Years ago, back when Howard Head was just an impoverished young inventor struggling to sell a new-fangled metal ski to an indifferent world, a friend staying overnight at his Baltimore flat was awakened in the wee hours by an unholy wailing. Fearing bloody murder, the friend rushed to investigate and found Head thrashing in his sleep and crying out, "I know I'm right! I know I'm right!"
And so he was, as evidenced by the small fortune he schussed off with after revolutionizing the ski industry in the 1950s and '60s. Now a mellowing 66, Head has learned to endure—indeed, savor—rejection, because he has come to see it as a measure of man's vision. It is axiomatic, he says: "The more innovative the concept, the greater the resistance." In other words, when you're right, derision is the prelude to acclaim.
Head, a 6'4" gangleshanks with a Mr. Clean pate, should know. Just four years ago, when he loped onto the courts brandishing his latest brainstorm, a racket that looked as big and unwieldy as a screen door, he was greeted by a chorus of guffaws and wisecracks that would have shamed Fulton into scuttling his steamboat. Hey, Howard, the wags chortled, what are you going to do with that contraption? Strain spaghetti? Chase butterflies? Seine for minnows? Teaching pro Vic Braden allowed as how Head's bionic banjo would add a new dimension to the game: "Now when you serve, you'll hit both your legs rather than only one."
Head just smiled his all-knowing smile, but not Mal Bash, a Head associate who had been corralled into trying out "this big, funny-looking snowshoe of a racket." Bash says, "It was embarrassing. People would come up and ask, 'Is that thing legal?' and, in all seriousness, 'What kind of game are you playing?' "
September 28, 1980
Tennis is the game, Prince is the name, and nowadays the only one who is laughing is Head—all the way to the bank. Yes, Howard was right. Again. At a time when sales of other rackets have been dying like so many drop shots, the Prince line has taken off like a moon ball.
At the Metropolitan Racquet Club in Houston, for example, Prince accounts for approximately 85% of the club's racket sales. At Paragon Sporting Goods Center in New York City, one of the nation's largest discount athletic equipment stores, tennis manager Conroy Peterson claims that the new Prince Graphite is so "wildly successful" that his customers are wistfully intoning Some Day My Prince Will Come. "We're so deluged with orders that right now the waiting time for delivery is three months," Peterson says. Twenty-six blocks north, at Feron's Tennis & Racquet Shop, Bonnie Kasten adds, "You don't have to sell Prince rackets. They just come in the back door and walk out the front."
And for good reason, says Head, indulging in a little I-told-you-so savoring. "The Prince is the shape the tennis racket should've been in the first place. I have no doubt that in three or four years it will be the conventional frame and the others will be thought of as small, funny-looking and old-fashioned. This is no boomlet. It's an absolute explosion. The word is out: the Prince is for real!"
As real, at least, as any innovation can be in a market that is crowded with dozens of rackets that promise unreal results. Certainly the Prince folks spare no superlatives in proclaiming that theirs is "the most successful racket in tennis history," the one with four times the effective hitting area, the one delivering more power, control and consistency, not to mention "twice as much fun, twice as many rallies." All of which is backed up by diagrams and the kind of technical lingo that has Prince owners talking of polar moments of inertia, centers of percussion and coefficients of restitution.
As a rule, such sales pitches for rackets have been about as credible as player endorsements; Bjorn Borg could win with a frying pan, and anyone who believes that the pros' brand allegiances aren't for sale to the highest bidder—Borg gets at least $600,000 a year for using the Don-nay wood—better guess again. The differences among the best conventional rackets are too slight for the big-money players to concern themselves with trifling matters like truth in advertising.
However, the geometry of the Prince is obviously very different, the first radical change in racket design in a century. Oh, there have been a few oddments over the decades, beginning with the rectangular racket that Richard Sears used to win the first national championship in 1881. There were experiments with a racket that was bent like a pitchfork, the better, one fancied, to scoop up those devilish low balls. And so on through the years: diagonal stringing, crooked handles, elongated handles and even a ventilated handle with a tiny, battery-powered fan inside to keep the grip dry.
