The Man Who Reshaped Tennis

Dec. 09, 1991
Dec. 09, 1991

Table of Contents
Dec. 9, 1991

Skins Game
Detroit Pistons
Cincinnati Bengals
Dikembe Mutombo
Tough Mothers
  • By Charles P. Pierce

    Bettie Taylor and Bonnie Lindros want the best for their sons, pitcher Brien Taylor and center Eric Lindros, and they aren't intimidated by major league baseball or the NHL

Point After

The Man Who Reshaped Tennis

Inventor, novelist, curator, engineer Siegfried Kuebler made fat a force with his widebody racket

The widebody tennis racket may turn out to be the most revolutionary piece of equipment in all of sports, and its bizarre and bloodstained history is a tale as fabulous as any by Dashiell Hammett or Rudyard Kipling, or even that romantic artificer Rider Haggard. The earliest widebodies repose in glowing splendor in a hushed chamber of the Uberlingen Tennis Museum, a racket repository their inventor, Siegfried Kuebler, erected in his home. Here, in a remote corner of southern Germany, Kuebler and his elves worked great black lumps of carbon fibers into shiny white frames as mysterious as the Maltese Falcon and far more beautiful than the One Penny Black. You half expect to see Sydney Greenstreet lurking nearby with a speculative eye or Peter Lorre simpering in the shadows.

This is an article from the Dec. 9, 1991 issue Original Layout

An air-conditioning visionary and a self-styled stoic from the Holy Land, Kuebler patented his Resonanz R-50 widebody in the Fatherland. European racket companies coveted his creation. American firms fought over it. A journeyman pro named Peter Grant mastered the racket's powers and used it to win the Grand Slam. But tragedy followed: Grant lost his desire, and then friends of his drowned in a horrendous hurricane that submerged the entire state of Florida. Aimless, distraught and sopping wet, he stood on the Golden Gate Bridge contemplating suicide.

Grant was really just another one of Kuebler's many brainchildren. Kuebler thought him up for a novel he wrote in 1984 on Fuerteventura, a desert isle off the coast of West Africa. Kuebler got the idea for the racket there, too, and when he got home he made one.

With its extra-wide frame, when viewed from the side Kuebler's Resonanz R-50 looks like a regular racket on steroids. Stiffer than a Wimbledon umpire, the racket seemed to send balls ricocheting off its strings. Hackers swore no racket's sweet spot had ever been sweeter. Still, skeptics branded it a Bratpfanne, or frying pan. Little did they know how hot that skillet would get.

The widebody is further proof that invention is the mother of necessity: Nobody was clamoring for a more powerful racket, but as soon as Kuebler created one, everybody had to have it. His innovation, in the form of the Wilson Profile, became the best-selling line on the market and jump-started the tepid racket industry. As Howard Head's oversized Prince changed forever the size of a racket's strung area—from 70 square inches to as much as 130—the Kuebler widebody obliterated conventional wisdom about the width of the frame.

Indeed, it was the first meaningful advance in racket technology since Head's jumbo hit the market in 1976. Most pro shops don't stock anything but widebodies now. "People have found out they don't need so much strength to get the ball going," says Kuebler. Every major manufacturer has gone the great wide way, though no other model balloons to the patented width of Kuebler's design.

Today's junior and collegiate circuits have more widebodies than O'Hare has runways, and the men's and women's pro tours are catching up. Monica Seles, Martina Navratilova, Arantxa Sànchez Vicario and Jennifer Capriati have all gone wide. Jimmy Connors reached the semis of this year's U.S. Open with a widebody. Wimbledon champ Michael Stich wields a modified widebody. There are still sonic holdouts, though, most of them highly ranked male pros. "Widebodies are too powerful," says Stefan Edberg, the world's No. 1 player. "Balls just take off. That's fine when you're striking the ball flat, but once you try to put on topspin, you can't get a grip on the ball."

By emphasizing power over control and finesse, Kueblernetics has contrived to make men's pro tennis blander, more predictable. It's as if professional baseball suddenly allowed aluminum bats. "Widebodies and normal rackets are as different as cannonballs and atomic bombs," said Ted Tinling, the late tennis doyen.

