For players, the continuing technological revolution is all good; for retailers, it involves a whole new learning curve.
By James Martin
As a retailer, your job selling tennis racquets has just become easier. And harder. Easier because the latest models are stronger yet lighter, so now players can swing without compromising control or power. Easier because innovative frame designs deliver extra stability and expanded sweetspots, so now players can still produce a good shot even if they have bad technique. Arming folks with these racquets will make them better players — and loyal customers. An easy sell, right?
The hard part will come when you’re asked to explain the technologies that boost power, control, comfort, and stability. You practically need a Ph.D. in racquet science.
It was one thing, back in the day, when the biggest evolutionary changes involved, say, a larger head or longer length. These were tangible tweaks, plain to the eye and easy to understand. Longer racquet, more leverage. Bigger head, more power. But you can only alter the dimensions of a racquet so much before you either render it unplayable or illegal — or both. Remember the Big Bubba?
Now, though, companies are forging into new territory, changing not only the dimensions of the frame but what’s inside it. This is heady stuff, light years away from what was being done even in the late 1990s.
Two companies at the fore of this technological revolution are Wilson and Babolat, both of which are building racquets with “nanotechnology,” the science of using infinitesimally small products by manipulating atoms and molecules. Still don’t get it? OK, picture a millimeter-sized pinhead — a nanometer is one-millionth of that.
Down at this scale, different laws of physics come into play. When particles get small enough to be nanoparticles, their mechanical properties change. Adding nanoparticles to materials used to build, say, tennis racquets, increases strength and reduces weights. (Many scientists are saying that nanotechnology will have the kind of impact on industry that plastic once did.)
This summer, Wilson came out with three nano racquets, the n1, n5, and the nSix-One. The n1 is designed to deliver power to players with compact swings; the n5 is for improving intermediates and low-level advanced players who like a head-heavy, medium-weight racquet; and the nSix-One — which Roger Federer may switch to — is a head-light Pro Staff model for tour-level players.
Where does the nanotechnology fit in? Racquets are made of billions of woven carbon fibers with microscopic spaces between them. Wilson fills these gaps with silicone oxide crystals, which increase the frame’s stability, stiffness, and power. Wilson also says this process ensures that the racquets will play better, longer, before the frame goes “soft,” causing a loss of power and control.
This year, Babolat introduced two Nano Carbon Technology, or NCT, racquets, the NCT Tour and the NCT Power. The Tour is geared toward high-level intermediates while the Power is for those with short strokes. Both models are reinforced in the throat and the bottom half of the head with carbon nanotubes, strings of carbon molecules constructed at the nano level, which are five times stiffer than graphite. Net result: Babolat is able to increase the stiffness and power of the racquets without adding weight.
Other High-Tech Advances
Nanotechnology isn’t the only game in town. Of course, you’d be remiss not to mention Head in a discussion of innovative uses of technology. Not too long ago, the company introduced Liquidmetal racquets that have been well-received by players and retailers alike. These frames feature the super-stiff alloy in the head (at the 10, 2, 5, and 7 o’clock positions) to increase stability and control on off-center hits as well as expand the sweetspot. The company’s latest models are the Head Liquidmetal 5, a 107-square-inch, medium-weight frame ideal for NTRP 3.0 to 4.5 players, and the Head Liquidmetal Fire. An update of the i.XSpeed, the Fire has an anti-torsion bar in the throat and should be popular among juniors stepping up to their first adult racquet.
These days, Dunlop doesn’t so much use new “space-age” materials as it uses a new manufacturing process. With its “internally cooled engineering” (I.C.E.), cool air is blown into the liquid-hot racquet mold. Dunlop says the process, which seals the frame’s molecular structure 25 percent faster than conventional frames cooled at room temperature, increases the stiffness and power. Those two attributes are quite noticeable in the new 1000G I.C.E., the most powerful racquet in the G series that’s geared toward players with short strokes.
Yonex has two new racquets — the RDX 500 (for advanced players), the RDX 300 (for intermediates) — that feature a nickel-titanium compound in the shaft. The purpose of this new material, Yonex says, is to increase the frame’s resiliency and return maximum energy to the ball.
In addition to changing the composition of the frame, companies are also adding devices that enhance the way the strings respond to impact with the ball. Take Völkl. It’s made a slew of excellent racquets with its Catapult system. Springs are mounted on each side of the frame that compress when the ball hits the strings and then releases a burst of power. Völkl can change the size and flexibility of the springs to provide more or less of a trampoline effect.
Völkl has also entered a new dimension, so to speak, with its V-Engine racquets. Unlike the internal technological changes discussed above, you only have to see a V-Engine to figure out what’s different. The bottom of the head forms a “V,” which allows Völkl to use longer main strings and, in turn, elongate the sweetspot. The newest V-Engine sticks are the Tour 10 Mid-plus V-Engine, for advanced players, and the Tour 8 V-Engine, which Völkl hopes to find an audience with competitive teenagers who like their racquets stiff and powerful.
Prince is entering a new dimension, too, with the new Turbo Shark. This racquet features Twin Morph Taper Beam, in which the frame starts out above the handle with an oval cross section, then changes into a smoother, flatter, more aerodynamic shape in the middle of the frame, and finally morphs back to an oval cross section. The purpose of these changes, Prince says, is to move the sweetspot higher, toward the racquet’s tip. With the Shark, Prince also uses Dynamic Braided Technology (essentially braided carbon fibers) in the throat to produce a softer sensation and enhance “feel.”
And This Just In …
Babolat will be introducing two new racquets by late summer, the Drive Z Max and the Drive Z Tour. The Max will be geared toward 3.0 to 4.0 players, delivering power via super-stiff Zylon in the head, while the Tour will offer more control for better players. Both also will feature the Woofer system that enhances the trampoline effect at ball impact, boosting power, control, and comfort.
And Fischer has introduced the Twin Tec Speed FTi, a game-improvement racquet featuring the Frequency Tuning technology to dampen vibration while still providing enough feedback to the player.
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