Tennis has seen and scorned them all. It is no small marvel that the Prince has survived, much less succeeded, in a sport so notoriously resistant to change that it has only recently recovered from the trauma of the introduction of yellow tennis balls. Yet, survive the Prince has, to the point that in many areas of the country Head's snowshoe is now on the other foot, so to speak. While many Prince devotees swear by it as a cure for tennis elbow, it has also caused a rash of tennis nose, which is a tendency to look down on the poor traditionalists and ask what in the world they intend to do with those antique minirackets. Stir their espresso? Filter out lint? Swat gnats?
Fads and foibles aside, what makes the Prince certifiably special is that it has achieved what merchandisers only dream of and no amount of endorsement money can buy: word-of-mouth acceptance. Today at least 700,000 players are flailing away with their trusty Prince rug beaters, and Head considers each one of them his best salesman. Their spiel is the same: "I'm getting more balls back"; "I don't have to be as careful"; and the clincher—"I'm beating people I never beat before." In short, by decree of vox populi, the only imprimatur that really counts, Head's contraption works.
Indeed the Prince had to deliver, debuting as it did in 1976, the year that the great tennis boom peaked and then went bust. Over the past four years racket sales have fallen from a high of $184 million to $138 million and the number of players has shrunk from 28 million in 1978 to 20 million. In large part, the defectors were more interested in following the latest fashion than the bouncing ball, and when the game proved more difficult to master than anticipated, the faddists folded their designer togs and moved on to jogging and roller skating.
Which is just fine by Head, who explains that the enthusiasts who remain "are the kind of players we like, the hardcore kind who are serious about their games and their equipment." Surprisingly, in these inflationary times, while the cheap wooden rackets made in Taiwan have all but vanished from the sales charts, the Prince Graphite, which goes for a very serious $250, has become the nation's No. 1-selling racket. The Graphite, along with the original Classic ($65); the newer Pro ($90, unstrung), an aluminum racket that's stiffer than the Classic; and the newest addition to the line, the Woodie ($140), a composite of wood and graphite, has helped boost Prince sales 55% this year. Overall, with three models—the Graphite, Woodie and Pro—among the 12 best-selling rackets, Prince has come from nowhere to glom 13% of the market and is challenging front-runners AMF (28%) and Wilson (24%).
Given Prince's performance, imitation was inevitable—up to a point. Head's patent, a strong one, gives Prince exclusive rights to all rackets made with hitting surfaces of 85 to 130 square inches. The hitting surface of a standard racket is 70 square inches. When the crash came, rather than jump off a ledge, rival manufacturers leaped into the breach with a new design called—shades of Motown—the mid-size. With robust names like Big Bubba and Black Max, the middies are 20% larger than conventional rackets and a square millimeter or two short of infringing on Prince's preserve. In return for handsome royalties, Prince has granted Wilson a five-year license to make a Prince-sized racket called the Wilson Extra. And finally there is the Weed Killer, the creation of an eager Ohioan named Tad Weed, which is one third larger than the Prince.
Where is it all leading? To a revitalized tennis racket market, and to the disappearance of a lingering geriatric stigma the Prince has had to bear. Among the first notables to adopt the Prince, blithely ignoring the purists who called it the "cheater," were veterans Clark Graebner, Ion Tiriac and Don Budge, who called it "by far the best racket I've ever played with." Terrific, but the fact that they are elder statesmen of the game only reinforced the notion that the Prince was more crutch than cudgel, an aid for lovable old codgers who have lost a step or three. The oft-heard rap is: If the Prince is so good, why aren't the touring pros using it?
An increasing number are, thanks to the introduction of the Graphite and Pro, both stiffer models specifically designed for the big hitters. Gene Mayer was ranked 148th in the world when he picked up the Graphite; now he is sixth. Two years ago Pam Shriver used her Classic to become, at 16, the youngest player ever to reach the finals of the U.S. Open. And though young Paul McNamee discovered the Graphite only six months ago, he used it to upset John McEnroe in the French Open and, teamed with fellow Aussie Paul McNamara, to win the doubles at Wimbledon.
There have been other success stories. Vince Van Patten, for instance, Prince in hand, catapulted from 311th to 34th in 1979, his first year on the tour. Nonetheless, while industry prophets like Gene Scott agree that it is no longer a question of if, but when, the oversized bat will become the dominant weapon on the pro tour, it figures to be later rather than sooner. The vast majority of pros have spent a lifetime grooving their swings to conventional rackets, and to devote the month or more that it takes a skilled player to adapt to the larger model is a disruptive risk that few have been willing to take. Besides, as Head notes, the potential for improvement with a Prince is inversely proportional to the ability of the player, ranging, he says, "from 150% for the beginner down to 3% for the world-class player."
