Sport: Gripping Stuff
The most enjoyable moment of my admittedly highlight-deficient tennis career was the defeat of my old boss, the owner of a diecasting factory in Manchester where I toiled for five years in the mid-1980s. It was a victory made all the sweeter by the supreme irony of the circumstances. My boss, you see, had lost two of his fingers in an accident when he attempted to remove grass from the blades of an electric lawnmower, a lawnmower that his own company manufactured. The cunning of history, the revenge of the machine, call it what you will, it meant he was unable to pursue the pleasures of the court—nor, as one of his employees pointed out, the pleasures of the flesh—with the same vigour or legerdemain as before. Being the owner of a diecasting factory, however, meant that he had access to designers and engineers capable of creating a specially unique handle for his racquet, affixed using epoxy resin so that my boss could slide his hand inside and grip the handle with what remained of his digits. In order to test the new grip’s viability, he invited—nay, summoned—the one other tennis player in the factory, me, to his exclusive tennis club out in the Cheshire countryside for a match.
Perhaps I should have treated the occasion as an opportunity to network, to meet the Cheshire set, to run with the hounds rather than the fox. But what indignant, petulant, post-adolescent tennis-playing employee could turn down the chance to humiliate his boss on his home turf, in front of an array of his class allies: the doctors, lawyers, stockbrokers, and assorted retired military types too cheap to join the golf club. I pictured myself whitewashing my handicapped employer and shaking his depleted hand before turning to the assembled throng of exploiters and parasites and flourishing two fingers in their direction – much like the longbowmen at Agincourt.
The Bourgeoisie are nothing if not sly, however. We played on a rainy day in September when the only people in attendance were the barman and the groundsman, neither of whom had any great interest in tennis nor me and no doubt assumed I was just another lickspittle lackey or running dog of capitalism. The day was so miserable, my boss so useless and pathetic, that my humanity got the better of me and I allowed him to win a few points that inconsequential afternoon.
Not games, you understand. Points. I still whitewashed the fucker. It’s the tennis code, after all.
I recount this event not just to present you with evidence of my compassion and general decency but also to support my observation that in those days the racquets that players used made a significant difference to their ability. In my boss’s case, for example, he wouldn’t have been able to even hold his racquet without that special grip. He would have had to forfeit the match and have missed out on those few points I allowed him. And while I can’t remember what racquet I was using that day, I’ve no doubt that it made me look cool and debonair as I mashed the face of my handicapped opponent into the Wilmslow dirt.
It makes very little difference what racquet a player uses today. Technology has levelled the playing field in such a way that the better player always wins. Only an idiot child of the Bourgeoisie buys the racquet Nadal or Sharapova uses and expects it to make a difference to his/her win ratio. What it will do is reduce the learning curve, the amount of time required to learn how to get the ball over the net. But, since all players have that capacity these days, an 8-year-old with the same racquet will give your snivelling Bourgeois a run for their money. And while tennis players today still try to look cool on court, they have been reduced to outfitting themselves in the same gear sported by Nadal and Federer, with the result that they look like fancy-dress sailors (Federer) or sexually-ambiguous pirates (Nadal). Back in my day, of course, there were always Bjorn Borg impersonators on the circuit—The UK under-18 circuit, that is—but everyone else knew that they were compensating psychologically for being an unloved only child. And nobody, but nobody, tried to look like Jimmy Connors. They’d have been institutionalized. It was the racquet that did all your talking for you. This is what they said:
1: The Wilson Jack Kramer
Okay, so this racquet basically said you were a girl. It was, after all, the racquet Tracy Austin used to great effect in winning the U.S. Open in 1979 and 1981. Moreover, it was fantastic for baseline play back when baseline play was for the ladies only, and for serves so soft the opponent fell asleep waiting for them. Note, incidentally, the three-pointed crown on the shaft. It was widely believed that this signified Jack Kramer’s indebtedness to the KKK. As with the design of the Marlboro packet, however, this story is apocryphal. He undoubtedly owed more of his success to the cattle industry: the “sheep gut” used to string racquets in those days were actually made from cow intestine.
2: The Prince Classic
I won’t make the tired joke about this being a racquet for big heads, principally because this was the racquet I used for much of my youth. Prince, in its infinite wisdom and trying to break into the UK market, was happy to throw these things at any enterprising teenager playing tournaments who wrote to them claiming to be the next Vitas Gerulaitis. The Prince Classic was the first large-size racquet to appear, designed at Princeton University, hence the name. Unwieldy, cheap looking and evidence of ambition beyond one’s abilities, this racquet told opponents coming onto the court that they were about to beat an obnoxious brat. It was a racquet that spent more time being thrown against the back fence than being held in the hand.
