If you’ve ever picked up a tennis racket, you’ve found some interesting characteristics about them: they’re surprisingly light, durable, and made of metal. Swinging it around produces a speedy and satisfying whoosh noise as you smack the ball back and forth. You might be thinking, “duh, why should I care about these things?” Technology, including the tennis racket, allows people to perform tasks more efficiently. To play the game of tennis, you need to be agile as the ball zips across the court. You also need to have enough strength and endurance to smack the ball in a controlled fashion. Your personal speed is important, but your performance becomes so much better with a lightweight and durable tennis racket.
Evolution is typically equated with biology, but we take for granted how truly advanced the tools and technology that we use today are. Just because you don’t have to plug in a tennis racket or connect it to wifi doesn’t mean it isn’t considered technology, or that it is any less valuable than your smartphone.
Consider the origins: early 11th century monks are believed to have started the game. They used the earliest form of rackets – their hands. Naturally, this proved to be quite painful after some time, and most switched to webbed gloves or wooden paddles. These made the game much easier to play, but as you can imagine, the gloves were uncomfortable and the paddles were quite heavy after a good amount of swinging. 15th century Italians are credited with creating the “exoskeleton”, you could say, of the modern tennis racket. They too used wooden paddles, but the center circles were removed and replaced with a netting material. This material was made from animal intestines (also known as gut), and made the paddle a bit more lightweight.
In 1874, Major Walter C. Wingfield created (or at least patented) a form of outdoor lawn game very similar to that of modern tennis. The rackets he created had a small wide head at about 65 square inches, but still were pretty hefty at around 13-14 ounces. It may not sound like a lot of weight to you, but imagine swinging a 1 pound weight for an hour at a constant, fast rate. You’d get pretty winded too, maybe even straining your arm muscles. Despite the weight, people continued to utilize wooden rackets for nearly a century, with some minor changes as lamination became possible.
Wilson’s Sporting Goods changed the game in 1967 with the introduction of the steel tennis racket. It was very durable, with a larger frame and netting area, and surprisingly much more lightweight. For beginners, they excelled with the upgrade, but for advanced players, the material was too flexible. A wrong hit could warp the netting and frame, sending the ball to undesired places. In the 70’s, this problem was resolved with a material called graphite, that was stiff and light enough for professional players to use.
Today, Kevlar and titanium are still being tested to utilize as durable and heavy materials. Some modern rackets only weigh about 7 ounces, which only increases the speed and strength of a swing. The next time you look at a racket, think about how fortunate we are today to have the simple technology that we do.