Take heart, Rube Goldberg fans. In this age of computer-perfect technology, which can land a man on the moon and produce the Dallas Cowboys, there is a truly mad little invention that is currently a cause cèlèbre in the high-powered, big-money world of tournament tennis and it threatens to produce some stunning changes in the sport.
In fact, you can make one yourself. All you need is nylon Venetian blind cord, surgical plastic tubing, adhesive tape, fishing line and masking tape and, voilà, you've got the double-strung or spaghetti tennis racket, so-called because some of its components look like strands of spaghetti.
In its 65 years of existence the International Tennis Federation has never specified what constitutes a tennis racket. Bobby Riggs in his heyday often clowned around hitting the ball with a broom, and, as far as the ITF is concerned, that would be a perfectly legal racket at the U.S. Open or Wimbledon. "I can hit the ball with my apple-juice bottle if I want to," said U.S. Tennis Association President W. E. (Slew) Hester a few months ago.
However, the spaghetti racket produces such a variety of unsettling effects on a tennis ball and on opponents that the ITF temporarily banned it last Oct. 3 so it could study the racket in detail. The prohibition was the first such in all the years of the play-and-let-play philosophy of the ITF, and it calls into question the technology of racket design as well as the philosophy of the game of tennis. Pressured by the West German Tennis Federation and several other European men her federations, the ITF's management committee appointed a group consisting of Patricio Rodrigues, an Association of Tennis Professionals tournament official: Giles de Kernadec, head of the French association's technical committee: and the USTA's Carlton Anderson, among others, to assess the spaghetti racket. The ITF also invited manufacturers and inventors to submit all new racket designs so it could test their effects on "...the rules and also the spirit and loyalty of the game."
After witnessing a demonstration of the spaghetti racket in a match between two touring pros in Barcelona, the committee decided to continue the ban until July 1, when it intends to present its recommendations at the ITF's annual meeting in Paris.
Stan Malless, an Indianapolis businessman, former USTA president and member of the ITF management committee, says, "The committee so far has read in detail a 30-page report on the effects of the spaghetti racket, done by a German technical university at the request of the German Federation, which says, and we agree somewhat, that the racket limits the game as we now know it to a long-rally base-line situation, which changes the character, if not the spirit, of tennis.
"The next stage, between now and July, will be a series of tests using stop-action photography to assess the effects of the racket on the ball from contact through flight. Then we'll put it all together."
Despite the ban, which covers satellite tournaments as well as Davis Cup and Grand Prix events, American tennis buffs will be able to buy the first commercially available spaghetti rackets from a German manufacturer, Werner Fischer, or be able to use their own metal frames with Fischer's special gut and hodgepodge of materials to create a double-strung effect. The rackets will be available at selected pro shops around the country this spring. Retailing in the $100 range, the racket will delight some hackers and enrage many of their puzzled and unsuspecting opponents.
"I'm surprised that it didn't happen sooner, given the fast-advancing technology of the manufacturers," says Anderson, who is head of the USTA's Equipment Committee. "Until the early '60s a tennis racket was pretty much a tennis racket. There was no need to impose rules and specifications, because there were no wild advances. But then came metal, and we were silent; then the Prince and graphite and composition rackets, and we were silent. With the spaghetti racket, we faced a situation in which the very nature of tennis was being challenged. The double-strung racket is just the tip of the iceberg in terms of new rules for the game."
Before it was banned, the spaghetti racket gained notoriety in Europe when Georges Goven of France and Erwin Müller of Germany, rather humdrum touring pros, began upsetting favorites. Then, in the U.S. Open at Forest Hills, 22-year-old Mike Fishbach, a U.S. pro ranked 200th by the Association of Tennis Professionals, used the racket to upset Billy Martin in the first round and followed that by beating the 1971 Open champ, Stan Smith, in two sets. The effects of the racket—mainly a greatly accelerated Guillermo Vilas or Bjorn Borg-style top spin—were summed up by John Feaver, who finally beat Fishbach using a conventional racket. Said an exhausted Feaver, "You don't know what's going on with the bloody thing. You can't hear the ball come off the face. It looks like an egg in flight. When it bounces, it can jump a yard this way or that, and up or down." Fishbach's good fortune with the spaghetti racket enabled him to climb to 94th in the ATP rankings, making it possible for him, like Borg and Jimmy Connors, to enter any tournament he wished without qualifying.
