot of people remember the details of the shift from wood to graphite, but for a little while there you could get oversized wood frames with the split-fork design that played so much better than the conventional frames of the day that it was crystal clear that it didn’t matter so much what material the raquet was made of, because the old design was now obsolete.

It’s not really about the weight of the material – a professional tennis player’s raquet has all kinds of things done to it that you can’t usually see, some of which make them dramatically heavier; Sampras had four six-inch strips of lead tape around the edge of his Wilson Pro Staff, a frame that was originally made in the late 70s. Some pros have the handle or whole frame injected with silicone. It’s not so much about the size of the frame, either – Federer like Sampras before him, uses an 85 square inch frame, no bigger than your average wood frame back in the dark ages.

But the split frame part – that’s your new technology, right there. It keeps the frame from twisting in your hand, lets you control off-center hits better and just generally makes the game hugely more playable. Maybe it’s a semantic difference, but the fact that you can control the ball better with the new frames means that you can take a bigger swing at them, and it will work more often. It’s not that it is now possible to make shots that weren’t possible before – just that, in general, your shots will be much more reliable. The difference that the new technology makes is all about consistency and control, not power.

As an aside, a few years ago Prince manufactured a frame called the Mono, an oversize, graphite version of that old single-stem raquet design. Predictably, it turned out to be just as unusable as the old woodies were. I think they might have sold about twelve of them.

You want to know what the biggest difference is, between the old days and the new ones? Money. Lots of money, which is the same as lots of incentive to train. The caliber of athlete who played tennis forty years ago is simply not comparable to the people who play professional tennis today. That’s where your extra power is coming from – bigger, stronger players. The days when Karsten Braasch calmed down by smoking a cigarette between sets are as long gone as the days when it was considered poor form to make your opponent break a sweat.

People who decry the state of tennis in this modern age, well, you’ll probably find that they’re the sort of people who routinely use words like “decry”. But to those people, I ask you to go back and give it a try the old way. Get some of your friends together, get some of those old wood frames and see if what comes out the other end of that reminds you of the tennis you enjoy. Take it from me, because I’ve done it – it’s the opposite of fun.

One Comment

  1. Ian Hurst
    Posted January 9, 2006 at 8:23 pm | Permalink

    “With the hardening of professionalism and before the arrival of Federer, a certain gracefulness began to disappear from the game. That was exacerbated by the advent of new technology. Wooden rackets had to have small heads and short strings, the frames not strong enough to keep longer strings in tension. Graphite gives more strength and size to the frame, without adding any weight, giving a larger sweet spot. The power of today’s game is only partly generated by the players themselves. Much of it comes from their rackets.”

    This is a common lament that you hear from a lot of long-time tennis fans, but it’s also just plain old not true.

    Fair enough, though, whether the cause is technology or training or steroids or something else doesn’t really matter: for spectators, the top level game in the last, oh, 5 years has been, um, terribly boring. Tennis is probably the only sport I actually enjoy watching on TV, but 2 hours of Venus & Roddick belting fireballs across the court from the baseline is a simply awful way to spend your time. Even when somebody like Federer trounces them, the feeling is simply “ehn, good”. I hardly enjoy anything but doubles anymore (though it’s still fun to see Agassi play, simply for how hard he works to stay in with the very best).

    Of course, playing is totally different. I’m such an abominably miserable player, the equipment is all that keeps the ball on the court…