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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Life and Tennis: One and the Same

Note: All images used in this article have been provided through the courtesy of the Wiersholm family.

Just a few blocks from the Pacific Ocean in Palos Verdes, California, Henrik Wiersholm reflects on the career he’s had and the one he hopes to achieve. All his life, he has been working to be the best tennis player he can possibly be, with dreams of playing the professional circuits and shaping his life in the mold of tennis. With three NCAA Championships at the University of Virginia, Henrik’s time in college has been nothing but decorated by success. But, approaching his final season in college, he must rebound from an injury that sidelined him from his passion for nearly a year, forcing him to contemplate for the first time who he is without a racket and a ball. In essence, he has come to confront the daunting uncertainty of what life has in store for him once collegiate tennis ends.

Henrik, currently 21 years old, has been playing tennis since he was five, when his parents bought a membership for the closest gym to their Kirkland, Washington home. That gym happened to also be a tennis club, and soon enough Henrik started hitting balls to himself off the wall with a tiny racket. Before long, his parents enrolled him in lessons, and even though no one knew it quite yet, he began what would eventually become his life’s passion.

Early on, his family realized the potential Henrik had and introduced him to the Junior Circuit once he was old enough. If a player wants any shot at going pro, “Tennis is one of those sports where you really have to start young,” Henrik says. So, by the age of 11, he and his family started travelling around the United States to various tennis tournaments. Once he finished middle school, he and his family started to go international, playing in some of the most elite tournaments in the world.

 

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By the age of 15, Henrik had already won the U.S. Juniors National Championships in both singles and doubles, in addition to winning the ITF 14-and-under Junior World Championships in the Czech Republic the year before.

After much discussion, Henrik said goodbye to his parents and sister after his freshman year of high school and traveled to the exact opposite corner of the country to move into the dorms of a tennis boarding school in Boca Raton, Florida. There, he trained and competed every day in an academic and athletic environment much more conducive to his lifestyle. He recognized the need to mature as well, and soon found himself with a professional mentality and work ethic unlike anything he had back home in Kirkland.

Henrik admits he was convinced he was going to play professional tennis when he was just a freshman in high school. As the third-ranked recruit in his graduating class, college was an afterthought. It was just a step along the way to reaching his ultimate goal and dream of playing among the best on the pro circuit. But after years of playing by himself and for himself, Henrik fell in love with a whole new kind of tennis when he began his collegiate career in the fall of 2018 at the age of 17.

Professional tennis is often viewed as an extremely singular sport, where players are more or less on their own, save for a few coaches and trainers. This is not the case at all in collegiate tennis, where winning an individual match is meaningless if the team falters. So, when Henrik found himself playing for the University of Virginia, fighting for and with the guys around him, he was in decidedly uncharted personal territory.

As usual, Henrik didn’t need much help adjusting to a new home. He didn’t even need much help adjusting to his rigorous training and academic schedule. Instead, Henrik found himself in the same place for months at a time and a part of something bigger than himself, two things that he had not experienced in years.

Adapting to college tennis “is one of the most challenging things [a player] can transition into,” said Henrik’s former UVA coach Brian Boland. “There is so much that they have to be responsible for”, but in Henrik’s case he came into Virginia “with the proper values, coming from a great home.”

For the first time since his childhood, he realized that the goal was not only to improve his own game, but those of his teammates as well. Henrik soon embodied the notion, as the team camaraderie and friendship he found at UVA provided a much-needed balance to the extreme mental toll tennis can exert on an athlete. According to Coach Boland, Henrik “epitomized everything any coach would want in a student athlete. He is a leader, student, player, friend, and teammate.”

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Even in the more team-oriented arena of college tennis, the sport still possesses the psychological impact of an individually focused game. “It’s easy to tie your value or your identity as a person to your success on the court,” Henrik says, explaining that “In tennis, if you lose a match, it’s no one else’s fault. You have to be introspective and ask ‘Okay, what did I do wrong?’ Because there’s no one else on the court to take the blame.”

Henrik has experienced some truly remarkable highs during his time at UVA. Henrik has a 32-1 record in ACC regular season singles matches, and has earned a spot on numerous all-tournament and all-conference teams since his first year. In addition, each of his first three seasons resulted in a hard-fought, sweetly earned NCAA Championship. In his second trip to the NCAA Finals, he delivered the title-clinching match, seeing all of the hard work and dedication crystallize into a single moment as his teammates swarmed toward him, yelling and celebrating another national title.

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Then, just before his fourth and final season, Henrik ceased all tennis activity.

A few months before in the ACC Tournament, Henrik stretched out for a ball and immediately felt a pull in his shoulder. Grimacing in pain, he fought through it and played all the way through the NCAA Championships and into the summer, until one match in July when the pain became too much to bear, and Henrik had no choice but to shut down his training. Returning to UVA, Henrik went through a battery of tests revealing a partial rotator cuff tear in his right shoulder. As his worst nightmare became a reality, doctors told him he could not play tennis for the next nine months if he wished to compete again.