Two weeks after the U.S. Open ended last September, Goven, using Fischer's model of the spaghetti racket, whipped Ilie Nastase in the first round of a Paris tournament. Said an irked Nastase, "That's the first time I played against one of those things. And also the last. In the future I will refuse to play. I was running the whole time."
The next week at Aix-en-Provence, Nasty demonically showed up with a spaghetti racket for a final-round match with Vilas. Down two sets, Vilas withdrew. As he walked dejectedly from the court, he muttered, "...Nastase. Plus that racket...that's too much!" The defeat ended Vilas' 50-match winning streak. The next week Vilas was forced to miss a Madrid tournament with a wrist ailment; he claimed he injured it trying to return Nastase's unpredictable shots. Soon, to the relief of the top pros, the ITF imposed its ban on the racket.
The double-strung racket actually has a long history. Tennis historian George Alexander dug up a patent file on such a racket dating from 1881, when one Alex Hodgkinson of Manchester, England submitted the bright idea.
In the 1920s double-strung rackets had a short vogue in helping to prevent "woodsies" or rim shots and mis-hits, with the strings—unlike those on the current models—wrapped around the frame. But as rackets, court surfaces, balls and playing techniques improved, the need for such rackets decreased.
And then, six years ago, Fischer, a Munich horticulturist turned inventor, got his inspiration. "I was used to the tremendous cut and spin you could get with the foam-covered Ping-Pong paddle," he says, "and I wanted the same effects in tennis." At first, what Fischer calls the tennis Establishment in Germany scoffed at his invention. "I took the racket to a teaching pro and he said it was ugly, primitive and, besides, the major makers had tried everything, and I should forget it."
Fischer then hooked up with players as odd as his racket. Müller had great success using it. "Unfortunately," says Fischer, "Müller, like me, was a working-class kid in an upper-crust game. He has a hick accent, he drinks beer between games and he doesn't behave in the classic manner. He turned off the rest of the pros."
Another outsider's story is that of Barry Phillips-Moore, a 47-year-old Australian pro. "I saw a training model of Fischer's racket and hit 10 balls with it. It was the greatest thing since boiled water," he enthuses. Phillips-Moore constructed son of spaghetti, basing his design on Fischer's. Because the racket frame can be made of almost any material—although metal is best—one doesn't need Fischer's whole racket, just the stringing system. (In fact, Mike Fishbach based his racket on Phillips-Moore's, making it grandson of spaghetti.) And, like Müller, Phillips-Moore began winning with the racket. In July of 1977, Fischer and Phillips-Moore formed a business relationship, which they have since dissolved over a work-related difference.
The reviews of the racket are mixed. Those pros who are doing very well financially want to ban it, and those who have every penny to gain from using it are for it. Arthur Ashe, probably the player most knowledgeable about racket design, opposes it, technically and esthetically, and his arguments sum up those heard in top tennis circles. "Because the main strings of the racket are doubled over the supporting—horizontal—strings and tied to them, they all move with a sliding motion, giving the ball top spin of such acute velocity that you can't duplicate it. If Borg used it, God knows what would happen. And this increased spin means that you can hit the ball very hard and know it will land inside the base line with that spin pulling it down. It also means that a guy coming to the net against it is open to the most exaggerated lobs, which he can't possibly reach.
"You can't volley very effectively with the racket, so you and your opponent stay at the base line. Given the huge crowds that tennis now attracts, I think it would produce a dull, boring game. It would turn off the audience to see endless rallies, and no one going in.
