I think we can all agree today that modern equipment has changed the game for the better both professionally and recreationally. The oversized heads, less inconsistency, and better stability make it much easier for the beginner. In the pro game, the power modern graphite rackets could generate created a different level of play. When graphite rackets were introduced tennis was at its peak popularity and wood still ruled the court in the 1970s. It leads to the question of what if graphite rackets were never allowed much like Baseball stuck with wood in the pro game?
Billy Jean King would win the first Grand Slam with a steel racket in the 1967 with a racket developed in the 50’s. In the 70s Jimmy Connors used that racket to make his baseline style of play more viable. Those steel rackets were around for a while but they weren’t so technologically superior that it caused a mass transition away from wood as graphite later would. Steele was lighter but still had some disadvantages to wood, but gives an alternative in our hypothetical scenario for those that wanted to play on the baseline. Most pros made the transition to graphite in the early to mid-’80s.
By the 1990s and early 2000s the average rally had plummeted and had given way to big serves and power makes for a less enjoyable viewer experience in many people’s opinion. The fans who had watched tennis through the 70s and early 80s were watching a different game. Eventually around the early 2000s Tennis surfaces would be tweaked to slow them down and make for a more homogeneous bounce and better rallies and consistent baseline play. In the process though it took away some of the uniqueness of the surfaces that also helped make the game popular with more unique styles butting heads. Gone now for the most part are the serve and volleys which aren’t needed as much with grass with a more predictable bounce at Wimbledon or equipment to play from the baseline. I do believe now Tennis has found a nice balance of power and sustainable rallies and ended up in a good place.
Tennis is a sport with rich history just like golf and baseball which were all established in the industrial revolution between 1860-1877. All three sports used wooden equipment the technology of the day that dominated their first 100 years for the most part. The more recent migration in golf and tennis to modern equipment changed those sports drastically. Golf has a hard time even lengthening some of the century-old historical courses to keep up. College baseball uses modern alloys in their bats but Major League Baseball is the only one of the 3 sports that said wood was there to stay. It’s been the traditional wood since its inception which does give it a more familiar feel and comparability across the eras.
Here is an example of a player playing with the rackets Borg and Connors played within 1981, and then the graphite rackets that replaced them shortly after. He makes a solid point at the end of the video talking about how the racket technology is essentially the same as in the last 40 years. Most of the technological advancements since the 80s have come from strings moving from natural gut to monofilament fibers. This video gives a better understanding of the leap from the first two rackets to the last two more modern ones that happened within just a few years.
Not all wood rackets are the same of course. This video gives an example of the woods from the 1800s and early 1900s are nothing like the woods of the 70s. There were advancements, but the leap from wood to graphite is incomparable. There were steel and even aluminum rackets before the 1930s which surprised me after researching. What is undeniable though is that none of those metal variations replaced wood. Even after Bill Jean King won the first major with a metal racket in 1967 wood was still viable until graphite came along in the early 80s.
(Baseball has had technological advances in their bats. The handles are smaller now and the barrel is more weighted than in the past which gives them more power. It’s also why they break more as well. I suspect if Wood or Steel were the only materials there would have been some technological advances in the last 5 decades, but you can only do so much with the material. Generally, it would still be far more similar to what they played with in the 1930s.)
What if tennis said no like baseball and instituted a wood standard or at least a Wood/Steel standard that had been the norm to that point? How different might the last 5 decades have looked? Tennis was near its peak popularity in the early 80s. Let’s just imagine the ATP saw Graphite emerging at the same time and wanted to stay traditional. It’s not unthinkable as traditional as aspects of tennis are. They had a good game, and a good product with little change in equipment for decades.
