The rain apart, the thing everyone is talking about at Wimbledon this year is whether Roger Federer will equal Bjorn Borg’s record of five consecutive titles. Federer has won Wimbledon the last four years. Borg won five from 1976-80.
The 27 years since Borg’s last win span the journey of tennis racquets just as they do of the sport. Borg is the iconic mascot of the wooden racquet generation. Federer represents the Now Crowd, one that wields sci-fi frames which sound as if they were made by the Wachowski brothers while filming ‘The Matrix’. nCoded High Modulus Graphite / Carbon Black, that’s the composition of Federer’s Wilson K-Factor job. Inti-goddamn-midating, isn’t it? Even though the K-Factor supposedly behaves like a traditional stick.
Tennis racquets began to venture into non-wood territory in the 1960s. The first experiments were in metal. The Wilson T2000 – a steel model used nearly throughout his career by Jimmy Connors – is the most famous metal racquet in history. Aluminium frames too were common those days. Roscoe Tanner used one to reach the Wimbledon final in 1979.
But the leap into high technology? That took place in the 1980s. Compared to cricket, which has stricter rules regarding the size and composition of the bat, tennis manufacturers had greater freedom and frolicked with dimensions and materials. Wood went out fast, as if armies of termites had descended upon all the conventional racquets in the world. The triumphs of John McEnroe and Chris
Evert at Wimbledon 1981 were the last achieved with a wood racquet (Chris played with a Wilson Jack Kramer, McEnroe with the classic Dunlop Maxply which dated back to the days of Rod Laver and which also had an equally popular badminton range preferred by the likes of Nandu Natekar).
McEnroe’s victory two years later with the graphite Dunlop Max 200g (another star in the racquet constellation, used not only by McEnroe but also by Steffi Graf later) was the first conjured with a non-wood, non-metal wand in the men’s singles. On the women’s side, Martina Navratilova’s win in 1982 with a Yonex R-7 started the reign of new-age racquets.
Tennis changed, especially men’s tennis. The power went up, the spin increased, the larger racquet heads meant the mishits decreased. Tennis became faster.
By the Nineties, however, it had become too fast, too powerful, eroding one of the chief attractions of the game – the rally. The serve dominated. Points became short. You saw a lot of efficiency in the game, no doubt. But not enough flavour. Old tennis was conversation. New tennis was a monosyllabic text message.
Fans and players who had one leg in the wooden racquet generation couldn’t shake off the glory days. So difficult was it for Borg to think of playing with anything other than his trusted Donnay that he used it even in his 1991 comeback attempt, nearly a decade after his exit from the sport.
In 1991 wooden racquets were 5cprobably hung up in the Smithsonian beside the Tyrannosaurus Rex skeleton in a display of the world’s extinct species. McEnroe was equally attached to his wooden treasures. It is said that the American – probably the superstar most in love with the sport even now – still plays with his old racquets once in a while, like a car lover who takes his vintage beauty out for a spin sometimes.
On the fan side, there are Web sites dedicated to wood racquets, not to mention internet forums where timber lovers converge. Some of them are competent players who, like McEnroe, jam with the relics. They report that they can’t match the latest racquets in terms of power, but still offer feel and control.
Some wooden frames are immortal. Borg’s Donnay is one of them. This has as much to do with its striking features as the Swede’s stature in the game. The Borg Pro has a black body, a psychedelic orange design and the unique double grip for the two-handed backhand the star popularised. The Borg All-Wood, an earlier model from the Donnay house, is attractive too.
We should not let nostalgia impair our sense of fairness, though. Or our optimism. Contemporary men’s tennis has a bunch of versatile players like Federer, Rafael Nadal and Marat Safin who, despite using ultra-modern racquets, have resurrected the rally and dish out compelling fare week after week.
If we look at things positively for a change, we’ll realise we are actually enjoying the best of both worlds - the joy of conversation and the cutting edge athleticism of text messaging. Borg and his Donnay can both be happy in this knowledge.