"Also, on clay—and the racket is really only useful on clay—the surface 'gives' so much that the bounce of the ball is wild and high and can be very wide. It's just too much ground to cover in three sets in 80° weather. It's inhuman. If they allow the racket, they'll have to make the court dimensions smaller."
Counters Carlton Anderson of the USTA, "No way will we ever change the dimensions of the court. Can you imagine going around the world changing two million or so courts? And what about regular rackets? It's unthinkable."
As an advocate of the over-the-hill and yet-to-be gangs, Phillips-Moore says, "People ask me, why do you want to revolutionize the game? I say why not. Winning tennis is better tennis. You get more top spin, more power and more control with the double-strung racket and you have a bigger margin of error. Sport all over the world is constantly changing, always being revolutionized. And if someone wins a big purse with it, it'll be the racket of the future."
Perhaps the complaint of the West German Tennis Federation gets closest to the heart of the controversy: "The racket does not allow players to achieve complete mastery of the game, and complete mastery of the game is the only way players can keep abreast of international standards." In other words, the Germans are worried that the racket might spawn a generation of tennis simpletons who could only play with the spaghetti racket and would go to pieces if forced to use anything else. It is, perhaps, the same kind of worry that parents express about their children learning math with calculators, figuring that someday, out in the desert, the kid will have to figure out a hypotenuse with dead batteries.
Professional players voice similar concerns, but their fears have more to do with who's winning the prize money than with who's taking shortcuts. They are not quite ready for a horde of Mike Fishbachs and Georges Govens and Erwin Mailers picking up the checks and the points. Says Sandy Mayer, "I think they've already made it such a zoo with the slow clay and the heavier balls, they might as well go all the way and make it a circus with that racket."
Most tennis officials have little hope that the ITF will indeed come up with a single set of standards to which all rackets must conform. "It took five years to get a tie-break rule ratified," says Anderson, "and a racket standard would be just too much." Some opponents of the ITF's more aggressive involvement in world-class tennis—among other things, it has announced it will rank the best players—say the organization's position on the spaghetti racket is political. Charlie Pasarell says, "The ITF smelled the money coming out of America, and suddenly it wanted to name the best player, be the arbiter of rackets and everything. It saw an opening, and stepped in fast. We need worldwide conformity of officiating, but the ITF may not be equipped to handle it. As usual, it's made the tournament judge the final voice on equipment. It's a top-level sport still run like a bush-league operation."
Whether the ITF is strong enough or not, there are several precedents in sports-equipment controversies that may prove helpful in its deliberations. "Back in the Munich Olympics, Bob Seagren was prevented from using his unorthodox fiber-glass poles for vaulting," says Anderson. "The resulting flap went on until some months later when the IOC issued its rule that any equipment not commercially available one year and one day before an event may be ruled illegal by the field judge. I think the ITF had that in mind when it issued the ban. There were rumors that Fischer was about to go into production in the United States and it wanted to stop him until it knew more about it."
Stan Malless admits that because the ITF took some heat over not investigating the king-sized Prince racket when it was introduced three years ago, its officials became nervous over the spaghetti racket controversy. "We want to stop any gimmicks that will make tennis a 'funny' game," he says.
Fischer still thinks that the main reason for the ban is that the controlling interests in tennis, while voicing "protection of the game" as their reason for the ban, may actually be discriminating against him in favor of the major equipment manufacturers. "There may be a lot of truth to that," says one U.S. pro who wishes not to be identified, fearing for his own endorsement. "You can't imagine how much weight major suppliers like Bancroft, Dunlop, Wilson and the others swing on the tour. And the sponsors of tournaments, too. If Virginia Slims and Colgate wanted spaghetti rackets, they'd be all over the place."
