Tennis is on the mind. Wimbledon stimulates, memories stir and out from cupboards come tennis rackets not used for a year. Few stop to consider their racket and even fewer use them to their full potential. Yet tennis rackets are an intricate combination of technology, ergonomics and design; fine-tuned to the job at hand – hitting balls.
From the days of wood and gut rackets and the favourite Dunlop Maxply, the technology of racket design has advanced massively, yet it remains with one foot firmly behind a chalk line drawn in the past.
This is most evident in manufacturing techniques. The manufacture of tennis rackets is still largely carried out by traditional methods. Hand-laid carbon-fibre shells, after moulding, are filled with car putty, rubbed down, sprayed, given graphics and finally lacquered – an intensive process creating a very individual product.
As recently as the Eighties, John McEnroe used an injection moulded racket (Dunlop 200g),
Jimmy Connors used a steel one (Wilson T2000) and Martina Navratilova used a carbon/wood composite (Yonex Carbonex). All of these manufacturing methods have since been surpassed by carbon fibre and Kevlar.
With these materials, the stiffness and stringing poundages of rackets have increased, while their weight has decreased, allowing harder hits and faster shots – some say to the detriment of the game. I would argue that this is only a problem on grass courts and can be solved in other ways.
A section of the Tennis Museum in Wimbledon (highly recommended) is dedicated to the development of “specials” rackets. These include cast-aluminium frames, oil-filled frames, “hyper-ergo” handles, dual stringing systems, spaghetti-stringing and numerous other inventions. All are ideas aimed at improving the game and, within the rules, finding an edge (tennis has become one of the biggest sources of patents there is). Yet few have been commercially successful, because they are, by their nature, too specialised.
Developments such as “superlong” or “big head” rackets provide advances without changing the inherent structure of the product, and are accepted by the market. Technical advances, such as the Starmaker system, where individual string tension is analysed to provide a bigger “sweet spot”, are niche developments which only really benefit the accomplished player.
The intention with Titan, developed by Factory Design collaboratively with KDO and racket specialist Rob Chojnacki, is to feature and relish the materials involved in rackets – in this case titanium and carbon – and develop, with hands-on knowledge, interface areas such as the grip and the yoke.
The combination of materials has been carefully chosen to create a strong, practical and visually appealing racket. A titanium adjuster allows tuning of the dynamic relationship between the racket and the ergonomically developed polyurethane moulded grip.
String sets are loaded with iridescent “bruising” dye, which offers a short-term visual reference to the area hit most frequently during play. This allows timing to be fine-tuned, and allows players to see if they are improving.
Many details, even on today’s “super rackets” owe their existence to manufacturing methods of yesterday – the handle shape, for example – and have become intrinsic to the way the rackets are used.
This does not need to be the case. The modern technical nature, and ergonomic requirements, of rackets are not reflected in their design. And they could be – new sports such as roller blading, surfing and wind surfing have product design at their core and openly declare it. Tennis racket design needs careful development to remain practical yet forward-thinking.
If we could just work out how to stop the rain…