The father of nuclear racketry is neither a goofy Gyro Gearloose nor a nebbishy Nutty Professor. He's 60, trim and deeply tanned. He wears country clothes, a tweed jacket with elbow patches, comfortable shoes, an open-necked shirt, corduroy slacks. Kuebler is, in fact, completely unprepossessing except for one feature—a pale, white circle in the middle of his forehead, the result of a self-inflicted burn. "I burned a cut shut," he says.

Like Joan of Arc, Kuebler solves his problems by fire. When he couldn't shake an agonizing tennis elbow, he seared it with a soldering iron. "After three weeks it was gone," says Kuebler. The pain, not the elbow.

Kuebler had remembered his mother's bedtime stories, fantastical tales of Bedouins healing themselves by placing hot irons on their stomachs. So he went to the library at the University of Freiburg and read up on cauterization. He later published his own treatise, Die Lötkolbentherapie (Curing with the Soldering Iron). The introduction warns: "Not for cowards and people who feel pain easily."

"A tennis elbow is full of miniature cuts," says Kuebler in a gentle, singsong accent that trails off, never quite ending squarely at the end of a sentence. "But your body, unaware of this, does not provide white blood cells to heal it. To alert the body, you must supply more pain. By applying 500-degree heat for 10 seconds, you're letting the body know there's a problem. Ten seconds is nothing compared to all the seconds in your life."

Inventors often have peculiar visions of the world. As a health precaution, Alexander Graham Bell covered the windows in his house to block out the harmful rays of the full moon. Thomas Edison was convinced that "little people" were living in his brain. As idiosyncratic as the next inventor, Kuebler has phenomenal persistence, self-belief bordering on evangelism, a gift for visualizing things that never existed before and the desire to get rich. Yet for all his success, Kuebler and his wife, Barbara, live modestly in a white-trimmed split-level house in Uberlingen, a cozy hamlet overlooking the Bodensee.

Until the late '60s, all rackets were made of glue and laminated wood. Now, of course, wood is out of play. In its place are lighter, tougher high-tech materials: graphite, boron and Kevlar—a plastic fiber used in bulletproof vests. Presumably, Kevlar frames can deflect anything Boris Becker could fire at them short of a bullet from a .44.

Contemporary marketing strategies revolve around such unnatural wonders as variable density stringing, perimeter weighting systems and lateral stability construction. The science behind the Resonanz R-50's width may be too complicated for human beings to understand. But Kuebler gives it a try. "Resonance frequency is the time a racket takes to bend backward and recover," he says. "Before the R-50, frames would still be bending back when the ball left the strings. My racket is so stiff that its resonance frequency is almost the same as the time the ball is on the strings. Less energy is lost in bending; more goes into the shot."

Conversations with Kuebler often proceed as a kind of free association. He compares designing rackets to test-driving race cars, to building suspension bridges, to tuning violins. Kuebler apprenticed with a violin maker in 1946. "My boss, Herr Woitok, made Stradivariuses out of maplewood," he says.

Kuebler slides behind the desk in his study, pulls a violin out of a drawer and plucks it. Woitok believed violins had to be broken in by virtuosos like himself. He would fiddle around with newborns for an hour before letting Kuebler near them. "Herr Woitok played them like a madman," recalls Kuebler, who thinks infant rackets are equally impressionable. "I wonder how a pro can play with a freshly strung racket! Tennis strings must be set into place. The first 30 minutes are the most important."

Kuebler's greatest invention may be the life he patched together out of a childhood disrupted by war and the devastation that it left. He was born in Jerusalem. His family belonged to the Templar Society, a religious sect that broke from the Lutheran Church in the mid-19th century. An oppressed minority in Germany, the Templars immigrated to Palestine, where they established flourishing farming communities.

When World War II broke out, British troops rounded up all the Templars in Jerusalem. Kuebler's father, Friedrich, was taken to an internment camp called Akko, near Haifa. Eight-year-old Siegfried, his mother, Paula, and sister, Gisela, were interned a few months later at a settlement in Tel Aviv. As Rommel's army advanced toward Egypt, the male Templars were shipped to Australia, and Friedrich was placed in a camp outside Melbourne. After the male Templars were sent Down Under, Siegfried and his mother and sister were moved to Akko, which was encircled by barbed wire and cut off from the Mediterranean by a sand dune.

