Tennis: Should You Buy A Long Racket?

So Michael Chang, who popularized the extra-long tennis racket and is the only top-ranked touring pro to use one, was knocked out in the first round at Wimbledon. Does that mean you shouldn't fork over $200 for an "extended-length," "stretch," "LongBody," or "superlong" piece of equipment that resembles a rug beater? Hardly. Even if you're only a serious weekend player who's looking for an edge, these new rackets are worth a try.

Power--especially on the serve--is what they're all about. Up to five inches longer from top to bottom than the standard 27-in. racket, the new issues get their extra oomph from faster head speed. Extended rackets now account for 25% of units sold in U.S. specialty stores and pro shops, but because of their higher price--up to double the price of a plain-vanilla racket-- they account for 34% of dollar sales, says Bill Lawliss, president of market researcher Sports Research.

The longer rackets, launched nationally last year, have taken off faster than the tennis world's last two major innovations: the oversize racket of the '70s and the wide-body of the '80s. Although Dunlop Slazenger was first with the longer models, the match quickly boiled down to Prince vs. Wilson. Together, the pair sold 98% of the extended rackets bought during the first quarter of 1996, according to Lawliss.

Chang's Prince Graphite LongBody, 28 in. long with a 107-sq.-in. hitting area, is the top-selling extended racket in the world, thanks to hot Asian demand. It's No.3 in the U.S., behind the Wilson 2.8si Sledge Hammer Stretch (28.5 in. long and 116 sq. in. hitting area) and the Prince Extender Mach 1000 (29 in. long and a huge 124-sq.-in. hitting area). But more-advanced converts prefer a smaller hitting surface, for better control.

In this game, longer has come to mean lighter. On average, manufacturers have taken two to three ounces off the racket's weight. The Wilson 2.8 and the Mach 1000 weigh only 9.4 oz. and 8.8 oz., respectively, and the Prince Chang is 10.3 oz. "Lighter weight gives you superior leverage and increased head speed for more power," explains Charlie Peifer, CEO of Prince. "Space Age materials, especially graphite, have made this possible."

Increased power on the serve is estimated at about 10% per extra inch of length by John Powless, a 63-year-old who is top-ranked nationally in the 55-and-over category. Intimidating enough at 6 feet, 5 inches, Powless uses a 29-in. frame that he says also widens the window into his opponent's service box by about 6% per additional inch because the ball is struck at a higher angle. Chang's statistics confirm this. He served 256 aces in the year before he switched to a longer racket. During the first half of 1996, Chang has already hit 212.

A big reason for the popularity of the Wilson 2.8si and the Prince Mach 1000 is their target audience: seniors, women, and beginning-tointermediate players with fat wallets who buy "performance" rackets, which are sold unstrung and then tuned to give weaker hitters more power. Marge Schinnerer, a mother of four who lives in Chevy Chase, Md., says her Wilson 2.8si Stretch "gives me more power and strength. When you're middle-aged, short, and an average player--like me--it can be a real shot in the arm."

Indeed, the head pro at LaJolla Beach & Tennis Club, Bill Bond, estimates that "50% of the older folks are using longer frames." Explains Prince's Peifer: "All of a sudden, you're 10 years younger." Just ask E. Sidney Willis, 86, chairman of the Greenwich (Conn.) Chamber of Commerce, who bought a long racket in late June: "It puts a little spunk in my serve."

TEST DRIVE. Still, the longer units take some getting used to. "There's an instantaneous improvement in everybody's serve," says Steve Bromley, head pro at Chicago's Saddle & Cycle Club. "But you do have to adjust your contact point a little farther forward on ground strokes and volleys."

That's why pros suggest trying out several models before plunking down the big bucks. One, tennis great Billie Jean King, advises players to emulate golfers: "They miss a few putts and throw away the club. Hit a few serves with a long racket, and see if you like it."

Chang does. A few days before he bombed at Wimbledon, the 5-ft.-9-in. pro said his longer racket "gives me more reach and snap, power and accuracy, almost as if I'm gaining a little bit of height."

But not too much. In June, the International Tennis Federation slashed the 32-in. maximum allowed to 29 in., effective next Jan. 1 for professionals and three years later for amateurs who are playing in sanctioned tournaments.

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