By most accounts, tennis was first played by French monks in the 11th or 12th century, and the first “tennis racquets” were made of human flesh!
By the 14th century, players had begun using what we could legitimately call a racquet, with strings made of gut bound in a wooden frame. The early racquets had a long handle and a small, teardrop-shaped head.
In 1874, Major Walter C. Wingfield registered his patent in London for the equipment and rules of an outdoor lawn tennis that is generally considered the first version of what we play today. The racquet head had grown by this time to roughly the size seen on wooden racquets into the 1970’s, but the shape wasn’t quite as oval, with the head usually wider and often flattened toward the top. Racquets saw only minor changes between 1874 and the end of the wooden racquet era more than 100 years later. Wooden racquets did get better during these 100 years, with improvements in laminating technology but they remained heavy with small heads. Compared to the contemporary racquet, even the best wood racquets were cumbersome and lacking in power. A racquet with a metal head existed as early as 1889 but it never saw widespread use. Wood’s use as a frame material didn’t undergo any real challenge until 1967, when Wilson Sporting Goods introduced the first popular metal racquet, the T2000.
In 1976 the Prince brand introduced the first oversized racquet to gain widespread popularity, the Prince Classic. It had an aluminium frame and a string area more than 50% larger than the standard 65 square inch wood racquet.
By 1980, racquets could pretty much be divided into two classes: inexpensive racquets made of aluminium and expensive ones made of graphite or a composite. Wood no longer offered anything that another material couldn’t provide better, except for antique and collectible value. New materials such as ceramics, fiberglass, boron, titanium, kevlar, and twaron are constantly being tried, almost always in a mix with graphite.
The racquet makers have, to some extent, suffered from their own success. Unlike wood racquets, which warped, cracked, and dried out with age, graphite racquets can last for many years without a noticeable loss of performance.
What’s next? How about an electronic racquet?