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WIMBLEDON THEN-AND-NOW: RACQUETS AND BALLS

The past four days of brilliant tennis have given us a sense of what these sportsmen are capable of and the kind of talent that converges at Wimbledon. Players have to be meticulous in their shots, anticipate the exact return and answer it with precision, all the while thinking about the next hit. Unbridled focus and perseverance are required to win anything, and at Wimbledon, this is personified by the masters of the game.
Back in my days, the only assistance we got was from our coaches, who used to make painstakingly thorough notes during the match, which would be discussed systematically later. Strategies were made based on the feel of the racquet during particular shots, the power spent and the consequence but the source of all this used to be the coach’s eye. With technological advancements happening in every sphere of life, the technical aspects of tennis have also come of age, Wimbledon being a long-standing testament to it.
The racquets used have probably undergone the most evolutionary changes that any other part of the game. I had started playing with the traditional wooden racquet—strong, accurate and the popular choice as compared with steel or aluminium ones, despite being a little on the heavier side. However, towards the end of my career as a player, technology had revolutionised the game in the form of graphite and fibreglass racquets. Still in use, these racquets have the accuracy of wood minus its weight, with longer durability. The newest generation of racquets, called ‘connected racquets’ come fitted with sensors that transmit hard data such as power, ball impact, count strokes, spin, endurance, technique and rally time. This information, while useless during the match because of the ‘no-coaching’ rule, can be a great post-match tool to help players improve on strengths and eliminate weaknesses.
Compared with when I used to play, there is a huge change in the power factor of the game, a result of the racquets used.  The use of oversized racquets with wider heads has made this possible. While they certainly add to the power, oversized racquets reduce flexibility. However, it is still more popular among the newer generation of players, though veterans may disagree.
Next comes the ball, the ‘harder to control’ part of the game. Where the ball will land is anybody’s guess and an inch here or there can spell doom for either player. While the only way to control that is through accurate shots, the ball has also seen its fair share of growth.  From hand-sewn rubber and wool cloth balls back in the 1900s to refrigerated balls in the mid ’30s and ’40s, from nylon coated balls to prolong playing age in the ‘60s to using yellow balls for better visibility in the ’80s, tennis balls have become advanced. The latest in ball innovation was in the mid-2000s. The use of ‘hydroguard’, a water repelling barrier, made it most suitable for the British weather. Back in my days, the ’70s and ’80s, balls used to be much lighter. However, with more power packed into the racquets, balls have become heavier which allows for longer rallies even with the grass courts becoming slower.
As the power of racquets increased, over the years the courts have become sluggish. Till the beginning of the century, the courts were fast and rallies short—favouring the big-hitters, the ones with stronger serves. This resulted in popular opinion that grass courts had become boring and that it was all about the big servers. To quash that opinion and generate greater interest in the game, courts are now made deliberately slower so that the rallies are longer and the duels more interesting.
The overall experience of watching the match, whether in the stadium or at home has changed over the years. The most important innovation was the introduction of the hawk-eye, mapping the path of the ball and even telling us if the ball will skid or change shape. Another in this series is the radar gun that gives us the speed of the ball.
When Federer was forced to change his shoes in the last Wimbledon, it immediately highlighted the one significant but often ignored aspect of the game, shoes. What is most important in a tournament like Wimbledon is the strength, durability, comfort and stability of shoes on the court and this hasn’t changed over the years. Of course, the material these shoes are made of has changed but the ultimate goal has always been towards these attributes, making the play as relaxing as possible for the player.
While I reminisce the simpler days of my time, I can’t help but marvel at the good that technology has done for the sport. With each stroke, the racquet now has the ability to make one a better player, the ball does not care about water anymore and the courts tell us exactly how it will land. The attention to detail through excellence in technology comes together with passionate talent, making Wimbledon a true treat for the every lover of the game.

Written By : Vijay Amritraj

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