What revolutionized the game of tennis? Was it the heavy baseline topspin of Bjorn Borg or the early-ball technique of Agassi?
None, according to the studies of Rod Cross, technical advisor for the U.S. Racquet Stringers Association, it is the change from wooden racquets to graphite racquets which were an inch or two wider than the conventional ones!
The modern game of tennis is played at a furious pace compared with the old days when everyone used wooden racquets.
Today’s game has players grunting and screaming on every shot, calling for the towel every third shot, and launching themselves off the court with the ferocity of their strokes.
The difference is obviously due to the change from wood to graphite racquets, which happened during the late 1970s and early 1980s.
Everyone concluded that graphite racquets were much stronger, lighter, and more powerful, while the players themselves somehow became taller, stronger, and fitter. How else could the game have changed so drastically?
The real reason for the change is more subtle. It’s because racquets got wider. Wooden racquets were always 9 inches wide and 27 inches long, so players could check the 36-inch height of the net by putting one racquet on top of another.
Today most racquets are still 27 inches long, but they are now 10 to 12 inches wide. They are also lighter, which means they are less powerful, but it also means that players can swing them faster, which they need to do just to get back the power they lost when they became lighter.
When players started swinging their racquets faster, they noticed an interesting effect—they generated more topspin on the ball. So they started hitting the ball even harder, which made the ball spin faster, and it still dipped into the court.
Not only that, the added swing velocity wasn’t resulting in mishits, due to the larger sweet zone and extra inch or two of frame clearance.
The extra frame clearance allowed players to start swinging upwards at the ball to get even more spin, and they rotated the racquet in their hand to a Western grip in order to swing at even steeper angles to the ball.
That grip gave them problems with their backhand, so they had to grip the handle with the both hands to tilt the frame back into a vertical position.
The faster they hit the ball, the faster it spun, and the faster it spun, the harder they could hit it. That’s why players today usually have both feet off the ground when they hit the ball, and it’s why they need to grunt and scream.
The 10-inch racquet can be swung upwards at 27 degrees or tilted forward by 27 degrees, and it will then present to the ball exactly the same area of string as a 9-inch racquet.
No one tilts the racquet forward by as much as 27 degrees, but they now swing up into the ball at angles of 30 degrees or more to generate topspin. Tilting the racquet head forward slightly generates even more topspin.
Players were given an inch in the 1970s and they took a mile. The ball now spins four or five times faster than it did before the 1970s. An increase in just one inch allowed an amazing increase in spin due to steeper, faster swings and a tilting of the racquet forward by up to 5 degrees, all without clipping the frame.
Reference: Racquets Sports Industry magazine, Technical Tennis: Racquets, Strings, Balls, Courts, Spin, and Bounce by Rod Cross and Crawley Lindsey