The Tennis Racket

Originally, tennis was played with the bare hand – hence the French term ‘Jeu de Paume’. In the latter part of the 12th and early part of the 13th centuries, Knights returned from the Crusades with – among other things – an extended vocabulary. The Arabic ‘rahat al-yad ’ means ‘palm of the hand’ or ‘palm-shaped’: it’s believed that this provides the etymological root of the term ‘racket’ or ‘racquet’ (this said, others argue that the racket was invented in the Low Countries and that its name comes from the Dutch verb ‘raecke’ – to hit or strike).

During the Middle Ages, players began to wear a leather glove – a practice believed to have started in Italy, although players everywhere would have welcomed an alternative to hitting a hard ball with their bare hand. Bruised, swollen hands, broken fingers and torn nails will have been commonplace. Even today, players of ‘les jeux de paume’ – fives, pelota and paume à main nués – reduce the grotesque post-match swelling of their playing hand by piercing the webbed skin between their fingers with a sterilised needle.

The early fifteenth century saw a double-walled glove – essentially, a tight-fitting soft glove within a hard, stiff sleeve. It reduced damage to the hand and allowed a more powerful stroke – albeit at the cost of feel, touch and finesse: like trying to bowl a cricket ball when wearing a baseball catcher’s mitt. This was joined by a ‘strung’ palm, a lattice of thin leather strips wound around the fingers of the glove. It proved tiring for the wearer, however, and fell from use.

In time, a short-handled battoir would evolve; a single piece of wood carved to create a handle and round/oval head. Early drawings indicate they were covered with vellum – a practice which would lead to the unfortunate loss of precious manuscripts: one scholar was aghast on finding a battoir loaned to him covered with fragments of a lost decade from Livy’s history of Rome, Ab urbe condita libri!

The distinctive ‘lop-sided’ or kidney-shaped asymmetric frame of a real tennis racket is at once a historical reference and a single, practical solution to two distinct issues. The racket’s profile resembles the shape of a hand, keeps the ‘sweet spot’ close to the floor and affords players a greater surface area with which to ‘cut’ (slice) the ball. A cut shot makes the ball ‘bite down’ when it hits the floor or bounces off the back wall. The familiar topspin lawn tennis shot is inappropriate in tennis: a top-spun ball will ‘sit up’ after hitting the back wall, affording greater opportunity to return and keep the ball in play.

It is worth mentioning here that throughout this site, you will read of the Tennis ‘racket’ and not the tennis ‘racquet’. For an explanation, one need look no further than Marshall:

“It is, perhaps not out of place here to protest against the vulgar spelling, which in recent years has made the game of Rackets, as well as the implement used in it and in tennis, appear as Racquets – a word which belongs neither to the English, nor the French, nor to any other known language.”
The Annals of Tennis, Julian Marshall, 1878

In Art du Paumier-Raquetier et de la Paume (Paris, 1767), author F. A. de Garsault gives a detailed description of racket-making: selected staves of ash (sometimes chestnut) were made flexible by boiling and then bent in half to form a rough ‘hairpin’ shape. A mould/clamp formed the ‘kidney-shaped’ head and the long ends were bound together and fashioned into a handle. The ‘throat’ or ‘étançon’ was made by inserting a wedge of lime wood, and then strengthened with ox leg tendons. Once all the glue was set, the head frame would be pierced and the entire frame sanded, oiled and polished. Some makers would ‘season’ the racket by smoking it over burning oak sawdust – a practice which hardened the wood and stiffened the racket. It would also darken the wood – hence the name for the process: ‘browning’. Finally, it would be strung with gut.

French craftsmen-made Rackets by Borelly, Lavergne, Tison, Leclercq and Brouaye were considered the finest available. Former apprentice to Lecleraq, Brouaye would become the most celebrated racket maker of all. In England, only Pilet (or ‘Pillet’) received any praise and respect.

Writing in 1878, Marshall laments the dearth of French rackets: the siege of Paris (1870-71) saw supplies of well-seasoned timber used for firewood; subsequent demand for lawn tennis racquets depleted stocks further still.

Little has changed since de Garsault’s 1767 treatise; modern materials such as Kevlar™, graphite and carbon-fibre remain firmly eschewed: now, as then, rackets are made of wood. Modern times have seen things become a little more animal–friendly though: ox-tendon reinforcement is today supplanted by rigid panels of cellulose, and synthetic strings have replaced gut.

Grays of Cambridge offer four racket options: junior, standard and the reinforced semi-tec and extra-tec models

With all Rackets, there are strings attached

Traditionally, rackets are strung with gut – sheep intestine which has been washed, stripped of fat, cut into ribbons, spun together and air-cured. The dried string is hand polished until smooth, then oiled or coated with animal fat. Initially, sheep gut was used; however, sheep produce only short lengths of gut with low-tensile strength. Also, sheep gut was increasingly used as source of natural casing for sausages. It takes the intestines of seven sheep – or three cows – to produce gut for one racket.

Natural gut offers power and is easier on the arm: the triple-helix molecular structure of collagen in the gut provides elasticity and density. It is often recommended for players suffering with tennis elbow.

With gut, ‘ball pocketing’ – a prolonged sense of ‘dwell time’ of the ball on the strings – leads to a greater sense of control. Many players prefer the feel of natural gut because they feel more connected to what is happening with the ball on impact.

In the past, those in areas with high humidity found that moisture ruined gut. Today, it is coated to prevent water and weather damage. This said, several manufacturers recommend the application of wax between usage: it keeps out moisture, reduces friction and notching.

Rackets weren’t exclusively strung with gut, however: the 1585 accounts of Vincenzo Gonzago, Duke of Mantua reveal payment for rackets strung with silk – seemingly to be used in matches staged for visiting Japanese noblemen Mancio Ito, Michele Gingiva, Martino Farà and Giuliano Nicawra.

Prior to the introduction in 1856 of a new stringing method, the racket’s ‘side’ (horizontal) strings would be looped round the ‘main’ (vertical) strings. This stringing method, known as ‘trebling’, resulted in distinct ‘rough’ and ‘smooth’ effects on alternate faces of the racket and gave rise to the practice of calling ‘rough’ or ‘smooth’ to win service at the beginning of each match. Trebled rackets couldn’t be tightly strung – although the players of yesteryear preferred this: Noel and Clark tell us that Edmund Tompkins would slacken a new racket by treading on its strung face!

Further reading:

From Palm to Power: The Evolution of the Racket Peter Maxton
Wimbledon Lawn Tennis Museum
ISBN 978-0-906741-46-7

The Annals of Tennis
Julian Marshall

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