The history of tennis rackets starts simple, with wooden rackets being the most widely used for several years, and then moving towards steel rackets, composite rackets, metal rackets, and carbon fiber rackets. Almost all of the rackets stayed the same size, until later on in the game when many companies started experimenting with larger surface areas.
In this article, we aim to detail the history of tennis rackets. We’ll take a look at the size, shape, material, creation process, etc. of tennis rackets throughout history. We’ll find out just how we got to the tennis rackets we see in courts today, as well as look into what kind of tennis rackets we might see in the future.
Why did it Start?
Tennis rackets were invented in the middle of the 18th century. Monks in France created a game that was very similar to tennis, but they didn’t use rackets. The monks started with using their bare hands to hit the ball back and forth over something similar to a net, but then it shifted into the monks wearing leather gloves.
After the monks started getting injured from playing with their hands, they decided to shift to paddles. Players first used solid wooden paddles, and then that transferred to what we would now call a racket in the 14th century.
This early medieval racket had strings made of gut and was bound in a large wooden frame. They were shaped in more of a teardrop shape, with a long wooden handle. They were used to hit a dead ball over a net-type structure instead of against a wall as played initially with a squash ball.
The modern wooden tennis racket was invented several centuries later, and the game started to shift more into what we know tennis to look like today.
The very first tennis racket was made in 1874 in London by Major Walter C. Wingfield. This racket was large, heavy, and made of solid wood, meaning it could deal some severe damage!
Wooden rackets started to be used in the middle of the nineteenth century when lawn tennis was invented and beginning to gain popularity. The wooden rackets used in this period were created with a wide head so that it was easier to use the ball, but the rackets were also relatively heavy.
They were flexible, however, and this allowed for a fair playing field for everyone who ended up playing the game. The wooden racket stayed mostly the same for about 100 years! Excluding laminated wooden rackets, which started to gain in popularity in 1947 and was a game-changer for many players.
Dunlop, Slazenger, Wilson, and Spalding all dominated the wooden tennis racket industry. Most other competitors died out during this era due to their lack of innovation and the already established big companies. The two biggest tennis rackets of this time were the Dunlop Maxply Fort and the Wilson Jack Kramer.
Throughout the century that wooden rackets were used, metal rackets tried time and time again to gain in popularity without being successful. Metal rackets had been around since 1889, but never saw widespread use. However, in the 1970s, Jimmy Connors used a now-famous steel racket that showed off just how powerful metal rackets could be against wooden ones.
Connors’ devastating victory against Ken Rosewell was proof that the metal tennis racket industry had taken off. The heads were twice the size of the wooden tennis racket heads that were traditionally used in the century prior.
The metal rackets started in 1957 when René Lacoste invented and patented the first metal tennis racket for use. Wilson (the famous tennis racket company) eventually bought the rights to it, and so the metal racket made its first appearance in a Wilson catalog in 1969.
The first Wilson metal racket, the T2000, was unlike any wood racket at the time. It had a 67 square inch head, which allowed for maximum power. By 1917, Wilson (who had been making wooden rackets since 1917) was fully composite and metal materials in their catalogs.
Aluminum rackets had taken off after gaining in popularity during Connors’ time, but players soon grew weary of the flexibility that these rackets posed on the court. Hard-hitting shots would momentarily create flexibility in the aluminum frame, changing the direction in which the string plane was facing. The string bed would then send the ball rocketing off in a somewhat unintended direction.
As a result of the unpredictability of the aluminum rackets, the major companies started to put out graphite rackets. These rackets were both less flexible than the metal rackets originally produced. They had less weight to them, which meant that they were lighter to weld and had more room to add power to each swing.
Arthur Ashe was the first person to use a 100% graphite tennis racket, although not the most popular of the tennis players who have used this style of racket. Probably the first famous graphite rackets were used by John McEnroe and Steffi Graf in 1980.
At this point in the 20th century, graphite rackets weighed about 12.5 ounces. Now that today’s rackets are changing in material (although sticking to having graphite mixtures) they can weigh as little as 7 ounces.
Since the evolution to graphite, rackets haven’t changed much in material. All rackets have some graphite in them for the flexibility and stability, while still maintaining a great power to them.
Some companies have experimented with adding in other materials such as titanium and Kevlar to see if the racket will improve. So far, nothing radical has changed in how they make rackets. Kevlar is similar to graphite, with the only differences being that it is lighter, stiffer, and transmits vibrations more readily. However, beginners find that both Kevlar and titanium tennis rackets have become hard to control, and hard on the arms after an extended amount of time.
There are a few tennis rackets that are designed today for specific situations with different specs:
Power rackets are available in a hugely wide variety. They can range in materials (Titanium, Hypercarbon, Triple threat, Air Carbon titanium Mesh, etc.) as well as in size, head shape, weights, and different levels of vibration dampening. These rackets have large sweet spots and are generally very versatile.
Ultimate Control Rackets
These rackets are for more experienced players and are generally harder to use (although insanely beneficial once you get the hang of them). These have thin beams and are smaller in terms of tennis racket heads. This offers the highest level of control available in regards to tennis rackets on the market in today’s world.
Mid Power or Mid Control Rackets
In between the two extremes mentioned above, there are mid power and mid control tennis rackets. These are great for beginners because they provide a happy medium between power and control. All companies who produce tennis rackets have a racket that fits in this category today, and they all range in price and sizing.
Sizing Throughout History
Sizing of tennis rackets throughout history is an exciting thing to observe, as it changes in such fluctuations and is still changing today. Most players tend to stick to a wider head but a light and sloping frame, while others might favor heavier and more powerful tennis rackets.
The average wooden racket was 67 square inches. This was the norm for a long time, until Howard Head popularized the first large racket in the 1970s, at a whopping 100 square inches. This was a giant racket for the time, and it still is today.
This wasn’t the first one to take a large route, however, because the American tennis brand called Weed originally made the first large aluminum tennis racket in 1975. This racket didn’t end up making history and was widely unsuccessful.
However, the market started increasing in regards to size once Howard Head created the 100 square inch racket. In fact, at one time a 135 square inch head was trendy in the time of Head. This has since gone down because of the rules around head size regulations, capping the maximum square inches at 125.
So What’s Next?
Honestly, who’s to say? Tennis racket companies are currently suffering due to their quality of rackets being so high. Someone who owns a graphite racket from 20 years ago might still be able to use it today without a need or want for another racket.
This results in the widespread innovation for tennis racket companies, and many companies are struggling to come up with new and exciting versions of their rackets so that they can stay in business. For example, Dunlop was the first company to release a tennis racket that offers extra length, and all other companies also started to provide this shortly after.
Head has recently come out with a piezoelectric material tennis racket, which allows the user to have a better hit. When the ball comes into contact with the strings (made of piezoelectric material) the energy that it creates is converted into electrical energy to dampen the vibration. This electric energy is then back to the piezoelectric ceramic composites in the frame, which then stiffens from the energy entering it.
So, is electricity in tennis rackets the next big thing? We’ll have to wait and see. Either way, at least we aren’t playing with animal guts!