Had a graphite ban happened I think the players that depended most on their serve would be the most impacted over the following decades. The “servebots” so to speak. I still believe all of the great players would have still been top 10 players in their era. Many of the players born in the late 60’s early 70’s like Edberg, Becker, Sampras, Agassi, etc grew up on wood and were still top juniors with wood in their hands. Unlike the previous generation that had to rely on flat shots and linear strokes with such small head sizes they had time to adjust their games on a mix of technology. When it came about at a time it was easier to adapt at a younger age for them than a Connors who was the late 20s or even a McEnroe who was nearly fully formed in his early 20s. It was too late to make big fundamental changes to their groundstrokes. I don’t think there is any question the players born from 65-73 would have been great even if they continued on with the wood like they started with. How good though? What players would have benefited the most in the last 4 decades if technology was frozen in 1975 and who would it have hurt if there were never graphite?
John McEnroe-Major Benefit
McEnroe seems like the obvious choice if the status quo of wood/steel was maintained. He had a very eastern grip he couldn’t fundamentally change by that point and his serve and volley style was impacted by the emergence of graphite I believe more than almost anyone. He essentially would sling the ball back in his own words or redirect it and use the other player’s power. His style of games was not built for the more modern power game of semi-western grips (or later western) graphite helped usher in.
Even though McEnroe was only a year older than Lendl he didn’t adapt his game as much for the new era. He was still very good in the 1980’s with a graphite racket, but he wasn’t the dominating force I think he could have been. The status quo could have given him and his game greater longevity. It’s actually quite amazing his game still held up as well as it did, and he still gives players today problems with the antiquated style. He was just so good at what he did he could make it work, but tennis-changing equipment I think hurt his career overall. He was just talented enough to stay relevant.
Connors switched to a graphite racket in 1984 but actually switched back to his trusty T-2000 steel racket in 1985. Obviously, he was pretty torn by the process. As one of the first major players to usher in a baseline style of game and using the steel racket technology was what helped make that possible with more consistency. The head was so small that his stroke was still old school and flat. By the time the change to graphite fully occurred, he was 34 and most of his best years were well behind him. Connors was also not the biggest guy or had the greatest serving potential whereas graphite would have helped him age better. His racket of choice was already more revolutionary in the 70s and more similar to graphite than wood. I don’t think the change impacted him as much as McEnroe for example. If Tennis never allowed steel and only wood, is where I could see the greater impact negatively on his baseline game.
Ivan Lendl-Major Detriment
I think if there were no graphite allowed it would have been a disadvantage to Lendl and a detriment to his career. He is widely considered the father of modern tennis with his more western grip and inside-out forehand. He used wood from what I can tell in his teen years and still had a semi-western grip, but graphite helped foster this new style he helped create.
As you can see in the photo he already had a more modern grip he could maximize topspin with unlike McEnroe who was basically the same age. Once he got a graphite tool in his hand as one of the first adopters of new technology and being a younger age that made it possible to pivot easier. He is one of the greatest beneficiaries of the change in my opinion. It’s probably no coincidence in 1982 he entered 23 tournaments won 15 and had a match record of 107-9 when he switched to graphite sooner than most top players.
Pet Sampras– A Benefit
Sampras is no stranger to the wood playing with wood until he was14 years old.
“I played with a wood racket until I was about 14. Honestly, that’s what made me a great player. I was starting with a wood racket.“….Pete Sampras
That might sound crazy but he won the US Open at 19 only 5 years later. After watching him play with wood in 202I think he still would have had a great career regardless of change, possibly better. Graphite helped him have a great service weapon, but he was still hitting big serves with the wood in the 110-115 mph range this night.
Sampras was more technology adverse even as a modern player that never moved on from the first gen graphite rackets while he played even nearly 20 years later. Played his whole career with a racket that was made in 1983 and those old Pro Staffs were heavy like a wood racket and had a small head. . What he played with while winning all those slams was like a surgeon scapula at the time and unforgiving with an 85 inch head.
With his eastern grip, one-handed backhand, and the racket he played with even while his generation embraced newer lighter rackets I think wood would have still treated him very well vs his generation. He would still have many Wimbledon’s to his name with his athletic ability and serve and volleys. He still probably has around 14 slams even getting dinged a little on his serve potential.
