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Whap! Ace. Point. You Call This Tennis?


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WHAP! ACE. POINT. YOU CALL THIS TENNIS?

It's the 1980 Wimbledon men's final between Bjorn Borg and John McEnroe. With rallies that often exceed 20 shots, Borg's steady baseline play wears down McEnroe's artful net game. The final set alone lasts 14 games. Following match point, Borg, clutching his small-faced wooden racket, goes into his patented victory swoon.

Fast-forward to 1991. In a final that lasts only 153 minutes and 33 games, German Michael Stich steamrolls his countryman, three-time Wimbledon champion Boris Becker. Play goes basically like this: 128-miles-per-hour serve, weak return, point for Stich. After the final point, Stich throws his racket into the air--a big-headed, graphite weapon that makes Borg's look like a flyswatter.

Finesse or power, long rallies or bang-bang play: Those are the questions as the sport of tennis focuses on the U. S. Open that kicked off on Aug. 26. The controversy will only intensify as rackets with names such as Hammer, Vortex, and Discovery introduce a new era of tennis technology. At issue is their common feature, a widebody design that makes them board-stiff and gives players uncommon power. The cost: at least $300 unstrung.

STANDARD ISSUE. Aside from the top-ranked doubles team of Jim Pugh and Rick Leach, few big names in the men's game use the widebody, but virtually all women pros now use the bigger rackets. And at the Nick Bollettieri Tennis Academy in Bradenton, Fla., where the pros of tomorrow are in training, widebody rackets are standard issue. Bollettieri, who has trained the likes of Monica Seles and Andre Agassi, says he can't name one of his new crop not swinging one. "They're everywhere," says Bollettieri.

And not just among the stars-to-be. Since Wilson Sporting Goods Co.'s Profile ushered in the widebody era in 1987, wide rackets have dominated retail sales, notching all top-10 spots in the list of best-sellers compiled by NPD Group, a Port Washington (N. Y.) sports consultant. Widebodies account for about 90% of the $115 million in U. S. tennis sales for Wilson, Prince Manufacturing, and Head Sports Inc., the top three racket makers. "People don't even bother to ask for the widebody any more, because that's all there is," says Fred Drilling, owner of Drilling Tennis Shop in Washington.

This obscure object of desire consists of a light, graphite frame that barely flexes when ball meets strings. That means nearly all the force exerted by the player transfers directly to the ball. And because of the rackets' light weight, players can swing harder than before, too. It's an irresistible combination, particularly for country-club players with more money than patience. "When you don't have the time to practice or get in shape, then people rely on technology," observes Glyn C. Roberts, an Indianapolis sports psychologist.

Each manufacturer has a gimmick. Wilson's Hammer (diagram) has dominated sales since its light-handled design first hit store shelves in 1990. Prince, meanwhile, says its Vortex grows stiffer the harder the ball is hit. The handle on Head's Discovery is geared to reduce shock to the elbow and wrist.

The hunger for high tech isn't limited to tennis. Spalding has introduced a baseball glove that can be pumped up to produce a tighter fit. Even though the new glove has elicited a lawsuit from Reebok International Ltd., which claims patent infringement of its Pump line of athletic shoes, Spalding plans to move ahead with production. Meanwhile, golf's professional tinkerers are focusing on oversize woods made of new materials such as titanium and ceramics. And new, long-shafted putters are lowering scores on greens around the U. S.

Are these sports getting hurt, though? Tennis purists fear that improved technology could render the game unrecognizable. No less than Jimmy Connors, dean of the men's ranks and a power-game pioneer, has criticized the rackets for changing the emphasis from proficiency to sheer brawn.

'DANGER SIGNAL.' The doomsday scenario goes like this: With the new rackets, the game gets quicker and less dramatic at the top level. That means less exciting television, which could mean fewer viewers, and eventually, fewer players. "If the game goes down to about one-and-a-half strokes per rally, that will be a danger signal," warns Bollettieri.

Hogwash, say the widebody's defenders. The wide rackets have made the women's game more fun. And, say high-tech advocates, the new generation of rackets is drawing new players to the sport, much as the original Prince racket, with its oversize head, did after it was introduced in the mid-1970s. "How many people say, `Hey, this is fun, hitting the ball into the net,' " asks Wilson Vice-President Jim Baugh. "We want to get the ball over the net, and that's what these rackets are all about." Over the net and into the next county, if you're not careful.David Greising in Chicago


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