It was around 1552 that the first depiction of a jeu de paume racket appeared on a painting showing Charles Maximilien, duc d’Orléans, future King Charles X, at the age of two holding a wooden paddle in his hands, triangular and strung with sheep gut.
Tennis quickly became considerably important in England before growing in popularity in France alongside the sudden appearance of champions like Suzanna Lenglen and the famous Musketeers: Jean Borotra (1898-1994), Jacques Brugnon (1895-1978), Henri Cochet (1901-1987), and René Lacoste (1904-1996). In 1877 the first championship in the history of tennis took place in Wimbledon. Englishman Gore triumphed over his 22 challengers before 200 spectators. In 1879, women, set aside until that time, participated in their first tournament in Dublin. In 1878, tennis came to France with the creation of the first two French clubs: the Décimal Club de Paris and the Lawn-Tennis Club de Dinard.
Just like for a dancer, the body is a tennis player’s tool; the racket is an extension of the arm. In 1570, the cords were tied at each crossing. Little change was noticeable until 1675, when framing came into use. Around 1760, the sleeve, until then short (around 20 centimeters), became longer, and the cords, still straight, were tied up once more at each crossing. The racket was lightly curved to facilitate contact with low balls around 1820. From 1874 onwards, the racket became straight again and didn’t go through much evolution until the 60s, when wood was replaced by various revolutionary materials such as steel, then later on fiberglass or carbon fiber. Some rackets have gone beyond their simple practical functions to become myths… In the 70s, when specific rules for tennis rackets didn’t exist yet, a German artisan, Edwin Fischer, had the idea to invent a double-strung racket. The cords were superposed and lightly stretched to allow for a more effective hit, notably on a topspin shot. The ball was uncontrollable and unpredictable back then. It would spin like a top whenever an adversary would manage to hit it. Several players adopted it, and it was nicknamed the “spaghetti racket”. Certain average players managed to obtain unexpected results against circuit leaders. The Australian Philips Moore was the first to experiment with it in June 1977. He was quickly accused of perverting the game. The scandal only grew from tournament to tournament… Until October 1977, when the International Tennis Federation decided to ban use of the racket.
And so, throughout the centuries, rackets have appeared in different shapes, sizes, and weights. But in general, they’ve kept morphological characteristics similar to those of the 16th-century racket. Primarily manufactured in ash wood, the new wood adhesives of the 30s allowed racketeers to mix up their essences (walnut, beech, maple). They resisted stronger tensions and allowed for a better balance between power and control of the ball. During the 70s, metal (steel, aluminum) made its appearance little by little… But metal rackets only enjoyed limited success. Yannick Noah was the very last tennis player to win a Big 4 tournament with a wooden racket, from the brand Le Coq Sportif. On June 5, 1983, he won the French Open. His racket seems almost rudimentary when compared to the carbon Babolat that Rafael Nadal used to win the Paris tournament in 2013. Just barely lighter than Yannick’s, this racket better restores energy. In an interview, Noah estimates that, with the same physical effort, new rackets offer a 50% improved result in speed and power than those used in the 80s.
Concerning racket dimensions, it’s worth noting that they are now regulated by the Fédération Française de Tennis. They have to measure less than 73.66 centimeters for professionals and 81.8 centimeters for amateurs. The racket head cannot exceed 29.1 centimeters in width and 39.7 centimeters in length.
Between the 60s and the 80s, sports suppliers developed new technologies to go beyond the limits of athletic performance. The brand Lacoste filed more than 20 patents: the diagonal tension of its cords, the plastic handle replacing wood, the “damper”, a piece of polyurethane placed at the base of the racket to absorb vibrations upon contact with the ball, all while increasing the precision of the shot and the strength of the hit. “The Equijet racket” was particularly important. Like the metal racket that came before it, it improved performances and marked an important leap forward in the game’s development. In 1988, Lacoste started working on a new racket that would combine the advantages of a small and large frame width. Once more Lacoste teamed up with a high level player: Guy Forget. At first skeptical, he quickly changed his mind when he tried the prototype. A series of long test sessions in Paris and Chantacao (where Lacoste also had a workshop) would follow. The goal was simple: achieve perfection. In March 1991, “The Equijet” brought Guy to the fourth place spot in the world. To top it all off, in December of the same year, he brought home the Coupe Davis in Lyon. Perhaps there’s a racket behind each great tennis player?