"Each day I heard the waves rolling along the coast," Kuebler says. "I could never see the water, nor feel the wind. That was the most terrible thing."

He yanked a board from a vegetable crate and fashioned it into a propeller. He stuck the blade onto the end of a plank and held it aloft. "It caught the wind," he says. "It just caught the wind." Soon every boy in the camp was catching the wind too. "It was my first invention," says Kuebler.

In 1942 the three Kueblers were exchanged for Allied POWs held in Turkey, and then transferred to Uberlingen, where they had some distant relatives. When the war ended, poverty and famine descended on southern Germany. Siegfried became a farmhand. The daily slice of corn bread he got with his ration card was almost inedible: It was full of stones. "Nothing means more than freedom," he says. "But freedom means nothing if you have no money."

Scattered throughout Kuebler's home are dozens of tiny black wooden cats wearing collars of fine red thread. They peer down from the tops of bookcases and cabinets—carved figures of infinite delicacy, forever ready to pounce. Kuebler made each one by hand, 10,000 in all, in the years immediately following the war. His cats sold for one reichsmark—a pack of black-market cigarettes cost 200 reichsmarks, a pound of butter, 500. "The only thing we could afford was salt," he says. Friedrich, by then 64, returned from Australia in 1948, rejoining his family after nine years of separation. The Marshall Plan was enacted and currency revalued.

A gifted student, Siegfried eventually matriculated at the Institute of Technology in Constance, Germany, where he earned a degree in mechanical engineering. He wanted a job in the aerospace industry but couldn't find one, so he joined the refrigeration department of a Swiss engineering company. Then, in 1957, he accepted a job with the Canadian Ice Machine Company in Toronto.

Kuebler returned to West Germany in 1960. He worked at a plumbing firm in Singen, designing cooling towers for big buildings. He moonlighted as an engineer on guidance systems for Sidewinder air-to-air missiles. "I finally asked myself why I was making missiles, which are no good for anyone," he says. He quit his Sidewinder sideline and went back to cooling towers, which has been his principal business ever since. Today he is an independent designer of cooling-tower parts.

Kuebler didn't turn his engineering skills to tennis until 1972, when he saw a Head Master aluminum racket and decided to reinvent it. His first attempt, the Mark 77, had interchangeable handles of three sizes and bands that could be inserted in a groove around the head to change the weight. A few years later he came out with the Plus 40, a racket that spent more time in the courts than on them. Prince's German distributor sued Kuebler, charging that the Plus 40 infringed on Howard Head's patented oversized head. Kuebler countered by rounding up old rackets in a search for what patent people call prior art. A civil court in Munich ruled for Kuebler. It turned out that Prince's patent didn't extend to West Germany.

The legacy of Kuebler's litigation is perhaps the greatest racket collection in the world. Rackets of assorted shapes, sizes and colors crowd the walls of his home and dangle from the ceilings. Kuebler has more than 1,200 frames, the oldest of which dates from 1859. He has Bourras, Bancrofts, Bryans, Berninas and G.G. Busseys; Slazenger Demons, Dohertys and E.G.M.'s; frames shaped like pears, teardrops, snowshoes; a 1903 Birmingham aluminum with steel strings and a Kuebler-designed 1976 Rassel with lead pellets rattling around inside; a bent-handled Erge, a lopsided Snauwaert Ergoneum, a disposable Myrac, an Aequale with rollers in its head and a court-tennis racket Kuebler made by following the instructions he found in a 1780 manual.

The widebody came out of a heart operation Kuebler never had. In 1984, the night before he was to undergo surgery, he sneaked out of the hospital, returned home for a few days and then flew to the Canary Islands. He holed up in a bungalow with a broad-nibbed pen and a sheaf of white paper. "It had to be white paper," he says. Emphatically. "White parchment paper. And it had to be a Chinese pen with black ink. The pen sounded scratchy on the paper, but for some reason, ink flowed."

