Must be the First to be the Oldest

The year is 1877. It is July 9th and a bright, sunny, Summer day at the All England Croquet and Lawn Tennis Club in London, England. Men dressed in blazers and flannel trousers and Women wearing corsets and long kilt skirts. You, along with the other 200 spectators, are holding a cold serving of strawberries and cream, intently watching Spencer Gore win the first ever Wimbledon Championship. The prize was nothing but bragging rights but history has just begun.

It is now July 14, 2019. It is a bright, sunny day at the All England Club in London, England. Roger Federer and Novak Djokovic going head to head. You, along with the other 15,000 spectators, are holding a cold serving of strawberries and cream, watching two of the greatest tennis players of all-time face off head to head. Five sets, five hours and $3,000,000 is on the line. Match point. Championship won. Novak Djokovic wins his 16th major title, chasing down Roger Federer’s 20.

Created three years after the invention of the first tennis racket, The Championships, Wimbledon is the oldest tennis tournament in the world. Starting in 1877, the tournament began with twenty two competitors and was played on the iconic outdoor grass court. The one-hundred and forty-two year history of Wimbledon, and consequently the sport of tennis, has brought us to a time where the attire and technology used in the game paved the way for how the game is played. 

The restrictive clothing of the early history of tennis was catered to the sport being more of a social outing rather than a competitive sport. The first Championships, Wimbledon was played with a large, heavy, solid wood racket and the attire of an elite Victorian social gathering. Men wore blazers and flannel pants while women wore corsets and ankle-long dresses — restricting nearly every movement necessary for a competitive game of modern day tennis. 

Although the history of tennis was not long by 1887, the attire nor the equipment had changed in the ten years of competitive play at Wimbledon. This all changed when Charlotte (Lottie) Dod, a fifteen year-old phenom, took the Championships by storm and became (and still is) the youngest champion in tournament history. Her age played to her advantage. She wore clothing that the older women were unable to wear. Her calf-length, school-aged dress allowed Lottie to move more freely — she was more agile, more flexible and could maneuver the court without the restrictive clothing of her opponents. At the time, the game saw a slight turning point as players realized the game was being restricted by the attire people preferred to wear. Hence, the focus slightly pivoted — clothes for performance, rather than prestige, entered into the game of tennis. 

The 1920’s was an important time in the development of performance-based clothing in the tennis industry. The creator of the popular brand Lacoste, René Lacoste, emerged in the early 1920’s. He designed and wore a new, looser fitting shirt with a poppable collar that allowed players to protect their necks from the sun, while also improving upper body mobility and torque. As the Roaring Twenties flapper-fashion took the US by storm, Women also navigated towards the more casual, performance based attire of the times. Older players started trading their long dresses for shorter Lottie Dod-style dresses and visors that were useful for playing yet still maintained the class of old school tennis. 

Transformation halted in the 1930’s — then Katherine Hepburn emerged in the 1940’s. Sporting short, high-waisted shorts, the game was on the cusp of transformation — from a game of style to a game of performance and competition. The 1940’s also saw the revolutionary emergence of mass produced, technology based tennis rackets. The rackets that opened the sport of tennis up to the masses, the Dunlop Maxply Fort and the Wilson Jack Kramer, broke into popular tennis in 1949, popularizing consistent and advanced technology in the game. The racket consisted of nine types of wood and looked like a modern day badminton racket. The innovation of the mass produced tennis racket changed tennis from a sport for the elite to a game in which everyone could play.

After changing the way tennis players dressed and consequently how players moved during matches, Rene Lacoste did not back down. His newly designed shirts broke the market, yet he still wanted to continue changing the way the game was played. Durability was introduced to the game in 1953 due to Lacoste’s invention of the metal racket, later improved and mastered by the Wilson T2000. The metal racket with a 69 sq. in head was still heavy but it increased a player’s power and control over the tennis ball. Due to the long tradition of playing with wooden rackets, they did not disappear immediately but the metal racket was the first step towards innovative racket technology within the game.

Continuing the trend of shorter, more versatile attire, the 1960’s minidress had its popular debut when Maria Bueno won the Championship at the break of the decade. The beginning of the “tennis skirt” had arrived and Maria Bueno popularized the use of the modern day attire for women’s tennis. The 1960’s also came with a big change in the motivation behind Wimbledon — prize money. The first prize money was awarded in 1968 — the same year professional athletes were first allowed to enter and play in the tournament. The game now had something to compete for. The winner of the men’s title won $32,000 — a far cry from the $3,000,000 check winners receive today.

