Tennis stars at full stretch to serve faster than ever

Plans to make the the handles of racquets even longer are being resisted, writes Charles Arthur
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The Independent Online
The world of tennis is on the verge of a brutal, bruising contest - and not just on the grass courts of Wimbledon. In the latest round of a struggle that has lasted for years, racquet manufacturers are threatening to sue the game's administrators if a new rule is introduced to limit the speed of play.

The latest volley of angry words would do justice to John McEnroe on a hot day. They follow a proposal by the rulemaking International Tennis Federation (ITF), the game's rulemaking body, to limit the length of any racquet to 29in, rather than the present 32in, because it considers that longer racquets "pose an unacceptable risk in increasing the speed of the game in general, and would further increase the potency of the serve within the game".

A senior executive for one manufacturer says that the ITF is "making a decision based on emotions rather than facts".

However, the ITF's true worries are more likely to be related to the shrinking popularity of professional tennis - which has seen audience interest flag as the speed of services has accelerated over the past 20 years, as wood racquets have been replaced by those made with space- age materials and enlarged hitting areas. Many professionals can now hit serves at up to140mph, rendering them virtually unreturnable.

The ITF has already legislated on the maximum area of the racquet, which began expanding with the introduction of the large-headed Prince Classic in 1976.

Tournament organisers have also tinkered with the characteristics of tennis balls to try to make matches more entertaining. However, an experiment with softer balls at Wimbledon last year - intended to slow serves down and hence promote rallies - had no discernible effect.

The ITF's latest proposal follows the introduction by manufacturers last year of "extra-long" racquets, some more than 29in long, which give players extra reach and - because of their greater leverage - up to 14 per cent more power than standard models.

Professional players are already using them: Michael Chang of the United States, placed fourth in the world, has been using a 29in racquet since1994, and says it has been key in raising his ranking.

Bob Johnson, United Kingsom sales director of Prince Rackets - the world's second-largest brand, after Wilson - said yesterday: "The majority of professionals who use Prince intend to use longer ones when they renew their sponsorship contracts."

The ITF was considering the rule change at its annual meeting in Switzerland this week. But last Monday, the Tennis Industry Association, which represents both amateur and professional players and racquet manufacturers, wrote a strongly worded letter to the ITF's president, Brian Tobin.

The letter warned that "members of the [racquet] industry are planning litigation if indeed this rule change does come about".

The rule change, if approved, would instantly outlaw a number of racquets already on the market from companies such as Dunlop, Wilson and Prince, and stifle one of the few sources of real growth in the tennis market.

"The market generally is absolutely flat," Mr Johnson said. "But at the end of last year extra-length racquets made up 80 per cent of growth in value."