–Arts and letters for the modern age–

Cathode Ray Zone

–Arts and Letters for the Modern Age–

Joy in Craft

by | Feb 6, 2023

John Xu and me with our vintage wood racquets

For the last three years or so, my tennis partner (John Xu) and I have been playing with wood racquets: he with a vintage Jack Kramer; I with a vintage Chris Evert Autograph. Towards the end of 2022, John became aware that Grays of Cambridge is producing new wood racquets, and I bought three of them and switched over. They play like a dream; the best racquets I’ve handled in my many decades playing the game.

Gorgeous new woods from Grays of Cambridge

You’re likely wondering, Why wood racquets? After all, I also own two brand-spanking-new pro-stock Head Prestiges, made of the latest materials and sporting the newest and best synthetic strings. And isn’t the game so much better now than in the days when wood was the standard? Why play with these old sticks? Answering these questions will take us into the depths of the sport and to the joys that one experiences when one has attained a high level in one’s craft and let go of a certain idea of competition.

In any event, debates about “greatest of all time” are endless and unresolvable, as they require us to compare across eras when racquets, strings, balls, surfaces, and rules were very different. I weighed in on this question myself in “Fifty Years in the Game: Meditations on Tennis” and concluded that neither the players nor the game today are better than they were in the wood era (and especially not better than during the period between the start of the Open era in 1968 and the 1980’s, when wood gave over to the first round of graphite mid-size racquets), but this is obviously disputed and disputable, something I was reminded of after the most recent Australian Open wrapped up and the Novak Djokovic superfans loudly proclaimed him the greatest of all time, as they do every time he wins a tournament. The Tennis Channel’s “Greatest 100 Players of All Time” did a pretty good job on this front, but still suffers from contemporary bias. [1] 

But, back to the woods. One thing that John and I like about playing with them is that they add no power beyond what you bring to the stroke through your swing, footwork, and weight distribution. The racquet is as powerful as you are; no more and no less. Another is that wood racquets offer the greatest amount of control and precision in one’s shots. If you are good enough of a player, you can hit virtually any ball, anywhere, from any place in the court. (This is not possible with today’s racquets, which bring so much additional power to one’s shots that a lot of spin is essential if you want to keep the ball in the court, and this is why shot selection is more modest than it was in the 1970’s.) Wood racquets have these characteristics because the material flexes and absorbs pace and because they have a tight string pattern due to their small heads. If one’s strings are also made from a natural material – in the case of tennis racquets, they are made from cow’s gut – then the achievable level of control and precision is maximized. Chris Evert, who had the best groundstrokes of anyone ever to play the game, could hit a dime anywhere on the court, and this was especially true when she played with wood and gut, which she did for most of her career.

Chris Evert in the 1970’s.

Without the added power of graphite frames and polyester strings, one cannot simply overwhelm one’s opponent with brute force, and the overall pace of play is substantially lowered. This advantages smart, tactical, all-court, shot-selection-rich play and means that fitness and strength-training can only get you so far. You can’t just be a great athlete and win in this style of play, you actually have to be a great tennis player, something that has become less and less true, as the racquets and strings have gotten more and more powerful and as strength and fitness have surpassed intelligent gameplay in the current player’s list of priorities. Serena Williams isn’t a better tennis player than Martina Navratilova, she’s a better athlete, and the same is true for Novak Djokovic and Rod Laver, Rafael Nadal and John McEnroe or any other such pairing one could think of. Tennis today emphasizes grinding over shot-making and power over placement, turning it into a negative image of what it was before. This is why Roger Federer seemed like such a miracle in a sea of baseline bashers: he reminded everyone what the game used to be like, back when players like him were the norm rather than the exception. 

Two magnificent examples of tactical, skill-based play from the 1970’s: Roscoe Tanner v. Vitas Gerulaitis (US Open Semi-Final 1979, embedded above); and Chris Evert v. Evonne Goolagong (US Open Final, 1975, embedded to the right)

Wood racquets and gut strings and the gameplay they simultaneously demand and make possible have leveled the playing field between John and me. He has the youth and athleticism, and I have the greater experience and skill set. John didn’t begin playing until he was an adolescent, while I have been playing since I was six years old. John is largely self-taught, while I was trained at the Port Washington Tennis Academy, in the cohort that came after Vitas Gerulaitis, John McEnroe and Tracy Austin. (Indeed, when I was a young adolescent, I was lucky enough to be taught by McEnroe’s coach, Tony Palafox, among other excellent pros.)  

[L] Me in 1976, trying out an aluminum racquet, which I soon abandoned for the Kramer I’d been using; [R] 1980, with the last wood racquet – the Donnay Borg Pro – that I would play with until today. I’m sporting a Port Washington Tennis Academy t-shirt.

With modern racquets, John crushes me every time. He’s too young (just turned 30), too strong, too fast, and hits the ball with an amount of topspin and pace that simply overwhelms 54-year-old me. The woods greatly reduce these advantages, and the higher skill threshold required to play with them initially advantaged me to a significant degree. But John is a natural athlete and quick study – he was a competitive badminton player before tennis and is becoming quite a golfer – and easily acclimated to the wood game, so our play has settled into a sweet, tension-filled equilibrium, with me having some advantage in the shot-making department, while he enjoys greater agility and consistency. And as John gets better and I get fitter, the play will become even more sublime. 

And that, we realized, in a wonderful moment, has become the point: Sublimity in the mere playing of the game; the individual point as the relevant unit of measure, rather than the game or the set or the match; and the tools, these glorious wood racquets, making the winning of those points as much a matter of guile and wits and a varied toolset – of skill in tennis – as of endurance, speed, or strength.

It’s almost turned into a collaborative endeavor between John and me, this search for the perfect point; where the competitive dimension in which one tries to win has yielded to one in which the aim is to win with the best thing one has, without trying to game or cheese one’s opponent or maybe throwing this point to conserve energy so as to rally later. There’s just this point and nothing else, and what we’ve come to want is for it to be, above all, a good one. Where each of us really goes for it every time, with everything we know and have; where success is defined by whether the point was won well, whoever won it; and where we cheer as much for each other as for ourselves, when that great, winning shot is made. 

A very happy me, with my new Grays wood. I recently upgraded to the white, Heritage model, though the two play identically.

References

[1] All five parts of The Tennis Channel’s Greatest 100 series:

100-71 – https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=T_NFyJ-dxPI

70-41— https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=xRE84QsBUh0

40-21 – https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-qp2xKbVjYk

20-11 – https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=TofuwpNQDLQ

10-1 – https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=NL5KNHXC7r4

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