This may sound like the beginning of an international espionage plot, but right now, in the ramshackle basement of a Victorian cottage deep within the grounds of the old Ardsheal estate in the parish of Paget outside the glistening cobblestones of Hamilton, Bermuda, there is a wonderfully mad British wine merchant concocting the perfect gift for the tennis player who has every string, uh, thing. It is a racket with strings on both sides.
What Robin Blackburne devoutly hopes is that people will look before they laugh, contemplate the phenomenon before condemning it and, especially, that tennis players will rush to the net with it before rushing to judgment about his revolutionary creation.
Blackburne's idea, in short, is to eliminate the so-called "wood shot" or "miss-hit" by eliminating the frame itself from the hitting area of the racket. To this end, he has invented one whose strings are constructed along the same plane as the frame. Rather than ending at the frame, the gut or nylon is strung through the frame all the way around. This gives the racket two different string faces and results in nearly solid hitting surfaces on both sides, unencumbered by the ridges of wood or metal or fiber glass or graphite or any other of that nasty hard stuff that makes up the frame and interrupts the sweet "bing" sound of a well-struck tennis shot.
On first thought, if this instrument appears impossible to string and doomed to the problems of stress breakage as well as excess head weight; if Blackburne's claim that it presents a player with "90% more hitting area" sounds like gross exaggeration; if the racket itself seems too funny looking to be true—it probably is, all of that. But the bottom line is that it works.
Finely honed and wrinkle-free (which, if the thing ever gets into mass production, it most assuredly will be), this is a racket with which you can hit a shot almost on the edge and never feel the difference as the ball jets into the deepest corner for an outright winner.
Blackburne, age 42, derived inspiration for this hackers' dream tool from the difficult experiences of a doubles partner, George Wardman. Like a few of us who tend to grow older rather than younger, Wardman, the owner of the Coral Beach and Tennis Club in Bermuda, found himself having increasing problems with "frame shots" as he advanced into his 60s, playing in the late-afternoon light on his private grass court.
"It infuriated George that he kept hitting these woodsies," says Blackburne. "Then one day it suddenly occurred to me. Eureka! [Blackburne actually says things like woodsies and eureka]. The wood of the racket clearly projected half an inch out from the strings. If the entire surface were flat rather than ridged, there would be almost no wood shots."
If this seems more an elementary notion than a discovery for the ages, Blackburne is prepared. "A tennis ball is struck on the principle of a dart board," he says. "You aim at the middle, but most darts end up all around the circumference. Most players hit the ball nearer the frame than the sweet spot. Even at the net the average player often hits the ball on the frame. Only the best pros catch the ball in the middle constantly. Yet who among us has not seen even Rocket Rod slash one off the wood on occasion?
"Why, at Paris last year, I counted the number of frame shots in the men's doubles at the French Open. At least two or three occurred almost every game. I figured that to eliminate the ridge on a racket would be to find paradise."
After long hours spent accumulating drawings and specifications, testing different materials, discussing theories with patent agents and keeping his idea secret to the point of acting absurdly mysterious while carrying around preliminary sketches in a black bag, Blackburne finished his first prototype two years ago. He had used an old Slazenger frame, some used nylon string, an iron vise and three awls. He worked through the night and at dawn rushed to the Coral Beach courts only to discover the tennis backboard had been removed. So he went to a lawyer friend's home, borrowed a backboard and started hitting balls. "Eureka!" Blackburne said again. It worked.
Since then, Blackburne has "restrung" almost all the big-name manufacturers' models—Wilson, Dunlop, Bancroft and Head, even the French Gauthier and the new graphite jobs—and some companies have expressed interest in production. At this point, however, everybody has been stumped by the fact that no machine exists to handle the double strings, by the heavy stress factor that causes conventional wood rackets to crack along the laminations and by excess head weight. Given the trend to lighter rackets, nobody wants to swing one that may feel like a five-iron with a watermelon stuck on the end.
That old miracle graphite could be the savior of the Blackburne innovation. "It used to frighten me that almost no rackets cost over $45," he says, "but suddenly this bloody good graphite number is going for $150 and up, and they can't sell enough of them. Graphite's strength-to-weight ratio is staggering. The material can withstand the stress my double-stringing demands, and it will be light enough as well. As for the cost, I remember the original ball-point pen sold for $35 in the 1940s. The demand should far exceed the supply for this, too. For a while."
A veteran at the game of revolutionary inventions to save mankind, Blackburne's recent past is filled with ideas whose times haven't come. He grew up in England before moving to Bermuda 15 years ago and founding the Bristol Cellar, that beauteous pink island's leading wine merchants. He has since thought up a new reading device for hospitalized invalids, an original electric razor and a snow ski that is so revolutionary he won't even tell his tall, blonde and exquisite wife Joy what it is.
"I've always been dissatisfied with the design of things," Blackburne says. "My grandfather said, 'The lazy take the most pains,' and I guess I'm lazy enough to work my rear off to find an easier way of not working. Or to make a change. Even the bastardization of the English language by commerce gets to me. I would make it against the law to use words out of our dictionary as product labels. 'Dash,' 'Tide,' 'Whiz,' 'Velvet Squeeze,' whatever. It's awful what they've done to words. Why not name products with nonwords? Why not call a soap 'Pling,' for instance?"
His family—Joy; their young daughters, Amanda and Sacha; the cats, Spic and Span; and the rabbits, Romulus and Remus—all have come to an enviable accommodation with the fanciful flights of the head of the clan. Likewise, Blackburne's friends and neighbors. "This time, with the crazy racket thing," says one friend, "I think that Robin's made one too many trips down to the wine cellar."
But the creator has found solace in and gained increasing confidence from the reactions to his racket by important people in the tennis community. While deploring the appearance of the instrument, most of the players who have used it admit it "plays better than it looks."
Vitas Gerulaitis, the young American pro, reached the finals of the Princess Hotel Invitational in Bermuda against Jimmy Connors recently. He hit with the racket a couple of times and said it "felt good, easy to get used to." Gerulaitis told Blackburne he'd "make a lot of bread on it." And Jack Kramer said he loved the idea.
One morning at breakfast, while discussing the ignominy of frame shots with Kramer, Blackburne dramatically pulled some rackets from his black bag. Kramer was awestruck. "Of course," he exclaimed. "You've got it!"
Even if Blackburne hasn't got it, in the event that he gets his double-stringed brainstorm into production, surely there are enough wealthy hackers out there who will fall over themselves buying it just to be the first on their blocks. Still, the inventor opts for the practicality of the instrument over the novelty. "Tennis is such a percentage game of inches," he says, "that a single shot which does or does not go in on match point means $25,000 to these professional chaps. Is my racket, which would save them that point on a frame shot, worth that much? At a lower level of play, is it worth more than that in pride? Of course it is."
Blackburne himself has achieved some measure of that pride by using the racket to win the first tournament of his career, a mixed-doubles affair at Coral Beach. "I can't play with the ancient standard thing anymore," he says. "I see one of them lying around and say to myself, 'What old-fashioned-looking trash.' "
Ah, but what to call the revolutionary new weapon? Blackburne has thought of affixing his own name to it, calling it "Robinsky's Racket," but he admits that would be ill-advised. If such a unique gimmick cannot earn attention on its own—surely a thought to be perished—it may need something more catchy. Already it has been suggested to Blackburne that he go more show biz, that he choose a crowd-appealing moniker like "Double-Trouble," for instance. Or "The Two-Face." Something like that.
Lastly, of course, there is always "Pling"—if Procter & Gamble hasn't arrived there first. After all, Robin Blackburne invented Pling, too.