The transition from wood rackets to metal rackets was solidified in the 1970’s. Jimmy Connors’ 1974 Wimbledon win over Ken Rosewall proved the metal Wilson T2000’s power. The old-timer, Ken Rosewall, used the wooden racket that ultimately lead to his defeat. The power, precision and accuracy of the metal racket could not be touched by the wooden racket that Rosewall used — proven to be the case in this iconic turning point. 

Racket Recap: Popular Rackets since the 1931:

  • Dunlop Maxply Fort – Debuted in 1931 and made out of nine different woods. The dunlop Maxply Fort resulted in one of the most popular rackets the sport has ever seen.
  • Wilson T2000 – a variation of René Lacoste’s 1953 metal tennis racket. Wilson created the T2000 in 1967 and it became the first commercially successful racket that was not made of wood. The racket had a 67 sq. in. head which increased power and control in comparison to the wooden racket.
  • Yonex R-22 – The first isometric head shape, increasing the cross section and creating a larger sweet spot. Martina Navratilova won Wimbledon, the French Open and the US Open in 1984 with the Yonex R-22.
  • Prince Pro – Born in 1976, the Prince Pro was the first successful attempt at the aluminum racket. It had an oversized head increased the sweet spot and generated more power while at the same time decreasing precision.
  • Dunlop Max 200G – Created in 1980, it was one of the first graphite tennis rackets which weighed in at 12.5 ounces and had an 85 sq. in. frame. Steffi Graf and John McEnroe popularized the Dunlop Max 200G.
  • Wilson Pro StaffCreated in 1983, the Wilson Pro Staff used braided graphite and Kevlar which allowed for a more distinct feel. It originated at a 110 sq. in. head and then downsized to a more popular 95 sq. in. head.
  • Babolat Pure Drive – Created in 2000 and popularized by Andy Roddick, the Babolat Pure Drive was a lightweight, powerful frame that paved the way for modern tennis rackets.
  • Babolat Play the first ever “connected” racket that allows you to track metrics such as spin, racket head speed, and power in real time. Caroline Wozniacki and Rafael Nadal popularized this racket.

While racket technology was on the rise, not every idea was worthwhile. The aluminum racket of the 1970’s was an unsuccessful attempt at innovation within the game; however, large companies, such as Wilson, Head and Dunlop, started producing graphite rackets — a lighter, more practical alternative that improved power and accuracy. Champions like John McEnroe and Steffi Graf established the superiority of the graphite rackets in the 1980’s by sweeping the field with this new technology. 

Due to the faster pace of the game, the 1990’s came with the emergence of technology based clothing — clothes that allowed players to move more efficiently, preserve energy and maximize the physicality of the sport. As players athleticism became more important, the demand of flexible, more practical clothing for modern day tennis was prioritized. Spandex and Nylon took sportswear by storm, generating a genre of clothes that met the physical and style needs of tennis. The material moved and molded to the shape of a player’s body, allowing athletes to move freely without any restriction.

The 2000’s brought technology and physicality beyond the scope of any “old school” tennis star could imagine. The rackets were lighter, the ball was hit harder, the clothes were tailored to performance and the game accelerated into pop-culture. The stars on the court were now coming  into the limelight off the court. American tennis stars like Andy Roddick and young prodigy, Venus Williams, were becoming household names throughout the 2000’s, helping the sport of tennis gain traction and popularity.

The 2010’s was the introduction of computer technology in the game of tennis. The computer was fully integrated into the game of tennis when Babolat released the first ever “connected” racket in 2013. The technology is able to track metrics such a racket head speed, stroke types, power and spin — allowing players to get analytics of how to maximize their game. The attire of the 2010’s also maximized the players abilities. Clothing sponsorships worth more than $100 million is common among the top players in the game and they no longer have to worry about what to wear.

Innovative technology has been implemented into the highest level of tennis since the creation of the sport. In combination with better training, preparation and physical ability, the attire and equipment players wear and use have not only increased the physicality of the game, but also increases precision, power and efficiency. This technology has been able to popularize the game, allowing more people to participate in a sport that was once only for the elite. There is no doubt the future of tennis holds more innovation and improvement. If this development continues, it may create a game that is driven by computer technology and equipment that may allow the player to be better than a modern day athlete’s ability.

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