Henrik had never faced an injury that kept him out of tennis for a prolonged stretch, let alone one that prevented him from basic practice. Devastated, he would be left to stand on the sidelines, taking a medical red-shirt in what would have been his last collegiate season before finally realizing his dream of playing in the professional circuits.

Instead, he was faced with rehab five days a week, total restriction on lifting with his upper body, and nine months without playing the sport he loved.

Soon enough, it began to drive him crazy.

Henrik has sculpted this mindset since childhood, to the point where it became second nature, an integral part of who he is. But, this mentality didn’t necessarily translate to the world of rehabilitation. He was used to competing mentally against his opponents and keeping his calm in a match, not waiting patiently in doctors’ offices and being told to stay off the court he desperately wanted to get back on.

“Tennis is very cerebral. There is a ton of strategy that goes into how you approach each match, and even each point,” Henrik explains. When a player steps on the court, he or she becomes their own coach, responsible for all adjustments, decisions, and mental checks. Tennis is a sport that constantly poses new problems that require new answers for every point, game, and set won or lost. Through it all, Henrik says, it is extremely difficult to keep discipline and a cool head.

Henrik had no idea what to do or expect after his injury. He reflected, explaining that “Tennis definitely becomes a part of your identity, and you can get it associated in your head that you are a tennis player. That is what you do, that is all you do. When you get hurt, you can’t play. You can’t possibly identify yourself as a tennis player during that time. So, you have to figure out, ‘Who am I really?’”

The five or more hours of his day carved out for tennis were suddenly freed up. He threw himself into academics, spent time with friends, and even picked up a guitar and started to learn. However, everything he tried didn’t feel quite right, not like it would if he were playing.

For the first time in his life, Henrik had to seriously reflect on who he was outside of tennis. It wasn’t easy, as he recalls how “There were days that were dark, there were days where I was wondering, ‘Will I be able to play again?’” It’s a feeling that every athlete hopes they will never experience, and one that Henrik had to struggle mightily with. So many athletes encompass themselves in their sport, and for good reason. It is hard to be the best when one doesn’t dedicate their life to their sport. But when things slow down, or even threaten to stop altogether, life outside the niche world of elite athletics comes into focus.

For some, it is absolutely terrifying.

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Henrik has had moments where he’s felt slightly burned out. He’s also had moments where he feels that he could have worked harder. But if Henrik has learned anything from his injury, it is that tennis is where he belongs, tennis is a part of who he is, and he loves nothing more than walking onto the court and competing.

Always thoughtful of the opportunities he’s possessed, Henrik has come out of his recovery with a new outlook and appreciation for not just tennis itself, but the value he has gained from it. Henrik explains that tennis is not all about winning championships, describing how “You’re so sure that it’s going to make you happy… but in the end you realize it’s all about the daily process of getting to that point.” Winning the championship is undoubtedly one of the best feelings there is, but he emphasizes that “Just living it all the right way – that’s where you really draw your sense of value from the whole experience,” not with a single moment, but as a collective whole.

Collegiate tennis has been a passion of Henrik’s since the moment it began, and with his fourth season approaching this spring, he is ready to embrace it one final time. But now as he stays with his friend in a Palos Verdes apartment, Henrik is pensive about what his path will be after UVA. He knows he could be playing for five years or twenty, but no matter what life throws at him, he will be ready. Although he does not have a certain idea of what his life might be like in a few years, Henrik knows that he’ll tackle that question just like each one he faces on the court: with a fierce determination and a will to succeed.

When asked what he is most anticipating after his UVA career is over, Henrik responds that he’s just excited to see how good he can be. He’s never been able to treat tennis as a profession and fully give his all to the sport that has become such a tremendous part of his life. He’s never been able to spend all day on the court fine-tuning his stroke or hit the weight room to condition his body the best he can. For him, that is all he can ask for going forward, and Henrik is ready to become the best player he knows he is capable of being.

After five years of calling one place home, he’ll hit the road once again, tackling tournaments across the country – and the world – like he once did as a teenager. Where he’ll call home will become uncertain. It could be in certain tennis hubs such as Los Angeles or Florida, or it could even be in Charlottesville. Wherever it is, he’s excited for the challenges he’ll face, the mental games he’ll play, and the problems on the court he’ll have to solve.

Tennis has been a part of Henrik’s life for as long as he can remember. It has made him the man he is today, and he could not be happier to be a tennis player. But, as he learned when he was diagnosed with a partial rotator cuff tear, the sport that has given him so much could disappear from his life in an instant. This is true not only for Henrik, but anyone who has ever loved a sport.

Henrik, after experiencing nine months away from tennis, is perhaps one of the lucky few who can fully understand what their game means to them. As he eventually moves into the world of professional tennis, that realization will be valuable, and it will also make every game, set, and match that much sweeter.

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