Pioneers: Howard Brody, Tennis’s Chief Scientist
The tennis boom of the 1970s was more than three decades away when a kid named Howard Brody was sitting outside a park tennis court, watching his parents hit. And it would be at least another two decades before young Howard began making his mark on the sport. But not as a player.
“I played in a few junior tournaments, and really, I didn’t do well,” Brody recalls. “I played on the high school tennis team for one year, and the coach gave up.”
But giving up wasn’t in Brody’s lexicon, and tennis wasn’t his chosen career; physics was. He went on to MIT (and played on the team there all four years), then got his M.S. and his Ph.D. at CalTech. He became a professor of physics at the University of Pennsylvania in 1959, and stayed until his retirement 50 years later. (He is still listed as professor emeritus on Penn’s website.)
It was what he did in the interim, however, that made tennis sit up and take note: the idea that the study of physics could help us understand and advance the game. That idea turned Howard Brody into one of the sport’s leading voices. His scientific insights on tennis, and particularly racquet/ball interactions, are renowned among physicists, tennis pros and players.
And oddly enough, he made his first discovery not in a lab but on a family vacation in Florida. “I went down to the courts and a guy was playing with an oversized racquet. I went out and bought one of my own, took down the patent numbers and wrote to the patent office to find out about it.”
The owner of the patent was one Howard Head. Brody wrote to Head. He also asked some tennis pros about the properties of the new racquet. “Everyone said, ‘Oh, this has a bigger sweetspot,’ but they didn’t know anything about the racquet or why that made it better.”
Brody did some tests on the racquet and wrote a paper about it, which was published in The New York Times. Suddenly, says Brody, “I had a little reputation as a scientist. I was inundated with various things.” Head and Brody eventually met, played tennis, and discovered they were kindred spirits. “I always said he was a scientist wannabe,” laughs Brody.
Brody went from studying particle physics to the science of tennis. Still, it was a struggle to be taken seriously by a sport that had for so long paid attention to the action on-court, but not the physics of what made things happen out there. “When I first wrote an outline for a book, nobody was interested,” says Brody. “Except for one person, Dennis Van der Meer. He said he would be willing to take the book and make it a training manual. We shook hands, he gave me a check, and it just worked.”
Since then, Brody has written two books, contributed to numerous others, authored more than 100 articles on the subject of ball and racquet interactions, spoken at meetings of everyone from physicists to players, and made training videos. He is regarded as the foremost scientist of tennis, having been science advisor to the USPTA and technical advisor to the U.S. Racquet Stringers Association, and having served as a member of the USTA’s Sports Science and Technical committees, the ITF Technical Commission, and more.
But ask him what the highlight of his career has been, and he’ll say it was taking over as coach of Penn’s tennis team when the regular coach quit. He calls that experience “my dream come true.”
“Howard is a gem,” says Dan Santorum, executive director of the PTR, where Brody has spoken at meetings. “He just loves tennis, the sport and the science. He can take a subject that is above everyone’s head and bring it down to a point where a layperson can understand it and take it back to their students on the court. He’s the professor you can relate to.”
Brody’s interest in the sport remains strong, but the years are catching up. Parkinson’s has slowed him down, and he has lost the sight in one eye, ending his tennis playing. He talks about moving to a retirement home, and he says his memory is not what it used to be. But the scientist inside him is as curious as ever.
“I’ve never thought about a different sport,” he says. “You know, I’ve written a couple papers on baseball bats. That might be the one. Yep, I think I might spend time on baseball bats. Or maybe pool and billiards. All those angles. All those collisions. Now that’s interesting.”