Getting A Grip On High Tech Tennis

The perfect tennis racquet is a work in progress. For nearly a century, wooden frames held court. But wood's hold on the game splintered in the 1960s when the first metal racquets appeared. In 1976, Prince Manufacturing unveiled the first oversized racquet, and 11 years later, equipment makers launched widebody frames. In 1990, weighting systems jumped to the forefront of technology when Wilson Sporting Goods introduced the "head-heavy" Hammer.

Today, racquet makers are moving forward on materials, head size, and racquet width as well as grip and stringing systems. They're not breakthroughs that will transform the game but quiet evolutions that promise to make tennis easier and more fun.

All these subtle design changes have created a glut of options. But if you wade through some inflated claims and complicated specifications, you're sure to find a racquet made for you. Even better, competition has driven prices down and forced manufacturers to offer quality, low-cost models for as low as $50 for adults and $20 for children. The frames are so durable they can last for years.

To choose a racquet, analyze your game, test a few models in your price range, and keep the following technological trends in mind:

--Materials. Graphite and graphite composites allow for today's lighter, stronger racquets. The newest material, introduced in 1991, is the "visco-elastic polymer" used in Prince's $275 Vortex. The material stiffens for extra power when the racquet is swung hard and softens to give a player more "touch" during lighter strokes. The effort to create a racquet that reacts differently depending on the shot is the most exciting research area in racquets today, says Paul Roetert, sport science administrator for the U.S. Tennis Assn.

--Head size. Wooden racquets measured about 70 square inches until the monstrous, 110-square-inch Prince came along. Now, most racquets come in midsize--about 90 square inches--and oversized (110). The wider the racquet face, the more stability against off-center hits. The longer the head, the more power. But larger racquets are also harder to maneuver.

The latest innovation is the new $250 Prince Synergy Extender. With strings that extend into the handle, the racquet has an egg-shaped, 116-square-inch face. The idea is to have the largest sweet spot--the optimal hitting zone on the strings.

--Flexibility. The stiffer the racquet, the more powerful it is. Most manufacturers offer many different "flexes" in the same line. Players with loopy, powerful strokes will want a flexible racquet, while those with low-speed, compact strokes should have a stiff model for added power. Players with arm injuries may prefer a more flexible racquet that can absorb some of the shock from hitting the ball, Roetert says.

-- Beam. Making racquets wider at the cross section makes them stiffer and increases the sweet-spot size. Widebody racquets, which took off in 1987 with the Wilson Profile, are nearly twice as wide as conventional racquets. Widebodies dominate sales, but some players claim they give too much power, and pros largely reject them. This year, several racquet lines are available with a "classic" beam.

-- Weight and balance. Graphite racquets are available in models termed light (about 12.5 ounces) or super-light (about 11.5 ounces). Wilson's ultralight, 10-ounce model is paradoxically known as the "head-heavy" Hammer because most of its weight is in the head. The new weighting system not only makes the racquet more maneuverable but also moves the sweet spot to the upper part, where most players hit the ball. Because the head still has some heft to it, the Hammer retains power and avoids the added shock and vibration of "head-light" racquets. Prince offers similar models.

Grip designs aim to reduce shock and vibration, which contribute to arm injuries. Racquet makers are also experimenting with stringing techniques that add power and stability. Mizuno has the most ambitious claim, with a stringing system on its $265 Reactor "designed to correct off-center hits and eliminate mishits." Sound too good to be true? Mizuno promises that you can return the racquet within two weeks if it doesn't improve your accuracy 200%. You never know what high-tech wizardry can do for your game.

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