Still, it is a crucial 3%. Sammy Giammalva, a former U.S. Davis Cupper who competed at Wimbledon this year along with his sons Tony, a first-year pro, and Sammy Jr., a national 18-and-under champion (all are Prince players), explains: "Like everyone else, I thought the Prince was a toy, a gimmick. But I found that the larger head gives you extra confidence, which is a big edge. Especially on tough, split-second returns off sharp volleys and blazing serves. Even world-class players mis-hit those two or three times a set. In a tight match, hitting them can be the difference between winning and losing."
Allen Fox, tennis coach at Pepperdine University, agrees. "Look at the Wimbledon finals this year," he says. "If McEnroe had been using a Prince, I think he would have beaten Borg. And he would have won more easily at the U.S. Open." And look at Fox' Pepperdine team, fourth-ranked in the nation last year: every player uses a Prince. "That's because I told them I would personally thrash anyone who didn't use it," he says. "The advantages are too great, the results too dramatic to ignore. A year ago a junior player named Rodney Harmon expressed some interest in attending Pepperdine. But he was ranked only 46th in the 18-and-unders, so we said we'd have to think about it. What happens? He picks up a Prince and—bingo!—he jumps to fourth in the country and everybody's after him. He's at Tennessee now."
Prince Manufacturing Inc., itself a youngster, has been focusing its promotional efforts on the youth market with impressive results. Six of the eight quarterfinalists in the 1980 NCAA championships were Princelings. So are half of the 22 members of the U.S. Junior Davis Cup teams. And in the Brand Name Open, Prince claims to have won more junior titles this year than the Jack Kramer Autograph squad ever did. Many of the junior heavies are from the ranks of Nick Bollettieri, the no-nonsense teaching pro who runs a tennis boot camp near Sarasota, Fla. (SI, June 9, 1980). What Nick says goes, and what he says is, "Prince is the racket of the future. It will be used by the players who will dominate tennis a few years from now."
The present is all dèjà vu to Head. He went through this before with his Head ski, and he is struck by the similarities. "With both my skis and my racket I was inventing not to just make money, but to help me," he says. "I invent when it's something I really want. The need has to grow in your gut. People who go around trying to invent something generally fall on their tails. The best inventions come from people who are deeply involved in trying to solve a problem."
It has been said of Head that if he were an omelet chef, he would redesign the egg. True, but what he is is a sportsman who learned to win by losing his patience but never his stubbornness. "Visionaries don't get things done," says Head. "The idea for an invention is only 5% of the job. Making it practical is 95%. You have to have a perfectionist streak, and you have to let that streak run until the product works."
Head's daughter, Nancy Everly, says of her father, "If he gets annoyed with something, he changes it. Most people never get that annoyed, or they get frustrated and give up." His third wife, Joan, adds, "Howard never gives up."
Well, he did once, but only after he was convinced that not even he could redesign fate. Son of a Philadelphia dentist, Head grew up wanting to be a writer like his older sister, Hannah Lees, a novelist and magazine contributor. At Harvard, though, his English grades were so shaky that he switched to engineering sciences in his third year. He graduated with honors in 1936. Still stubbornly pursuing a literary career, he took a job as a scriptwriter for the old March of Time newsreels, but he was fired after nine months because he did no writing. Shortly thereafter he took a job at Pathè News, again as a writer, but was fired after six weeks for spending top much time repairing the film splicers. "Fiddling with those machines was more fun than writing," says Head. "Too bad I didn't realize then what that meant."
The realization came three years and a lot of lost jobs and won poker hands later. It was 1939, and finding that he hadn't progressed beyond being a $20-a-week copyboy at the Philadelphia Public Record, Head concluded that maybe the writing was not in his typewriter but on the wall. "Something was wrong," he says. Desperate, he took an aptitude test at the Stevens Institute, and "to my great anger and disbelief, I found I had the lowest potential for creative writing they had ever tested."