In a neat concept, Sampras actually played Lendl in 2011 with a wood racket. Lendl used a modern racket to keep it fair as he’s older. McEnroe was on the call and there was of course lots of talk about wood rackets if you are interested. In the interview after the match Lendl says Pete can absorb power so well and blocked it, he would have been good with the wood. Pete also said he volleyed more because the ground strokes were so difficult. His game would have fit it perfectly.
Andre Agassi– Major Detriment
Agassi is no stranger to the wood having grown up as a young tennis sensation in the 70’s. As you can see in the photo with Borg he took the nonwood off ramp much sooner than Sampras did. The rackets he used in the 90’s unlike his age peer Sampras were extremely light and had a larger head than most pros of his generation used. This was more forgiving and allowed him to get lots of head speed on his ground strokes and hit with lots of power and spin. He was a relentless baseline player who wouldn’t have the same level of power and heavy topspin even if he were playing with a steel racket. He’d certainly still be good, but I think he would have been hurt if graphite was never allowed like Lendl if not more. In his late career when better strings were developed he called them “cheat strings” and was one of the first top pros to switch from gut. He certainly embraced the new technology quicker than others from his era. He used it well, and it helped his legacy I believe.
Roger Federer-Major Benefit
I believe Federer’s game would have been a natural fit for wood. He had the traditional one-hand backhand, served and volleyed more than most in his generation, and while he didn’t have as extreme an eastern grip as some it was more eastern and flatter than most players that came along after 2000. As great as he was, I believe he would have been greater armed with wood in his hand vs the players he would compete with again in the last 20 years. I believe players like Nadal and Djokovic would have still been great and adapted to the wood, but Fed would have been a natural with wood. That slight advantage would have likely greatly helped him when the margin of victories between three greats was so slim anyway.
Rafael Nadal– Major Detriment
Of the big 3 I believe Nadal’s game translates the worst to 70s era technology. As much as he grinds it out on the baseline he’s more likely to go with the Connors T2000 than wood I expect. It’s still much different and would be harder for him to win a Wimbledon certainly and harder on hard courts as well. He’s a great player and would figure out how to compete but it’s a much less natural fit with his grip and game. I believe he would have had to play much differently at major cost. He could have still been a major champion but coming along with players with a more natural game suited for wood it would have been harder IMO.
Novak Djokovic- A Benefit
This one is the toughest one to pick IMO. While he has some elements of Agasi’s return game I believe it could hurt to play with the wood, to me, he’s simply the best all-around player ever. I think he’s great with any equipment in his hand. He has amazing fitness like Borg, so I think he could outlast anyone. He’s not reliant on a power serve, even less so than Federer so that is working in his favor. I just think he makes it work and would force other players to blink first in rallies with wood or metal. I can see him being successful with either. He just seems like the most adaptable player, with the game that travels the best over any surface, equipment etc. All parts are strong. While it doesn’t favor him as much as I think it would Federer, it favors him more than most players from his era.
Andy Murray-A Benefit
Murray was a proven winner on grass which seems to have a decent correlation. His grips weren’t the most extreme either. I believe he would have been great, probably even a little better with old-school equipment. Perhaps he would have filled some of the void Nadal likely would have left in the Big 3 era if wood was the standard.
These are mostly the undersized or players with the more classic style of game. I could certainly see wood evening out the playing field for them in an alternate universe. Ferrer, Chang and Hewitt for sure who came about in a power era. Wood would have evened the playing field some for those with less physical power, and made their speed and fitness an asset.
Most of these guys had the average size or were trained with both types of equipment and came along in a time when they used wood before. I think they would have had similar careers to what they did. Muster I believe was a push, he found a weakness for example. He was certainly well exposed to wood and adaptable which lands him here.
|Juan Martin Del Potro|
|Juan Carlos Ferrero|
These are mostly the big servers, the above-average players in height or the power players with run-around forehands etc. I believe looking over the history prior to graphite you see more great undersized players like Laver and Rosewall that a player type emerges. Putting graphite and oversized rackets in the hands of powerful players with these physical attributes who could dominate serve to seem like the differentiator.