In the fast-moving world of racket technology, however, the spaghetti racket may be cold pasta before the ITF reaches a decision. Says Tracy Leonard, AMF-Head's racket wizard in Boulder, Colo., where he is head of tennis products, "The main thrust of the spaghetti racket is to produce an incredible amount of top spin, and that is not the way the game is supposed to be played. Look at the criticism Borg and Vilas have taken from purists about their clay games, full of spins and cuts and lobs. But they're winning, and that's the fashion in tennis currently.
"We spent a week with Fischer here in Boulder. He offered us the exclusive U.S. distributorship of his stringing method. That would mean that pro shops handling Head rackets would be licensed dealers of the system. But although we tested the system exhaustively and found it to be superb, we finally turned him down. The short-term reason is that the enforcement problems are too great. Suppose a dealer across the street from ours starts stringing with the Fischer method? We'd spend all our time in court."
But the main reason that Head and other U.S. manufacturers did not pick up Fischer's design is an ominous one. Says Leonard, "Since the main aspect of the racket is to make incredible top spin, and since the ITF's objection is double stringing and 'protuberances' on the face, we've been working on a single-stringing system with a smooth face that gives the player exactly the same top spin. We're not that far away from it. And Fischer admitted to us that he's close to the same thing."
So the spaghetti racket may already be an antique before the ban is decided. "And that's not all that's in the works," says Leonard. "We've got things on the drawing boards that would give the ITF people hemorrhages."
As the pressure mounts from other dreamers, inventors and manufacturers, the ITF's London offices are being deluged with new racket designs. There's an updated 1905 square-headed racket, and a triangular one. A man in Illinois has a racket with a boomerang-shaped handle, which he claims will give 34% more power; a New Yorker has a racket with a telescoping handle, which lengthens for volleying. There are substances to spray on strings to make them tacky for top spin; there are new synthetic fibers for strings that promise buzz-saw slices. And from deep in central Europe comes the most frightening rumor—suction cups!
A calm voice in the storm is Rex Bellamy, who wrote in the London Times recently, "Experiments with the design and composition of rackets are as old as the game itself. Innovations have been tested...and subsequently accepted, modified or discarded. The freedom to seek improvement should be protected, not discouraged."
On the other hand, one wonders why big-time tennis doesn't police itself better than it does. Perhaps it is, as Pasarell says, that the big money and the big spotlight came so swiftly that the sport is still catching up.
The United States Golf Association, for instance, exhaustively tests all new club innovations. Renowned for doggedly examining the effects of graphite shafts—which set off a shopping spree by duffers all over the country—and for scrutinizing the width and depth of grooves on the club head, the USGA has maintained the dignity of its sport in an age of media hype and huge purses.
Says Tracy Leonard, "If the ITF is serious about rackets, it'll need a standing committee to test and experiment with all rackets. It needs technical expertise, too, which it doesn't have now. They're in over their' heads. For instance, the 'convenience' regulation for the double-stringing ban was that the racket produced a double-hit or a carry, which is illegal. But we have slow-motion films of more than a hundred rackets already in use, and you'll find a surprising number of them producing a double hit. So the ITF needs to clear away the clutter and get down to business if it's serious." The ITF may be catching up fast, however. Says Malless, "We just changed the double-hit rule to say that only an intentional one or an intentional 'carry' is illegal. We watch films, too."
And Mike Fishbach reflects, "I'm approached by lawyers all the time who tell me that we could win a suit against the ban. But I just want to play tennis. The racket did a lot for me, and a lot of it was psychological. That's true of equipment in any sport, I suppose. I've been playing a lot better with a conventional racket since the ban. The spaghetti job maybe just gave me the confidence I needed; it let me see my own potential."
When the ITF meets again in July, there is little chance that a specific set of rules will be established. Things will go on as before, with perhaps only one racket rule on the books—no double-stringing. And so the dreamers and the Rube Goldbergs will still have hope. Muses Charlie Pasarell, "I've always dreamed of a vacuum cleaner racket. I'd wear this power pack on my back, see. In one hand I'd have a hose to suck the ball in from anywhere, and in the other hand a hose to shoot the ball back over the net at tremendous speed...."