In structural visualization, however, his score was the highest ever. "That meant I could think in three dimensions," Head explains. "I don't just see a structure; I feel it. When I see a suspension bridge, I can feel the compression and tension of the cables just as I feel the sinews working in my arm."
Head put his feel to work, first as a riveter and then as the boss of a rivet gang at the Glenn L. Martin Aircraft Co. in Baltimore, hammering out B-26 attack bombers and PBM-3 flying boats during World War II. Within nine months he was promoted to the engineering department, where, he says, "I turned out to be embarrassingly good at structural design. Finally I was home."
In 1946 Head went off to Stowe, Vt. for his first attempt at skiing. "I was humiliated and disgusted by how badly I skied," he recalls, "and, characteristically, I was inclined to blame it on the equipment, those long, clumsy hickory skis. On my way home I heard myself boasting to an Army officer beside me that I could make a better ski out of aircraft materials than could be made from wood."
Back at Martin, the cryptic doodles that began appearing on Head's drawing board inspired him to scavenge some aluminum from the plant scrap pile. In his off-hours he set up shop on the second floor of a converted stable in an alley near his one-room basement flat. His idea was to make a "metal sandwich" ski consisting of two layers of aluminum with plywood sidewalls and a center filling of honeycombed plastic.
Needing pressure and heat to fuse the materials together, Head concocted a process that would have made Rube Goldberg proud. To achieve the necessary pressure of 15 pounds per square inch, he put the ski mold into a huge rubber bag and then pumped the air out through a tube attached to an old refrigerator compressor that was hooked up backward to produce suction. For heat, he welded together an iron, coffin-like tank, filled it with motor oil drained from automobile crankcases and, using two Sears, Roebuck camp burners, cooked up a smelly 350° brew. Then he dumped the rubber bag with the ski mold inside into the tank of boiling oil and sat back like Julia Child waiting for her potato puffs to brown.
Six weeks later, out of the stench and smoke, Head produced his first six pairs of skis and raced off to Stowe to have them tested by the pros. To gauge the skis' camber, an instructor stuck the end of one into the snow and flexed it. It broke. So, eventually, did all six pairs. "Each time one of them broke," says Head, "something inside me snapped with it."
Instead of hanging up his rubber bag, Head quit Martin the day after New Year's 1948, took $6,000 in poker winnings he had stashed under his bed and went to work in earnest. Each week he would send a new and improved pair of skis to Neil Robinson, a ski instructor in Bromley, Vt., for testing, and each week Robinson would send them back broken. "If I had known then that it would take 40 versions before the ski was any good, I might have given it up," says Head. "But, fortunately, you get trapped into thinking the next design will be it."
Head wrestled with his obsession through three agonizing winters. The refinements were several: steel edges for necessary bite, a plywood core for added strength and a plastic running surface for smoother, ice-free runs. One crisp day in 1950, Head stood in the bowl of Tuckerman's Ravine in New Hampshire and watched instructor Clif Taylor come skimming over the lip of the headwall, do a fishtail on the fall line and sweep into a long, graceful curve, swooshing to a stop in front of the beaming inventor. "They're great, Mr. Head, just great," Taylor exclaimed. At that moment, Head says, "I knew deep inside I had it."
What Head had wrought was an aluminum ski that was stronger, livelier and, most important, three times more resistant to twisting than the average wooden ski. That last quality, the torsional rigidity of Head skis, allowed them to carve through turns with a fraction of the effort required by wooden models. Nevertheless, when Head began haunting the slopes in search of instructors who would sell his skis, he met with resistance. The "cheaters," as the skis with the "built-in turns" were dubbed, were too radical and, at $85, a pair, too expensive, said the pros, some of whom took to ducking behind trees to avoid confronting Head. But when one instructor in Sun Valley, Idaho quickly sold 40 pairs out of his bedroom, his colleagues came rushing out of the woods and the avalanche was on.
By the end of the 1950s some 200,000 Head skis were in use, and the only mountain left to climb was the one commanded by the lofty downhill racers. The qualities that made the Heads terrific recreational skis, their liveliness and the ease with which they turned, made them difficult to control at high speeds. A layer of vulcanized rubber embedded in the aluminum skin of the ski corrected that, and Head was off to the races, most conspicuously at the 1964 Winter Olympics in Innsbruck. The majority of the U.S. and Swiss teams were mounted on Head skis, including Billy Kidd, who won the silver medal in the men's slalom. And two years later a pair of Americans set a world speed record—106.5 mph—on Head racing skis.
