Evolution of the Tennis Racquet

The tennis racquet has come a long way since the time that the earliest version of the game of tennis was played by monks in the monasteries of France. In 800 years the tennis racquet has developed from the crudest of contraptions for protecting the hand, into a space age instrument capable of propelling tennis balls at hundreds of miles an hour.

1100 AD – The Hand

The earliest known tennis racquet was the human hand. Historians tell us that monks played an archaic form of the game in the cloisters of French monasteries, using their hands to strike a ball made from animal skin.

Within a short period of time these tennis players started protecting their hands with gloves, using animal skin to absorb the impact of the ball. Before long, however, players began using wooden paddles to strike the ball, thereby eliminating the discomfort caused by hitting the ball with the hand.

These early origins of the tennis racquet are preserved in its name, which is derived from the Arabic word for the palm of the hand – rakhat.

1300 AD – The Palla

It took two centuries for the primitive paddles used to play tennis with to evolve into the forerunners of the modern tennis racquet. The Italians are credited with this step in the evolution of the tennis racquet, which they achieved by introducing the use of animal gut strung across wooden frames.

This new design was a quantum leap forward in the evolution of the tennis racquet, increasing the shock absorbent properties of the racquet whilst also allowing for more powerful strokes, as well as a greater variety of shots.

Despite similarities in construction, the palla looked very different from the modern racquet, having had a long handle and a small head.

1874 – The Wooden Racquet

In 1874 Major Walter Clopton Wingfield formalised the rules of modern tennis, giving the game the unwieldy name of ‘Sphairistike’. Keen to cash in on his initiative, Wingfield also took it upon himself to market the equipment required to play the game.

While Wingfield’s somewhat cynical attempts to patent the game of tennis proved unsuccessful, he did meet with modest success in his efforts to sell tennis equipment. The racquet sold by Wingfield had a larger head and shorter handle than the palla, and would remain unchanged for the next century.

1976 – The Head Racquet

In 1976 Howard Head, an employee of Prince Tennis Equipment, developed the first metal racquets. A metal frame replaced the existing wooden frame, and the surface area of the head was increased by over 50%.

The Head racquets were an instant hit with intermediate level players, whose games benefited from the use of a lightweight racquet with a large sweet spot for added power. However, the new metal racquets were not popular amongst tennis professionals, who discovered that these racquets offered them less control and accuracy.

1980 – The Graphite Racquet

The need to produce an advanced racquet suitable for professional players drove the development of the graphite racquet. The graphite used for these racquets was not mineral graphite, but rather a name given to a lightweight plastic and carbon fibre composite which gave the new racquets added strength, improving control and accuracy.

The quality of graphite racquets is so high that it has virtually stalled the development of the tennis racquet. Apart from small adaptations to head surface area and frame thickness, graphite racquets have changed little since 1980, with these strong, durable racquets capable providing good performance decades after purchase.

2000+

The tennis racquet has rolled onto an evolutionary plateau. While small modifications to the weight, graphite composition and the aerodynamic properties of racquets will continue, these modifications are unlikely to result in substantial changes to racquet performance.

The next step in the evolution of the tennis racquet is likely to take advantage of advances made in the field of micro electronics. The focus at present is the contact area of the racquet and ensuring that the racquet responds optimally to contact by converting impact energy into electric energy, and then using this energy to strengthen the frame at the moment of impact.

If you enjoyed this post you might also want to check out: