Has tennis gone too high-tech for its own good? Today, a would-be Venus Williams faces sporting goods store walls filled with rackets molded of titanium alloys and high-pressure carbons.
The promise is that technology now makes it possible - for $300 or so - for you to actually buy a better, more powerful game. But while these ultra-light rackets top the sales charts, a debate has broken out over whether less really delivers more.
This summer, tennis trade journals were humming with stories such as "Mass Hysteria: The Great Weight Debate" and "Are the New Rackets Too Light?"
"It’s the hottest talk going," says Tennis Industry publisher Jeff Williams of the debate over whether ultra-light is right.
Now an Orinda lawyer, inventor and math enthusiast has tossed a World Wide Web-based lob into the controversy.
"The price people are paying for power is pain," says Wilmot "Mac" McCutchen, who has studied the physics of tennis for the last year. "The companies promise that you can hit like the pros when you buy one of these rackets," says the soft-spoken former varsity tennis player. "But the numbers just don't support all that. In fact, they show the opposite."
According to McCutchen, who has published his findings on his Web page (RacquetResearch), the basic physics of momentum and acceleration reveal that older, cheaper and heftier rackets make for better strokes and fewer injuries.
"It’s very simple," says McCutchen, whose father, Wilmot R. McCutchen, designed the BART mass transit system. "It’s mass — the tennis racket — and how it impacts a moving object — the tennis ball. Those things just don't change."
On McCutchen’s Web site, such things as vibration and the bending of a tennis racket on impact are dissected by way of algebraic formula. McCutchen uses racket weights and measures published by Tennis and Stringer’s Assistant magazines to calculate his findings.
One of McCutchen’s more controversial conclusions concerns the relationship between racket performance and tennis elbow.
Basically, McCutchen says, a tennis racket bends, or torques, when it’s hit by a speeding tennis ball, then catapults forward (picture a saw flopping back and forth after it’s been bent back and released).
This action whips and shakes a muscle (the extensor carpi radialis brevis) that runs from the middle of the hand to the elbow. This, together with the vibration of the racket after impact, McCutchen contends, eventually breaks down the attachments of the muscle to the bone, creating pain known as the dreaded tennis elbow.
McCutchen says measurements of torque and shock, derived from a tennis racket’s physical characteristics, can determine its propensity to aggravate tennis elbow. It’s an assertion that’s making tennis racket makers and experts torque and vibrate themselves.
"I've read his Web site, and I have to say that it has some very interesting things to say," says Howard Brody, a University of Pennsylvania physics professor and published expert on tennis racket performance. "He clearly understands the physics, but he’s making assumptions along the way that make me wonder."
Brody says that while he finds McCutchen’s tennis elbow suppositions "medically correct," he can't agree with his conclusions that a racket’s characteristics can cause the malady.
"No one has done any real experiments to determine a racket’s influence on injury," says Brody. "Until someone comes up with a way to actually measure it, we're pretty much stuck with anecdotal evidence.
"Formulas are one thing," Brody adds. "It’s the proof that we should be focusing on."
The racket rankings on McCutchen’s site generated another controversy. Using his formulas, McCutchen rated the performance and safety of 69 rackets currently on the market. The newer lightweight ones, made from titanium and other exotic materials, fared the worst.
"They don't bring enough mass to the collision," says McCutchen. "When the racket meets the ball, instead of the racket going through the ball, it bounces off it.
"It’s like if you try to hit a hardball with a light softball bat," he adds. "It just doesn't work. You need a heavy bat to hit a home run."
Spokesmen for Wilson Sporting Goods and HeadUSA, leaders in the tennis racquet market, say the lighter rackets create faster swing speeds. Both companies say the popularity of these rackets show that the new technology is sound.
"Consumers are very happily going out and purchasing our products," said Dave Haggerty, president of HeadUSA Summer Sports Division, which makes the top-selling Ti.S7 and Ti.S6 rackets. "No one is returning them for tennis elbow."
Head’s titanium rackets, which were introduced this past January, took the company’s product line from third to first place in racket sales, according to Tennis Industry magazine.
Wilson spokesman John Embree says: "People are using them, and they're happy with them."
Wilson has just announced its new "Hyper Sledge Hammer" racket that weighs in at 7.5 ounces, the lightest ever made.
McCutchen says the newer rackets are primarily designed to have more "pickup appeal" - tennis industry slang for the feel of a racket when its hefted in a store. Both Embree and Haggerty say the pickup appeal of the lighter rackets is a major selling point.
"They do feel wonderful when you first hold one," says Wilson’s Embree.
"I can't deny they were designed with that in mind," says Head’s Haggerty. "It’s the No. 2 characteristic that consumers look for, behind cosmetics."
But both Embree and Haggerty say that playability is also an essential ingredient of a racket’s success. "No one is going to buy a racket just because it feels good in the store," says Haggerty. "They usually take it out and demo it for an hour or so."
McCutchen says his Web site is set up to counter racket makers' momentum.
"I'm doing my best to add some reality to the hype," he says.