HEAD enters the women-only racquet market, with legend Steffi Graf waving the flag for the new Airflow frames.
By James Martin
If you received the $5 MGM Grand casino chip in the mail, you were invited. Not to a world championship of poker, but to one of the bigger racquet launches of recent memory. HEAD was asking its top U.S. dealers, along with retailers from Japan, to come to Las Vegas in May to introduce its new lines of racquets designed exclusively for women.
The two-day event had the usual Power Point presentations and marketing bluster of a product launch. But that was before HEAD brought out its heavy hitters. First up was Andre Agassi. In retrospect, it probably shouldn’t have been much of a surprise — this is Andre’s town after all, and he skipped the clay-court season anyway. After talking about his relationship with HEAD in a conference room at the MGM Grand, Agassi delighted retailers and a few press pariahs by fielding their questions.
|HEAD Air Flow 3|
|HEAD Air Flow 5|
|HEAD Air Flow 7|
It isn’t often that Agassi plays the warm-up act anywhere, let alone in Vegas, but that was the script this time. Once he departed, HEAD started in on the reason everyone was there — the Airflow racquets for women. Prominent women from the tennis industry were on hand, players who’d had a hand in the research and development: among others, Pam Austin, director of tennis at the Riviera Tennis Club in Los Angeles, Julie Jilly, vice president of the PTR, Joan Dziena, merchandising director at the USTA National Tennis Center pro shop, and some woman who used to hit a fair ball now and then, Steffi Graf. You may have heard of her.
Graf, of course, is an all-time great who’s also married to Agassi. Starting this July, when the Airflow racquets debut, she will be the face of HEAD’s most ambitious campaign since Flexpoint.
“Having Steffi Graf lead our Team Airflow is an honor,” says Kevin Kempin, HEAD Penn racquet sport’s vice president of sales and marketing. “We are extremely excited to have her on board, and we are looking forward to our long-term relationship. Her insight into the development of the new Airflow products has been invaluable.”
Team Airflow, lead by Graf, helped develop three new racquets. “Women are always asking if a racquet can actually make their game better,” Jilly says. “Now HEAD has technologies developed specifically for a woman’s unique physical attributes, allowing women to really maximize their performance.”
What makes a racquet “for women,” according to HEAD? In a nutshell: Make it super light and powerful. Make it comfortable with vibration-dampening technology and small, tapered handles — they get skinnier toward the throat — to accommodate the ergonomics of a woman’s hand. And make the racquet cosmetically appealing, not in patronizing pinks and yellows, but in subtle, attractive colors that send the message that these frames are pieces of equipment.
There are three Airflow racquets:
- The Airflow 7 is the lightest of the bunch, weighing a feather-light 8.6 ounces with a 265 swingweight. It’s also the most powerful, with a 115-square-inch head, head-heavy balance and RDC flex of 73. It has an MSRP of $225. It’s best for players who want to add some serious giddy-up to their short strokes.
- The Airflow 5 is also light, at 8.9 ounces and swingweight of 270, but has a slightly smaller 109-square-inch head and flex of 74. It, too, is head heavy and is designed to deliver more of a blend between power and control. Suggested retail price is $200.
- The Airflow 3, as the most “player oriented” stick, has a swingweight of 284 and tips the scales at a “whopping” 9.4 ounces, with a mid-size 102-square-inch head, head-heavy balance, and flex of 75. This is the go-to Airflow frame for players who put more of a priority on control rather than all-out power. Suggested retail is $180. All the Airflow frames are standard 27-inches long, with a 16×19 string pattern.
If all of this talk about women’s racquets sounds familiar, it is. Last summer, Wilson introduced its W racquets for women. These racquets have similar technological benefits — oval head shapes with longer main strings for a larger sweetspot, a new throat design for more pop, and Iso-Zorb grommets for reduced vibration. Wilson also took a page out of Apple iPod and put slick paint jobs on these sticks — nine total for the three frames.
While HEAD has paid attention to producing attractive cosmetics, the company is overall heavily promoting its Airflow Team and Steffi Graf.
Obviously, both companies recognize the importance of marketing product toward women athletes. From softball to golf, women are a key demographic, often with different needs in their sporting equipment. Or so the theory goes.
But marketing to women is a tricky proposition. On the one hand, you can create products that will meet their specific needs (more power, comfort, and so on) and help raise their games. On the other, you run the risk of patronizing (and ultimately alienating) the audience.
It’s a tightrope act, one that HEAD and Wilson, among many other companies, are walking in an effort to improve their bottom lines.
HEAD’s New Metallix
… And the award for the most radical-looking racquet goes to the new HEAD Metallix 10. This bad boy — it has a whopping 124-square-inch head — features a matrix of carbon fibers and a new super-stiff crystalline metal alloy to increase the frame’s power.
By increasing the frame’s strength, HEAD has been able to produce something rather unique — a powerful, super-light racquet that’s not overwhelmingly head-heavy. Oversize game-improvement frames often have a lot of weight in the head in order to give the racquet pop, but the balance also compromises maneuverability.
With the Metallix 10 (which HEAD introduced at the same Vegas event in which it introduced the Airflow frames), HEAD has avoided the frying-pan feel and produced a 9.2-ounce frame with plenty of giddy-up, yet it’s only slightly head-heavy (1/3 inches to be exact) and swingweight of 289.
Men and women players with compact strokes will get the power they need to get the ball past the service line, but won’t feel as if they’re struggling to react to the ball.
The Metallix 10 also has the HEAD Stabilizer, which looks like wings on the throat, to keep the racquet on an even keel. And there’s a built-in vibration dampener.
Because it’s chock-full of HEAD’s latest technology, including Flexpoint, the Metallix 10 will carry a premium price — suggested retail is $275. (800-289-7366; head.com).
See all articles by James Martin
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