3: The Dunlop Maxply Fort
At one point in the 20th century, every garage in the United Kingdom contained an Austin Humber, a bike with a basket on the front and a Dunlop Maxply Fort, the last of these held in a wooden brace to prevent warping. Because of some secret cabal operating at the uppermost heights of the LTA, all British professional tennis players were expected to use the Maxply Fort, manufactured, some said, in the bowels of Fort Dunlop, Birmingham, by twisted and undernourished inmates/employees driven demented by the smell of rubber. Virginia Wade won Wimbledon using one of these once. Nobody else ever won anything with it.
4: The Wilson Jack Kramer Pro Staff
This was the racquet John McEnroe switched to after starting his career with the Maxply Fort, i.e., this is the racquet he used when he started winning stuff. It’s a stiff, unimaginative choice that says “I want you to think that I don’t care what you think of me”. Very few youngsters on the circuit were willing to be seen using it, but those who were usually carried four or five under their oxters, a real “fuck you” to their moms and dads, who’d paid for them. The two diamonds on the staff are evidence of Jack Kramer’s indebtedness to South African diamond mine interests.
5: The Donnay Bjorn Borg Pro
I never saw anyone win a match using this racquet. It seemed to have been designed so that only the man himself could wield it correctly. Its possession and use were accompanied by a series of strange side effects: Blowing on the hands, bouncing from one foot to the other when receiving serve, and the wearing of budgie-smuggler shorts and towelling headbands, wristbands and cockrings (the last of these I overheard while sitting next to a table of tennis groupies at Queens Club). The Borg Pro had an extended grip, as you can see here, going more than half-way up the shaft. This was for the double-handed backhands that one or two foreigners were suspiciously incorporating into the game and which the LTA would have preferred to outlaw. Rumours were that the extended grip came from ripping out the interiors of all the Volvos involved in crashes the night Sweden switched from driving on the left to the right.
6: The Snauwaert Ergonom
I only ever saw one of these racquets and it was in the sports department of Harrods in 1983. Nobody was ever daft enough to try using one on court. I suspect there was a malfunction on the Snauwaert production line and rather than scrap the thousands of defects, the company figured it could flog them to wealthy morons under the pretext of “ergonomic design”. To walk on court with one of these would have meant hoping to win purely by distracting the opponent, who couldn’t tell whether you were upside down or back to front.
7: The Head Vilas
Now this was the racquet all the cool kids wanted. For one thing, it was expensive, the first graphite-wood combination to be taken onto a tennis court other than in the umpire’s top pocket. Carrying two or more of these onto court signified that you had the wealth of the Orient at your command. It also carried with it the explicit endorsement of Guillermo Vilas, unarguably the coolest tennis player of all time, even if he couldn’t play on any surface other than clay—he couldn’t even win the final of Wimbledon in the movie Players against Dean Martin’s son. But it didn’t really matter how good a tennis player you were if you owned a few of these. You had already won the game of life. You spoilt prick.
8: The Wilson T2000
Everybody laughed at Jimmy Connors when he carried this children’s racquet onto Centre Court in 1974 for the Wimbledon Men’s Singles Final against Ken Rosewall. Nobody was laughing at the end of the match, though. Not after he had made every child in the crowd cry. And not a few adults, too, who’d been hoping to see the ageing, elegant Ken grab a final title against the brash American upstart. Calling Connors “brash”, btw, is not only clichéd but also the equivalent of calling Hitler “misanthropic”. Rosewall’s humiliation should have had kids rushing out to buy these racquets by the armful, but it soon dawned on them that they had the capacity to make them at home using a few coat hangers, some elastic bands and some sellotape (for the especially sticky grip). For the full Connors experience all they had to add was sweariness. And what kid can resist that?
9: The Fischer Superform
Another production line defect, this time from ski manufacturer Fischer, who managed to lure one-time tennis great Stan Smith away from Wilson with the promise of, if not pomp regained, free holidays in Gstaad. This was also the racquet used by doubles legends Bob Hewitt and Frew McMillan, hugely popular back in those delightful, innocent days when coming from apartheid South Africa was, in many tennis circles, a mere curio or an opening conversational gambit. I never got to play with a Fischer Superform, and the only player I ever saw use one on the circuit was Smith, in Manchester, the year he declared himself ready to win Wimbledon again (1980). He didn’t.
10: Head Arthur Ashe
This was as close as many tennis players in Surrey got to a black man in the 1980s. My regular practice partner had a couple of these, and while he was useless, this was a racquet that shouted panache, class and quality so loudly that nobody asked you the score when you came off court. Sadly, it was impossible to hit the ball with any spin whatsoever using this racquet, so stiff was the frame. You might as well have been holding a frying pan—something that Jimmy Connors once did for a charity match to show just how willing he was to humiliate opponents, even at a “fun” event. I always wanted one of these, and never had one, which is why I feel compelled to slag it off even today. Tennis players are like that. They never grow up.