12 October 2018

The ascent of tennis: Science tracks the evolution of the racket

We all know that once upon a time tennis rackets were made of wood, but how did they evolve in to the high-tech designs of today? A team at Manchester Metropolitan University has been working on this very subject and will be presenting and discussing some of their findings to the public at this year’s Manchester Science Festival.

Tom at Manchester Metropolitan University“We were lucky enough to have hundreds of rackets from across the eras to examine” says Dr Tom Allen a Senior Lecturer in Mechanical Engineering at Manchester Metropolitan University. With his colleague Dr Luca Taraborrelli, Tom has been characterising rackets in the HEAD collection in Austria and at the Wimbledon Lawn Tennis Museum.

According to a study quoted by the team, a player with a modern racket could serve 18% faster than a player using a wooden racket from the 1870s. But how has that improvement in performance been achieved?

Rackets waiting to be tested by the Manchester teamUsing specially designed tests on rackets from different eras, the team now have a better understanding of how rackets developed and the research could even influence the future of racket design. “Because tennis is a well-funded and popular sport, developments in equipment have been faster than in some other sports," says Tom. "While the International Tennis Federation limits some racket dimensions, engineers are free to experiment with new materials and designs, allowing more innovation than in a sport like cricket where the bat must be made of wood.”

All that makes tennis a very useful subject for this kind of analysis and the implications don’t just end with tennis. Predicting the impact of changes in design technology is relevant to just about everything from the car industry to construction.

“Interesting too are the companies that fell by the wayside,” says Tom. Sometimes the cost of change was too great for even the leading brands to bear, and companies like the Belgium based Donnay, despite boasting Bjorn Borg as a player, went to the wall. “Now though with the benefits of global manufacturing these brand-names are becoming valuable again.”

As rackets moved from wood to metal and then on to graphite and other composite materials, the initial tendency was for rackets to get ever lighter and stiffer, but as the research has confirmed, the search for the best performing racket has become much more nuanced, finding the best racket for a particular player for example. These days companies like HEAD take their research and development very seriously looking for materials and design innovations to give them and the next generation of players the edge.

So can we expect rackets to continue to evolve? Yes, says the Manchester team, although the next revolution may be more about sensor technology and player feedback that the material used to build the frame. As they say, watch this racket.

Find out more at this year’s Manchester Science Festival events:

An Ace History of Tennis
Saturday 20 October, 11am – 5pm, Manchester Tennis and Racquets Club
A chance to visit the Manchester Tennis and Racquets Club and learn about the history and development of tennis, plus see one the few remaining real tennis courts in the country. The club welcomes adults and teenagers over 16 to drop in any time between 11am and 5pm and enjoy a range of activities and demos including the chance to discover cutting-edge racket technologies and designs.

Hi-tech Tennis
Saturday 27 October, 2pm – 5pm, The Northern Tennis Club
Come and spend Saturday afternoon at The Northern, Manchester’s renowned tennis club and host to top lawn tennis tournaments including the Fuzion100 Manchester Trophy. The family-friendly open afternoon (2-5pm) will give you a sneak peek round the club and perhaps even a chance to play. You’ll also discover how technology and gadgets are changing the game.