In the summer of 2006 Head rolled out Airflow, the company’s first line of racquets dedicated to women players. There were three basic concepts: lightweight power, a close to even balance for easy handling, and a specially designed ergonomic grip to better fit a woman’s hand. They were obviously pleased with its reception because this summer they’re introducing the next generation. Those core ingredients continue in the updates as well as a few new power and comfort features. We’ll be reviewing the frames in the magazine and online for the September issue, but in the meantime I spoke with Roger Petersman, Head’s Senior Business Manager for tennis racquets, to get the lowdown on the new frames.
JL: This is the second generation of Airflow. How do you feel the response to a women’s specific line of racquets was the first time around?
RP: I think it was good. When you look at a racquet, one of the things you look at is how long it spends in the Top 50 on the pro specialty list. That’s kind of where we gauge how the racquets are doing and how the racquets are accepted. And the racquet was on the pro specialty list for the majority of the time in the two-year span that the racquet was out. So we were pretty happy with it.
I think the concept was received very well because it has performance characteristics. It wasn’t just a flower design or something like that. We have the ergonomic grip, we have the research to back up the more evenly balanced product and the lighter weight power, which were a lot of the things that were important in our focus groups.
JL: So you did take a lot of time to playtest with women to find out what they were looking for?
RP: Yeah, we did a ton of playtests across the U.S., Europe, and Japan. In the U.S. we were big in Hilton Head, Miami, Atlanta, we did a bunch in Dallas, Salt Lake City, and Phoenix. We just went out to the clubs and when we first started with the concept it was just having people feeling the ergonomic grip, to picking up racquets and telling us what they felt in pick-up weight. Once we got closer we expanded it to cosmetics and actual physical technology on court. There were literally over 1000 ladies involved in the focus groups worldwide.
JL: Now we’ve got the 2.0 version. What’s different about these frames?
RP: We met with our Airflow ad staff several times while these racquets were out and a few things kept coming up. One, they were a little bit too lightweight. All the ad staff and Airflow focus groups said that if we add a little bit more weight to the frames, they’ll be a little bit more stable, and appeal to a larger group. We still wanted to stay lightweight, so we only added about 0.5 ounce to them. And we kept them pretty evenly balanced. The ergonomic grip was a huge success so that stayed.
Another thing is people felt there was a little too much vibration to them. A little too much high pinging sound. So we developed a new string [Head ETS] that will help that, made the integrated dampener larger, and also put in a new shaft dampening device called the InteGrip. We did those things to address that.
And a third thing that ladies said is we were a little too conservative in our cosmetics. They wanted to see us get a little bit more aggressive. A lot of other racquets in our line, especially what we were doing with MicroGEL, were very aggressive, and they felt like the Airflows were just a little bit too conservative.
JL: There were four racquets in the original line (Airflow 1, 3, 5, and 7). Are you going to continue with that many?
RP: No. When we added the 0.5 ounce to all the racquets, the new Airflow 3 became so close to what the original Airflow 1 was that it just didn’t make sense to keep both the racquets in line. Then if you added 0.5 ounce to the Airflow 1, it became one of our Team racquets. It just didn’t fit in the over concept of the target group that we were going for. So the new Airflow 3 kind of took the place of both the Airflow 1 and 3 in our old line.
JL: Also with this new line, you’re introducing a new technology called CrossBow. Can you explain a little bit on how that works?
RP: CrossBow is very unique. It’s a two-piece molded racquet. We actually had to do two separate molds for the frame. First they make the actual frame itself without the throat piece. And then they mold the throat piece. And then they put the throat piece into the racquet. It doesn’t come out after it’s manufactured. We put some rubber elastomers in there to hold it in. But being that it’s made of two pieces and it isn’t locked in there it allows that bridge to move independently from the rest of the frame. What that does is it acts like a spring or a bow that’s loaded during ball impact.
I think the easiest way to understand it is to think of a diving board. When somebody jumps up on a diving board and lands on the end of it, the diving board stores that energy and returns it back to the person so they can fly higher and farther. It’s pretty much the same concept. When the ball makes impact with the string bed the CrossBow is loaded and it bends up towards the string bed. As the ball comes off, it releases that stored energy back to the ball. It’s almost like a slingshot or a bow and arrow.
JL: And you’re going to be putting this into other frames as well?
RP: Yeah, we also have two power frames that are out – the CrossBow 10 and the CrossBow 6. Those are more of our power racquets. And then we have the Airflow line that it will be in as well.
JL: So the CrossBow is first and foremost a power technology?
RP: Right. It’s 100% a power technology. What it does with the dynamic bridge, it’s really all about the power. One of the things about the Airflow line is the lightweight power. We were looking for ways to make these racquets more powerful without adding a ton of weight to them. And CrossBow worked really well in that.
JL: Since the beginning of the Airflow line, Steffi Graf has been involved. On a scale from 1 to 10, 10 being the highest, how involved is she in the making of these racquets?
RP: Well she’s not going to the factories to actually make them. But otherwise I would say a 10. We got together with the Airflow panel twice, and she participated in both meetings. Both the classroom setting where we discussed what we needed to do with the racquets and addressing feedback. She was very strong and opinionated in adding a little bit of weight to the racquets and making them more aggressive in our cosmetics. Those were two big points for her.
Then we got out on the court. It was funny, our first set of playtest samples were not strung exactly the same. They were strung a little bit differently. Two of them were strung over at our Austrian factory and two of them were strung here in the U.S., and she made us restring them. Because she said she couldn’t tell anything with the racquets being strung two different ways. So we had to get them strung and get back with her so she could go playtest them again. She was very involved.
JL: Why was it important for you to have someone like her attached to the project?
RP: A couple reasons. One, she has just done so much for the game of tennis and is such a great player. I think as she has transitioned into her family life she has taken a different look at tennis. And I think she wants to be involved and help people get involved in the game. I think that’s one thing that helped make the project interesting to her. It wasn’t just putting her name on a line and letting it go. She could actually do something to help women play better tennis.