For Head it was a long exhilarating run with more than a few unforeseen bumps. By 1966, with 500 employees and a plant in Timonium, Md. that was grossing $25 million a year on sales of 300,000 skis in 17 countries, the Head Ski Co. was the largest manufacturer of quality recreational skis in the world. Yet the company continued to experience acute and costly growing pains that in large part were a result of Head's belated discovery that "I was an inept manager, a terrible people's man. If something went wrong, my instincts told me to fix it myself, whether it meant rewriting ads or greasing machines. Eventually I ran out of gas, and the company began to suffer."
A new management team was brought in in 1967, and the company prospered. But for Head, the chairman of the board but no longer in day-to-day control, the sense of adventure was gone. He says, "There comes a time when somebody like me has two choices: he can sell or get swallowed up by the bigness of his own creation." In 1969 AMF purchased the company for $16 million, and at 55 Head retired with his wife, Joan, to their Norman-style house in the wooded Roland Park section of Baltimore.
Head, whose tastes when sedentary run to chess, bridge, poetry, Plato's Dialogues and the Brandenburg Concertos, decided that for physical recreation he would take up tennis. As befits a retired millionaire, he built a sunken court out back under the oaks and took $5,000 worth of lessons. "Nothing helped," he says. "I was still a crummy player. Finally one of my frustrated instructors suggested I get a ball machine to practice with. I suspect he was trying to tell me something." Perhaps he was: the name of the machine was Prince.
Barely had it arrived when Mr. Fix-it felt compelled to do a little exploratory surgery in its rotor mechanism. Head's diagnosis: "It was an ingenious piece of design, but so full of bugs it was almost useless." Head called Prince Manufacturing, Inc., an embryonic firm in Princeton, N.J. Could he offer a few suggestions? He could and did, in person, driving up from Baltimore in his Cadillac. A few more trips and by the fall of 1971 Head owned 25% of the company's stock and had the titles of chief design engineer and chairman of the board.
The Prince ball machine soon worked well enough to capture half that market, but Head's game remained crummy. His problem was one that is familiar to hackers everywhere; whenever he hit the ball off center, which was frequently, the racket would twist and often almost spin out of his hand, sending the ball awry.
Head repaired to his basement workshop and began tinkering. He shaved the face of one racket and added weights to the rim. Then he hung it upside down from a suspended door spring, spun it slowly and timed the rotations. His hope was that the weighted racket would show a significant increase in its polar moment of inertia, which is technotalk for resistance to twisting. But, alas, says Head, "Not only didn't the weights succeed in reducing the spin, but when I tried to play with the racket it broke."
Head mulled over the problem for nearly two years. Then, as in a scene out of Young Tom Edison, he awoke late one night with a hot flash and snapped his fingers: "Make it bigger!" Bigger because the laws of physics dictate—and the fat man on the disco floor can verify—the wider something is the more resistant it is to twisting. Witness Dorothy Hamill spinning on her ice skates; when she extends her arms, she increases her polar moment of inertia and slows down. Moreover, the principle decrees that the polar moment of inertia increases as the square of the width. Thus, Head realized, by making the racket just two inches—or 20%—wider, he would increase its resistance to twist by about 40%, a bonus worth being stubborn about.
But would his Excalibur fit into a rule book that specifies everything from the width of the lines on the court to the length of the fuzz on the ball? With some trepidation, Head checked with the U.S. Tennis Association and was told that Rule 4 states only that the racket is "the implement used to strike the ball."
Theoretically, says Head, "You could hit the ball with a barn door or a card table with a handle attached." Or with a broom, which Bobby Riggs has been known to do when the money is right. Or even, as a British tournament player with a shaky backhand did in the 1950s, with two rackets, one in each hand.
The only no-no, which was added in 1978, is any stringing variation that "would result in a change in the character of the game." That restriction was designed to ban the infamous "spaghetti racket," a springy, double-strung device that allowed its wielders to put a bewildering array of spins on the ball.
