Question of the Day: Revisiting the Spaghetti Racquet
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What can you tell us about the double-strung spaghetti racquets that caught on in the late 1970s? I know the basics, that the racquet’s atypical string design produced a crazy amount of spin. But how did it work exactly? Is there a way that players can hack their own spaghetti-inspired strings today?—Leonard B.
For folks interested in the history of the game’s equipment, Leonard, the “spaghetti racquet” (also known as the “double-strung” racquet) is quite the highlight. Created by a West German horticulturist named Werner Fisher, the stick, which featured a highly movable string surface, could impart massive amounts of spin that were completely unheard of at the time.
As Bud Collins details in his eponymous Tennis Encyclopedia, the spaghetti racquet caused the greatest stir in 1977, as it started to influence the outcomes of both club and professional tournaments. That year, at the French Open, Australian player Barry Phillips-Moore became the first to swing the stick at a major pro tournament. And a few months later, at the U.S. Open, little-known American Mike Fishbach, having notably rigged his own spaghetti racquet with Venetian-blind cord, upset Stan Smith in the second round.
But spaghetti strings wouldn’t reach the height of their notoriety until later that fall. As Collins explains, two weeks after the U.S. Open, “Ilie Nastase was beaten by a player using a ‘spaghetti’ racket in Paris and swore he would never play against it again. The following week he turned up with one and used it to win a tournament at Aix-en-Provence, ending Guillermo Vilas’ long winning streak [of 46 straight matches] in the final. Vilas quit after two sets, claiming that playing against the exaggerated spin injured his elbow.”
(Fact: Following the defeat to Nastase, Vilas would go on to win another 28 straight matches.)
The very next Monday, on October 2nd, the International Tennis Federation (ITF) suspended pro tem the legality of double-strung racquets in sanctioned competition. In June ’78, Collins writes, the ITF made the ban permanent, and created new rules explicitly prohibiting future stringing designs that departed from the woven, uniform norm.
But what exactly was Fischer’s spaghetti pattern? Why could it impart so much spin? Rod Cross, a noted tennis physicist from Australia, has written a brief exegesis on the topic, which you can read in full on his website. (Photo credit there, as well.) As Cross describes it, the spaghetti pattern's effectiveness draws on four distinct features, which together reduce lateral friction, allowing the main strings, in concert, to slide and rebound a preposterous distance upon impact with the ball:
(1) There are only five cross strings and they are not woven with the main strings, as they are now required to be.
(2) The main strings are all tied together at the five locations near the cross strings, using five thin strings looped around each main string, so that all the main strings move together. If one of the main strings is pulled sideways, all the main strings move sideways.
(3) There are two sets of main strings, one on each side of the racquet, the cross strings being located between the two sets of mains. So, there are three separate layers of strings.
(4) At points where the main strings intersect the cross strings, short sections of plastic spaghetti tubing are threaded onto the main strings. They serve the same function as modern “string-a-lings” that can be inserted between the mains and crosses to reduce friction and wear between the mains and crosses.
In fact, the extra lateral string movement enabled by the above, while certainly more exaggerated, is not unlike the movement induced by present-day monofilaments. In similar fashion, both spaghetti and monofilament stringbeds, compared to those of nylon or natural gut, allow the mains to displace and “snap back” farther and faster upon impact. As recent studies by Cross and others have shown, and as regular readers of this blog are no doubt aware, it's this snap-back effect that contributes to increased spin, not to mention a higher launch angle.
The irony of all this, which does not escape Cross, is that today’s players use polyester strings to hit with nearly as much spin—in the case of Rafael Nadal, maybe more?—as Fishbach and Nastase could with their spaghetti racquets. Which, of course, raises the obvious but interesting question: Why ban spaghetti strings, but not monofilaments? (For now, I’ll let you readers tease this one out.)
As for your last question, Leonard, on home-brewed spaghetti stringing: While hacking a replica of the original would be quite onerous, according to Rod Cross, you can hit with considerably more spin by stringing your racquet with a monofilament and not weaving together the mains and crosses. (Go here to see a video, 600 frames per second, of this very matrix in action. The strings aren’t threaded together; the mains and crosses are simply laid on top of one another.) Of course, playing with such a pattern is illegal. But if you’re a player with topspin-oriented strokes, I imagine it’d make for a fun outing against an unsuspecting tennis buddy. That is, if you can control it; although I've never tried non-woven poly myself, such a stringbed would, surely, produce some unpredictable shots. Give it a shot. Report back.
Let me leave you with three videos. The first two, published by the ITF, show slow-motion impacts against a spaghetti and normal stringing pattern, respectively:
The last video gives a glimpse into one of the crazier moments in tennis’ history, when Nastase took Vilas out to the woodshed and beat him with...a wet noodle: