The sport of tennis has morphed from the genteel pursuit of gentlemen atop lawns to the guttural slug fest we now witness on synthetic courts. The key to the continuing change in the game is the evolution of its central component"the racquet.
Players of now would be shocked to learn that many of yore scoffed at any intrusion between flesh and frame"they played grasping the wood in their hands without the comfort that cushioned overgrips of now provide. French Monks are credited with inventing the first version of the game in the 11th century and they didn't even use the first paddles, they just smacked the ball with their hands.
Apart from canonising the rules and court dimensions that tennis still adheres to in spirit, Major Walter Clopton Wingfield also made the first widely available and acclaimed wooden frame in 1874. A hundred years later, Bjorn Borg was still using a wooden frame when he won his first French Open title. His sixth and last French title would come in 1981 and the Swede continued to show disdain for the advancements of technology. Wood was his weapon of choice as he accumulated 11 Slams before losing motivation at the ripe young age of 26!
Borg stayed wooden but the game had leapt ahead. The major difference between the hewn plank that Wingfield patented and later-age wooden racquets was lamination technology but the difference between what Borg used and what his contemporaries were embracing was space age.
The steel frame has been immortalised by the most successful player ever on the men's tour. Jimmy Connor's record of 109 titles is the one number that eludes history-terminator: Roger Federer.
For tennis aficionados, however, the one landmark that defines Connors is his use of the Wilson T2000 frame to such devastating efficiency that he would reign over world tennis as number one for 160 weeks (Federer did surpass this in 2007). That despite drinking Coca-Cola during changeovers (only goes on to prove that it's the man and his mind that really matters, not always the fancy supplements designed with precise monitoring of gut micro-flora)!
John McEnroe would go on to the graphite composite frame, Dunlop Max 200G, to forever destroy the myth that the 'feel' of wood could not be replicated by anything made by man. The ultimate touch player who hit every shot in the book with just one grip hastened the demise of wood even as the same racquet ushered in the power hitting of the modern era. The other greats who used the same frame was Steffi Graf who forever changed the women's game with her bazooka forehand and a first serve that rocketed her to the echelons of GOAT (greatest of all time).
The 1990s saw the emergence of aerodynamics and racqets that had been designed in wind tunnels. But before that there was a frame, the Wilson Pro Staff, that unites legends from the era of Chris Evert to the now of Federer. The very same racquet propelled Pete Sampras to his pistol heydays while also serving as his Damocles when he faced a 19-year-old Federer across the net at Wimbledon 2001.
The new frames in the market now hover in the range of 300 gm, far lighter than the 400 gm of wood. The hitting area has grown from 65 square inches to a 90 to 110 range.
That, in turn, increases the revolutions per minute generated through topspin. So, we now have a Rafael Nadal who is able to spin the ball so hard that it dips in scarily to allow him crazy angles. Could he have done the same with wood? No way. Borg also made a career based on topspin ground strokes but the technology in hand just did not allow him to make the ball go as berserk as Nadal.
The changing racquet technology has already revolutionised the game's technique. Gone are the roundhouse forehand backswings of Gabriela Sabatini and Ivan Lendl, Sampras or Boris Becker. The power generated by the frames allows for a more open stance forehand and the classical stepping in technique of the likes of McEnroe has disappeared forever.
The new frames have not only changed technique, they have forced the tennis world to change its very basics. After the 2001 Wimbledon final between Patrick Rafter and Goran Ivanisevic became a boring domination of the serve, the International Tennis Federation (ITF)changed rules to make for bigger slower balls. Wimbledon would go on to jettison its much-vaunted clutch on tradition to change the very grass that saw Becker and Sampras sprout.
New-age frames are being developed with the complexity and the experimentation that 3D printing allows. The day is not far when racquet technology evolves to the level that will allow players to be ambidextrous enough to play two forehands and serve wide angles with both hands! Pray, the ITF steps in before the game is morphed forever from a test of human mettle in favour of the technologically adept.
Sukhwant Basra is a former national sports editor of the Hindustan Times