The result of all this flowing was Und Dann? (And Then?), a Faustian fantasy about a tennis bum who's seduced by a lost tribe of Amazonian women, absorbs hallucinogens through a hole in his skull and develops an unreturnable serve with the help of his coach, the inscrutable Dr. Helmholz. The bum, Peter Grant, wins the Grand Slam, but at a price: anomie. In the most prophetic passage, Grant struggles with the accuracy of his reverse serve. "The reverse is a serve hit with your back to the net," says Kuebler. The idea came from an obscure reference in a 1920 instructional book by Bill Tilden.

Dr. Helmholz solved Grant's problems with service accuracy by creating a monster, in the form of the resonance racket. "When I wrote this," says Kuebler, "I didn't even think of making such a racket. Then later I was sitting in my office and I said to myself, Well, this is a very interesting idea. Why don't you take all of your brains together and start to calculate?"

So he took out his slide rule and calculated. And calculated. By factoring in such things as the properties of high-modulus graphite, Kuebler whittled the width of the racket's throat down from 60 millimeters to 45 and eventually to 38, which is twice as wide as the throat on a conventional wood or graphite frame. He built a wood model and showed it to Head Sports in Kennelbach, Austria.

It's too big, the Head man said, too unwieldy. Naturally, rejection only increased Kuebler's resolve. He began cranking out prototypes in a little factory in Singen. The first 50 were too brittle; they broke. Kuebler tinkered tirelessly. Finally he produced the R-50. "I decided to make it white to make it look real big," says Kuebler. "People went crazy about that white color. Everyone wanted that big white racket."

When it was introduced in West Germany in 1985, the R-50 sold for $300. Included with every purchase was a $10 copy of Und Dann? Nobody would publish his stringed rhapsody, so he had paid a vanity press to print 5,000 copies. "I didn't think my invention was so special, but my novel was," says Kuebler. "If anyone had given me $10 for the book, I would have given him a racket for free."

Kuebler & Co. produces 20,000 rackets a year. Limited manufacturing and distribution capacity might have reduced das Original to nothing more than a conversation piece among German club players if Wilson hadn't bought into the idea and secured the rights to Kuebler's widebody patent, leading to the introduction of the Profile in late '87. Kuebler's deal with Wilson allows him to sell his Resonanz line of rackets in Germany.

He licensed another patented innovation—a nodal weighting system that redistributes a racket's sweet spot—to Head for its widebodies. In a sort of Kuebler v. Kuebler courtroom drama, Wilson went after Head in early 1990 for poaching on Kuebler's widebody patent in its nodal-designed Genesis racket. Under a settlement reached that summer, Head allows Wilson to incorporate Kuebler's nodals into Wilson's third generation of Profiles.

No doubt the royalties have made Kuebler rich, but he claims most of his take has been taken by taxes and legal fees. From the start there were cases of what he thought was the most arrant infringement. "A patent is supposed to honor an inventor by protecting his invention for 18 years," says Kuebler. "All it really means is that you obtain the right to take your copycats to court. First you invent, then you must fight for your invention. That starts on the first day and doesn't stop until the end of the 18th year."

He seems sober more than depressed, and puzzled more than defeated in trying to come to grips with the vagaries of an industry he thought he understood. To keep the market churning, says Kuebler, racket manufacturers are constantly promoting small refinements as though they were revolutionary advances. "Improvements haven't been that dramatic," he says, "but people want something new, new, new."

Kuebler thinks that racket companies should follow the example of Luvs, which jacked up sales by pushing separate diapers for girls and boys. "They could put out one racket for singles and another for doubles," he says. "With that little trick they could double the market."

PHOTOBERNHARDT KUNZEKuebler's home museum in Uberlingen has rack after rack of rackets, including his latest widebody.TWO PHOTOSBERNHARDT KUNZEKuebler's rackets are twice the width of the conventional exhibits hanging around his museum.PHOTOMANNY MILLANNavratilova is one of several women in the Top 10 who have decided to go wide.PHOTOCARYN LEVYConnors reached the semis of this year's U.S. Open at age 39 with the help of a widebody.PHOTOPAUL GRANDKuebler's 10,000 kitties helped him carve out a living in postwar Germany.

Alexander McNab, the former editor of "Tennis" magazine, is writing a book with Arthur Ashe.