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Wooden It Be Nice?

From carbon-fiber tennis rackets to titanium drivers, modern technology has made sports easier to play - and duller to watch.

Author Jason Gay Illustration Barry Blitt

IF YOU’RE LIKE US, you enjoy a casual game of tennis in the summer. We’re not talking about sweaty, grunting, anaerobic tennis, running all over the court and diving for volleys. That’s for lunatics. We’re talking about lazy, friendly tennis—forget-to-keep-score, let-the-ball-bounce-twice, cocktails-during-changeovers tennis. Sometimes we don’t even wait for the changeovers. Bud Collins, meet Tom Collins.

That’s the type of tennis we play, and thanks to cutting-edge technology, it’s become easier than ever. Have you gripped a modern tennis racket? Made with materials like carbon fiber and graphite, it weighs less than the magazine you’re holding. The face— that’s the big part, with the strings—is as sprawling as a Midwestern state.

These supersize rackets are absurdly forgiving, even if they look a little ridiculous in your hand. The other day, we played three sets with one while eating an entire plate of General Tso’s chicken—with chopsticks.

But as much as we love our fancy modern racket, we wonder if it’s not a little like fishing with a hand grenade. Somehow it makes a mockery of the tennis fundamentals—move your feet, keep your racket back—that Dad taught us 30 years ago. It’s time to reconsider tennis technology before it corrodes the game we love. It’s time to bring back wood.

Yes, wood. You know, that space-age material cultivated from exotic flora called trees.

Oddly, wood was used to make tennis rackets for generations, until aggravated hackers—some just like me—decided they didn’t want to hit every third shot into the parking lot.

But wood makes tennis a purer game. It was so uncompromising, it forced a tennis player to be much more skillful, almost artistic. You couldn’t just stick a wooden racket out and plop the ball across the net, you had to guide it there. The wood racket was heavier, with a smaller face and a thick, unwieldy neck. You had to carry it as an extension of your body—hold it close, grip it properly and take it out to dinner at least once a month.

Watching professional tennis players today, you can’t help but wonder how they’d manage with the old equipment. Tennis is lucky right now to have a surplus of great champions—the remarkable Roger Federer and his young nemesis Rafael Nadal, and on the women’s side, stars like Maria Sharapova and the indefatigable Williams sisters. All are uncommonly gifted; most would’ve been great players in prior generations. But you have to admit, the game is a smidge easier for them thanks to the tech. Wouldn’t you want to see them at least try wood?

Federer’s one guy who might embrace the change. The Swiss champ swings a small-headed racket that bears a passing resemblance to its wooden forefathers, and his nimble game is a throwback. He’s also played exhibition games of real tennis, a bizarre 12th-ish century version of the game thought to be the original racket sport, which awards points for hitting the ball through a courtside window. (Not kidding.)

But let’s not stop with the wooden rackets, people. Every professional sport could use a dose of demodernization:

BASEBALL
Yes, baseball has wooden bats. It’s a nice, retro touch. But let’s return to the days of one-out innings— you can watch an entire game in an hour! Forbid gloves, too (okay, maybe it will take longer than an hour). And here’s an offense-boosting idea: The pitchers must throw to batters underhanded. You know, just like the Baltimore Orioles do.

FOOTBALL
This one’s tricky. We want to keep players safe, and we’re not sure if we want to see all 270 pounds of Shawne Merriman chasing Eli Manning in a leather helmet. We’d like to retain the forward pass and even teach it to the Detroit Lions. But let’s move the goal posts to the front of the end zone and return field goals to their original five points. And how about encouraging more drop-kicking—as Bill Belichick knows, it’s still legal.

BASKETBALL
Yup, bring back the peach baskets. Who wouldn’t want to see Kobe Bryant charge down the lane for a ferocious dunk, and then watch Dwight Howard have to putter up a stepladder to retrieve the ball? Sure, it would slow the game down, but think of all the Nike-branded ladders Home Depot could sell. We’d also like to eliminate backboards (they didn’t have ’em in the old days), though a lot of fans would get hit in the head with jump shots at Clippers games.

HOCKEY
Goalies used to play without face masks. That’s way too dangerous, but right now the keepers wear more padding than Nfl cheerleaders. They could stand to lose a little bit of that goal-stopping protection. We also hear that back in the day, hockey used to—get this—allow the players to actually fight. Guys would drop their gloves and go at it right there on the ice, sometimes multiple players at once. Good thing they don’t allow that anymore!

GOLF
This game has benefited more from modern technology than even tennis. Have you seen those new drivers? They have heads the size of flat-screen TVs. Balls come with everything but anti-water radar detection. The game has lost its way as it tries to flatter (and suck the money out of) the weekend enthusiast. How about going back to actually making woods out of wood? Moving the tees back? Growing longer roughs? That might lead to rounds of…nine-hour golf. Never mind.

Please don’t misunderstand: We’re not hard-core traditionalists. We don’t mind night baseball at Wrigley or the NFL’s wildcard playoff format. We’re not giving back our carbon-fiber bicycle, our DirectTV football package, our glow-in-the-dark Frisbee or Wii tennis. We’re even fans of modern games such as indoor football, mixed martial arts and Battle of the Network Stars.

But it’s worth recalling that sports are supposed to be sporting. Frustration is part of the game. Getting challenged means getting better, and rules shouldn’t change just to make things easier. Likewise, technology can help, but it shouldn’t be a big, fat-faced crutch.

So: Wood-racket tennis, anyone? We’ll bring the lime juice and cigars.

JASON GAY’s father, Ward, has coached high school tennis for 30 years. He can still crush his son on the court.

GAME CHANGERS

Three innovations that rocked the world of pro sports

FORWARD PASS

It’s hard to believe the forward pass, a.k.a. the “pass,” was once illegal in football, which used to resemble ultraviolent rugby. Legalized by the Nfl in 1906, the forward pass is set to be adopted by the Detroit Lions in 2010.

24-SECOND SHOT CLOCK

No one wants to watch Kobe and LeBron play keep-away. Since the shot clock’s introduction in the 1950s, there are no more 25-22 final scores, and games have sped way up—except for the last two minutes, which still take nine hours.

ANABOLIC STEROIDS

The use of steroids actually dates back to ancient Greece, but they didn’t play a role in American sports until the 1950s. They’ve been banned since the ’70s, when pro athletes switched to Wheaties. Right Barry? Barry?

One Response to “Wooden It Be Nice?”

  1. kathrynlacombe Says:
    August 4th, 2009 at 2:56 pm

    Let new technology rule! Hopefully, there are fewer injuries due to lighter and more powerfull stringing of racquets.