With recreational and professional players testing the limits of what’s possible on a tennis court, their equipment needs to be up to the challenge.
The last decade saw racquets, strings and shoes all adapt to the increasing power and physical demands of the modern game. The trend will continue as manufacturers look for ways, both subtle and dramatic, to improve equipment and bolster performance. It will come from refining materials and production techniques to enhance playability, as well as using metrics and other data to inform and encourage gear choices. Because whether it’s 2019 or 2029, there’s one thing that will always remain true: nothing is more important to players than their equipment.
Frames may not have changed much in appearance over the last decade, but their compositions were constantly being tinkered with to find a perfect mix of playability. The sweet spot for the market settled around 100 square-inch head sizes and 300 grams in weight, with an emphasis on power and spin. Those features won’t fade, but comfort and versatility appear to be making comebacks, and how players reach a purchasing decision could become more sophisticated.
Recent innovations such as Babolat Play, and sensors from Head and Sony, brought an unprecedented level of performance data points to players. While useful information, consumers didn’t know how to apply it, and the technology hasn’t stuck. But the consensus in the industry is that as technology evolves, analytics will play a more prominent role in equipment selection. Data gleaned from an app, SmartCourt or other devices can show that a certain frame provides more power, or that a string adds more spin.
Faster frames; faster feet: racquet and shoe development will continue to be pushed towards smarter designs that give players added flexbility on the court, without sacrificing feel (racquets) or durability (sneakers).
Some of the onus will fall on the local pro or retailer being capable and willing to use these data providers to match players with their ideal equipment. To that end, we may see more exploration into developing products that are catered to the individual player. Just as a suit off the rack needs altering to flatter the wearer’s particular chest or waist, it’s impossible for a racquet, as playable as it might be, to fit all strokes and styles. Customizing racquets is nothing new, but manufacturers will look to increase the level of refinement, as well as the knowledge of the technicians, to offer a more personal playing experience.
“Every player on the planet wants a racquet to do more for them—whether at the local park or on the pro tour,” says Ron Rocchi, Advanced Innovation Manager for Wilson. “It’s just so individual to what the wants or needs are.”
Which is why the most recent trend has been producing racquets with more versatility. Power and spin will always be coveted, but companies seem to be pumping the brakes and making a slight turn toward frames with thinner beams, more feel, touch and softer flex. The Wilson Clash and Head Gravity lines are two recent releases reflecting this trend.
There’s also the sentiment that if racquets are more comfortable and arm-friendly, players will simply enjoy using them.
“Working with USTA Player Development in Orlando, every 15-year-old hits hard,” says Roman Prokes, a respected racquet technician who has worked with numerous top pros, including Novak Djokovic. “So it’s more about building a point, and opening up the court more. You need a racquet with more feel and control to do that.”
A trend in performance shoes over the last several years has been to cut as much weight as possible without sacrificing high-end stability or comfort. Most of that dieting was courtesy of advances in cushioning and upper materials that provided enough performance features while decreasing bulk. But while companies will always look for ways to lighten the load, there are limits. Given that the outsole accounts for a majority of a shoe’s mass, and players need it to be sturdier than ever, it’s unlikely we’ll see shoes going much lower in weight.
What’s more likely is shoes continuing to evolve to meet the increased speeds and lateral demands of the modern game. Where players used to wear out the toe or rip up the top of the shoe because of linear movement, damage is now being done in an angular fashion—players are sliding into more shots, even on hard courts. As a result, shoes are providing more support in the heel, and extra stability for aggressive side-to-side movement. The outrigger on the outsoles of the Adidas SoleCourt and SoleMatch shoes, as well as the mid-cut ankle collar and Velcro strap of the Wilson Amplifeel, are examples of the increased emphasis on lateral court coverage.
All photos from Shutterstock
Another trend in shoes, which is really an industry-wide desire, is the use of sustainable materials. In early 2019, Adidas introduced its Parley line, which uses recycled plastic discarded in ocean water. And with technology making it easier and cheaper to use recycled materials in such ways, there’s more incentive for companies to use it.
“Parley is just the tip of the spear for us,” says David Malinowski, Senior Director of Specialist Sports for Adidas. “You’ll soon see additional materials. Our goal is to be 100 percent recycled materials by 2025, and we’re well on our way.”
Another recent example is Wilson’s Triniti Ball, which came out in September. It contains different core and felt compositions than traditional balls to maintain liveliness and performance for longer durations. And because it doesn’t need the pressurization of a plastic can, the balls are sold in decomposable paper bags. Not only is it more environmentally friendly to produce, but by increasing durability, the hope is to see less tennis balls ending up in landfills.
Where racquet growth is looked at as incremental, expect to see more energy and excitement around the string sector. Polyester strings have had a significant impact on the game over the past few decades, and manufacturers will continue to search for additives and techniques to make them more comfortable and playable.
“Part of the equipment side has been under-innovative over the last 50 years,” says Rocchi. “And if you look at what you do in the game, strings are obviously important.”
Getty Images: Tennis is an aging demographic, so finding ways to keep the playing population healthy is critical—which starts with strings. Players will have a multitude of options, in order to find a set that suits their specific games and styles.
Because of polyester’s inherent stiffness, recreational players have sought thinner and softer versions to create a friendlier string bed. This provides added pop, with enough of the spin, control and trademark durability that have made polys popular, but with less potential arm damage. Prokes sees this trend continuing, with thicker 15 and 15L gauge multifilaments also making a comeback at the club level.
“You can’t change racquets from week to week,” says Prokes. “But strings can be experimented with. And when companies find something that works, they can produce it without waiting for a two-year cycle, as they typically would for a racquet.”