But beyond the spaghetti clause, almost anything goes. Why—in the long history of the game—has there not been more experimentation with racket design? Mainly because of the limitations of wood. If wooden rackets were made larger, they would be too heavy or would snap like toothpicks. But what of the strong, light metals that were introduced into racket design in the 1960s? Why were such space-age materials made to conform to age-old formulas? Head knows the answer. The invitation to innovate went unanswered, he says, because the traditional geometry "is so fixed in people's minds that it just never occurred to anyone that bigger might be better."
Nevertheless, avowing that "there is more wisdom in the gut than in the head," Head has an almost mystical respect for designs that evolve through use, independent of technology and fashion. "My experience with the ski helped when it came to the tennis racket," he says. "I found that skiers weren't looking for a lighter ski. They were looking for something that made skiing feel even better. So I learned not to mess with that particular esthetic 'rightness' a body feels, the kinesthetic feedback from a piece of equipment that feels good to use."
Thus, from the start, "thinking peripherally" so he could eliminate problems before they arose, Head conformed to his own Rule 4: thou shalt not mess with the length, weight and balance of the traditional racket configuration. Actually, the design he fashioned out of a rugged high-alloy aluminum that was developed for bumper supports on cars is, on the average, half an ounce lighter than the standard racket, a reflection of a trend, he feels, in the "rightness" formula.
Though he was unaware of it at the time, Head's biggest breakthrough was not in making the face two twist-resistant inches wider but in extending it three inches into the throat of the racket. Head, one of whose skis has hung in the Museum of Modern Art in New York as "a sleek, gleaming statement of pure functional design," explains that an "internal, esthetic logic" demanded that the widening of the racket be complemented by a proportionate lengthening. Though art made him do it, he concedes that it was science that ultimately turned those three little inches into a "fortuitous gold mine."
But gold was never his goal, Head insists. All along, from the late-night flash in early 1974 to the development of the first Prince prototype later that year, Head says that he had only two things in mind: "To make a racket that felt good, and one that I could play better with." The Prince passed the esthetic rightness test convincingly. As administered by Head to any doubters he encounters, it goes like this. Close your eyes. Swing two rackets successively, one a Prince, the other a conventional racket. Now try to guess which is which. "No one can do it with consistency," Head says proudly.
The hitting exam went equally well. "I could play much better immediately," says Head. "The feeling of stability was much more than I expected." Friends who in the past were never overly eager to rally with Old Scatterball began inviting him to play. Tallying up the test scores, Head came to a logical conclusion: "As soon as I found out that the racket helped me, I thought I might as well try it on the market."
Head called a meeting of the Prince board in 1975. "As chairman, I was wearing two hats in this instance," he says. "So I went to the meeting in my chairman's hat and said, 'Gentlemen, there's a man here to show you a new product!' Then I put on my inventor's hat and made my pitch." Mal Bash, now Prince's vice-president in charge of engineering, recalls, "If another inventor had come in with a crazy-looking racket like that, we would've turned him away. Howard sure knows how to sell an idea."
The U.S. Patent and Trademark Office wasn't buying, however. "When I first applied for the patent," Head says, "the inspectors—who act as both judge and jury—refused the application, claiming that my idea was no more than an obvious extension of the state of the art in tennis-racket design." Turned down twice more, Head became three times more determined to amass the kind of not-so-obvious scientific evidence that would dazzle the patent boys.
Working in a lab with Kenneth Wright, a consulting engineer, Head set up a sort of shooting gallery with a Prince racket, clamped in a vise, squaring off against a Prince ball machine at 10 paces. High-speed cameras set for 400 frames a second were stationed next to the racket to record the coefficient of restitution, which is the relationship between the incoming speed of the ball and the outgoing speed. The maximum coefficient for a stationary standard racket was found to be .57; that is, the outgoing ball retained 57% of its incoming velocity. To achieve this maximum return, the ball had to strike the racket's center of percussion, the magical "sweet spot."
So much for the ground rules. In practice, the sweet spot is neither unique to tennis nor inconsequential to success. It even sings sweetly: "ping" to the tennis player, "click" to the golfer, "crack" to the baseball player. The sounds signal the soul-satisfying moment when the entire swung weight of the instrument is laid squarely on the ball, when the swing is free of vibration, when the racket, club or bat becomes an extension of self. "When Reggie Jackson hits the ball and feels nothing in his hands," says Head, "he knows that ball is gone." Such moments are rare because the sweet spot is by definition small and elusive. But what if it were bigger, more responsive, easier to find?
Once the barrage began in Head's shooting gallery he had some doubts about the Prince's performance under fire. Shots aimed directly at the center of the strings showed coefficients in the low .50s, respectable but below the .57 high of the standard racket. But as the shots were aimed lower the coefficients began to go up—.55, .58, .62, .67! Could it be that the center of percussion, the evasive sweet spot, was not in the center of the strings as had always been assumed?
Yes, says Head. "We were startled to discover that the best place to hit the ball was in that three-inch area of added length, an area that doesn't even exist on conventional rackets. It's about two-thirds of the way up from where you grip the racket—the throat of the standard racket." Moreover, the tests showed that not only did the "super sweet spot," the area closest to the throat of the Prince, deliver 20% more power than the centers of percussion of other rackets, but the entire sweet spot was also four times larger than the average, the difference between an open hand and a fist. Serendipitously speaking, Head says, "I lucked into it."
Head then hit the Patent and Trademark Office in its center of percussion. "When I demonstrated the development of the sweet spot to them in engineering terms," says Head, "they had to concede that it was a totally unexpected outcome resulting in an invention." He was granted Patent No. 3,999,756 in 1976. It's good for 17 years.
Ever since, as chairman, principal stockholder and chief tinkerer, Head has been intimately involved in new racket design and other developments, such as a unique graduated stringing pattern that spaces Prince strings closer at the center, wider toward the edge, for more uniform response. But of late he is content to leave the daily operation of Prince's new $1.5 million plant and 100 employees in the hands of John Murray, his enterprising president, who says, "I think Prince is going to take over the racket business."
Head now spends six weeks of the year skiing at Vail, Colo, and three weeks snorkeling in the Virgin Islands. Yes, he sees certain basic flaws in the snorkel design, but he denies that he is going to try to correct it. "It has been a fundamental activity of my mind to fish around critically," he says, "and twice something has come of it." But he vows there won't be a third time. "I accept the snorkel for what it is and enjoy being who I am. The chronically dissatisfied Howard Head has faded away." In truth, he is deeply involved in his most demanding challenge yet: reinventing himself.
Recently, relaxing by his pool after a round of tennis with enough reassuring "pings" to make his day, Head feels called upon to quote from one of his favorite Wordsworth poems: "The world is too much with us, late and soon/Getting and spending, we lay waste our powers...." What Head has been spending and getting was everywhere evident: the big house; the pool; the court; a Japanese garden; a huge, automatically propelled hammock out among the oaks; and a rolling mini-estate dotted with free-form sculpture, including one marvelous monstrosity that turns out to be a routing machine salvaged from Head's boiling-oil days. Inside are his "toys," some of which he operates from a self-designed control panel that, at the flip of a switch, makes a TV set swing out of the wall, lights dim and draperies swing open.
But the curtain of tinted water he designed to flow over his wife's greenhouse is on the fritz, and he may or may not get around to fixing it. "I'm giving up the thing world and heading into the people world," he says, dangling his feet in the pool. "In part, my devotion to the creative side was due to my isolation from people. If anyone ever thought of me, they'd use the adjectives prickly and arrogant. The drug of creativeness is so powerful that a person can go on and on until he dies old and lonely. I have no interest in doing that."
Two failed marriages, the bouts of hard drinking and the chain-smoking are all behind him now, Head says. He has studied religions and philosophy extensively, has sampled everything from Carlos Castaneda to encounter workshops at the Esalen Institute, and he concludes, "They all say the same thing: how little of the enjoyable part of a man is rational, how much is spiritual. I believe there is a universal intelligence, and if you open yourself up, wisdom is going to flow in."
Slipping into the pool, Head speaks of the movie The Empire Strikes Back and an exchange he liked between the redoubtable Luke Skywalker and Yoda, the little green fellow with the supernatural powers. Skywalker, doubting his ability to levitate, says, "I don't believe it." Yoda replies, "That is why you fail." Head, paddling about, looking with his bald pate not unlike the venerable sage from the swamp, allows, "You have to believe in the impossible. That's the secret."