ITF must act before high-tech rackets kill of the volley

WHOEVER becomes the US Open champion next weekend, and however they play, they will view their rackets in the same way that a great artist viewed his paintbrush or Jimi Hendrix regarded his favourite guitar.

Playing at the highest level, you don’t just pick up a new racket and think it’s going to immediately improve your game. Getting to know your weapon, experimenting with the weight by adding or taking away little chunks of lead, working out the right string tension, it takes months, even years, to get it right.

Racket technology has improved enormously since I was a young kid back in Australia and although I knew better about Santa Claus, I wrote him a letter saying that what I really wanted for Christmas was a Spalding Davis Cup. I can’t explain my disappointment when I opened the wrapping paper and there instead was a Slazenger Ken Rosewall, although I later found out this was simply because Muscles was my father’s favourite player. Looking back on my career, I paid the price for swapping my racket too often simply because I was chasing the money and always looking for the most lucrative contract. Hindsight is a wonderful thing but the guys who really got it right were those prepared to stick with what they knew, even if their deal expired.

Even the great Pete Sampras, who pretty much played with the same brand throughout his career, went through a period when his management company could not strike a deal with the manufacturer. So he simply painted the frames jet black, so any form of logo was invisible, and got on with what he did best, which was winning titles. Of course players tinker and make slight adjustments. Even the fastidious Roger Federer decided in 2013 that he needed to jump-charge his game to keep pace with younger challengers such as Novak Djokovic, Rafael Nadal and Andy Murray.

For his entire career Federer had long been using the smallest racket head of anyone on tour, an old-school 90-square-inch Wilson Pro Staff. But success at the top level is all about fractions and he knew he needed something extra so moved to something larger. Of course it wasn’t that straightforward and took months to get things absolutely right, but now look at him and you will see he is serving better than he’s probably ever done and playing with astonishing control, volleying well and stepping right in to take returns so early.

People rightly maintain Nadal is one of the strongest and most talented men ever to dominate on the court, but his racket and its strings are so important to his game. The amount of topspin he puts on the ball would have been unthinkable in the days of wooden rackets.

Bjorn Borg was the player who first brought this quality to the game and it’s what made him stand out as something special, but he was locked into playing with a racket that became overtaken by the technology at the time.

Then there was the steel racket that only Jimmy Connors could use in the 1980s. I’ve heard it likened to an electric guitar in an acoustic age but it’s frankly one that myself and a lot of my contemporaries tried and struggled to strike a chord.

Now 30 years on, racket technology has continued. We’ve been through those oversized-head rackets, which I liked and offered a lot more control at the net. Now there are even rackets that come with microchips, which are supposed to show the relative power of shots and amount of spin imparted. This is by and large a gimmick for the time being but soon we could see nanotechnology stiffening or adding flexibility instantly to a frame, correcting any miscontact. I’m convinced that in the next five or 10 years this march of technology is going to continue and rackets are going to become increasingly powerful. If this is going to be the case, the International Tennis Federation, being the rule-makers of the game, should do something to halt the advance. Things are in danger of becoming too forceful and specific skills, particularly the art of volleying, could become obsolete.