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The Tennis Racket: A Brief History

Tennis is the sixth most popular sport in the world, with 60 million people playing regularly, according to research. Prior to the Covid-19 lockdown in March, the number of players in Britain had increased, with an extra 131,019 taking up the sport in 12 months, according to the Lawn Tennis Association.

There has been a resurgence in the popularity of tennis in recent years, with major tournaments, such as Wimbledon, creating a buzz every year. In fact, during Wimbledon fortnight, the LTA says there’s usually a 30% increase in the number of people booking tennis courts.

Historic Tennis Rackets

© maxcam / Adobe Stock

How have tennis rackets developed over the years?

The tennis racket is the most important piece of personal equipment a player will use. Around seven million rackets are sold every year in the global market, according to statistics released by the JEC Group. Around 40% of them have aluminium frames.

Tennis rackets have been the subject of continual innovation over the years, not only in terms of their shape, but also for the materials used in their manufacture. While solid wood remained the staple of a racket for generations, this eventually gave way to steel and then aluminium in the 20th century.

In the 21st century, these are being replaced by composite materials, with the one-time fibreglass reinforcement being overtaken by carbon in the most recent innovations.

Who invented the tennis racket?

Historians believe the earliest version of tennis was invented by the ancient Egyptians, but they didn’t use rackets. Instead, they struck the ball with the palm of their hand (called the “rahat”), which was said to have been the origin of the word “racket”.

Prior to the 14th century, tennis-type games were played using bare hands, but French monks realised there must be a better way to hit the ball over the net, after suffering finger injuries. Initially, they began to wear specially designed leather gloves. Then, they decided to use solid wooden paddles, finally progressing onto what resembled a racket in the 14th century.

Did rackets change in size and materials?

The early rackets’ strings were made of animal gut, bound on a large wooden frame. They were more of a teardrop shape, compared to the oval we know today, with a long handle made of wood.

An early description of a tennis racket in the 15th century said it was made of cork wrapped in cloth, with strings fashioned from sheep’s intestines. The cloth was later replaced by leather. Rackets didn’t need to be particularly sturdy, since the balls weighed only around three ounces and were made of cork.

This type of basic racket didn’t change until the 19th century, when the first modern racket was invented by Major Walter Clopton Wingfield, a British Army officer, who had graduated from the Royal Military College, Sandhurst.

Despite his military background, he was also an inventor and the pioneer of lawn tennis. He invented a game called “sphairistiké” – a Greek phrase meaning “playing at ball”, in 1874. His new game required specialist rackets and courts that were the first version of today’s modern tennis courts.

The racket he invented was made of solid wood, making it very heavy due to its large size, including a particularly wide head to make it easier to hit the ball. As the sport gained popularity, this type of racket became the standard for tennis in the 19th century.

The wooden racket remained almost the same until 1947, when a new, more flexible, laminated wooden frame was introduced. During the 20th century, the main manufacturers of wooden tennis rackers included Slazenger, Dunlop, Wilson and Spalding. Smaller manufacturers tended to close down, as they couldn’t compete with the giants of the industry.

Did changes in tennis racket design help with performance?

Although people associated metal rackets with the late 20th century, they had been around for much longer as early prototypes, but never really took off. The first metal racket was patented in 1957 by René Lacoste. Wilson bought the rights to it and their metal racket first appeared in the 1969 Wilson catalogue.

Famous American player, Jimmy Connors, ensured metal rackets gained mass popularity in the 1970s as a result of his amazing success using a powerful steel racket. It had a devastating effect on many of his opponents who used wooden rackers and the metal version finally took off.

These new monster metal rackets had heads twice the size of those of their earlier wooden ancestors in the 19th century. The Wilson T2000 metal racket was the most innovative, thanks to its large head providing maximum power.

In the late 1970s and early 80s, graphite rackets began to gain popularity, as they were used by famous players such as Arthur Ashe, John McEnroe and Steffi Graf. Extremely light, they weighed only around 12.5 ounces. Today, they can weigh as little as seven ounces.

Manufacturers in the 21st century are continually experimenting with new materials, such as titanium, to try and improve the rackets’ performance further. There are various specifications for rackets today, such as power or ultimate control versions. Different specs are achieved by changing the size of the head, or the size and shape of the handle. Players are always striving for perfection and are happy to try out whatever the inventors come up with to achieve greater success.

What’s the latest type of tennis racket on the market?

Head has just released a new type of racket made of a piezoelectric material. The piezoelectric effect describes the material’s ability to generate an electric charge when mechanical stress is applied.

When the ball hits the strings (which are made of the piezoelectric material), this creates electrical energy that is said to help the player have a better hit. This electrical energy then passes back into the piezoelectric ceramic composites integrated into the frame.

Combined with the modern courts’ design, that features specially-painted surfaces to offer more bounce and control, the latest state-of-the-art tennis rackets help players to make their shots more accurate and stronger.

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