Yes, you are seeing double: introducing a racket that helps your backhand
Brian Battistone's revolutionary racket means he never plays a backhand, he just swaps handles. It is perfectly legal and has helped his game. But, asks Paul Newman, will it catch on?
It sounds like an idea that might eventually rank alongside Dennis Lillee's aluminium cricket bat or the power bands that were all the rage in sport not so long ago, but when you watch Brian Battistone on a tennis court you soon realise that "The Natural" is not a gimmick.
At first sight Battistone's two-handled racket appears unwieldy and, indeed, faintly ridiculous – more like a divining rod or a garden tool – yet in the hands of the 33-year-old Californian it is a potent weapon. Using the two handles, Battistone can change hands on the racket instantly, enabling him to play any shot on either flank, thus giving himself greater reach than players with single-handed rackets.
Using "The Natural", he need never play a backhand – which is usually a player's weaker ground stroke – because he can hit forehands on both sides. Battistone and his fellow innovators also insist that it is healthier to use than a conventional racket because the body is better balanced and stress is spread more evenly.
"I feel like the angles give me some advantages on different shots," Battistone said. "I was a natural right-hander, but I played other sports, like basketball and baseball, where I was doing things with either hand. It was something I always dreamed about, being able to play with two forehands. This just made it easier because I don't have to change my hands."
Battistone has won Challenger tournaments, played at the US Open and reached the top 100 of the world doubles rankings. The turning point of his career came six years ago.
"I was at some courts at the beach in Santa Monica, with a normal racket," he recalled. "I was tossing it from one hand to another, just hitting two forehands. I ran into the man [Lionel Burt] who invented the [two-handled] racket. I'd actually had the idea before, so we put our heads together and created a design that I would be able to play with. His offer to me was to become partners in the company with him and that's how it started."
He added: "I played Futures and Challenger [tournaments] for a while [with a conventional racket] and I never got above about 800 [in the rankings]. Once I actually committed myself and started playing with this racket I made it as high as 88 in doubles. That was my highest ranking. It obviously takes someone who is thinking outside the box, not in the traditional way of tennis teaching. But I think for what I'm trying to do, with my game style, it fits."
Battistone's company has recently taken delivery of another consignment of rackets, having sold the first 1,500. Devotees include Tony Davies, who won a tournament in Liverpool using the racket and has been spreading the word in Britain. Battistone said the latest model, called "The Freestyle", was the best design yet.
The rackets retail at $200 each (about £123) and are perfectly legal. At tournaments Battistone carries with him confirmation of this from the International Tennis Federation in case opponents or officials query it. The racket has drawn plenty of uncomplimentary comments – even Battistone's mixed-doubles partner at last year's US Open called it "The Alien" – but has a growing number of fans.
"Sales continue to grow as people become more familiar with the idea and see that players are getting good results using them," Battistone said. "We have many customers who previously had injuries to their elbow, back etc and have switched with great success."
The racket particularly interested Rafael Nadal when the Spaniard saw it at the US Open three years ago. Nadal plays left-handed but is naturally right-handed. "He was about to go on for his match and I was talking to him in the locker room," Battistone said. "He was asking questions about it and swinging it around. I said: 'Hey, you're a natural righty, you could play with two forehands.' He just laughed."
As befits an innovator, Battistone also has a spectacular volleyball-style jump serve, which he believes helps him get into the net more quickly and creates more angles. Standing behind the baseline, he throws the ball high into the air with his right hand while holding the racket with his left, then switches the racket to his right hand, leaps up, throws his body forwards and crashes his serve into the court.
"His serve is completely unique," Britain's Colin Fleming said. "He can obviously hit some unbelievable serves, with the trajectory and everything, but I found it wasn't as accurate as other people's serves because there was so much going on.
"I've looked at the racket and there's just no way I could play with it, but everyone's interested to see him play, definitely. He attracts a crowd."
When Battistone plays doubles with his 36-year-old brother, Dann, they sometimes keep opponents in the dark by communicating with each other in Portuguese, which they learned while spending two years in Rio de Janeiro. As Mormons, they were sent by their church on a mission to Brazil, where they did not play tennis once. "I was completely away from the game but it gave me a whole new perspective on life," Brian said.
Battistone, who is now based in Las Vegas, has spent less time playing tennis recently but hopes to have more time for tournaments this year. "Lately I have played frequently in pro-ams and exhibitions as well as some local prize-money tournaments," he said. "I have also been doing a fair bit of coaching. I do still have a strong desire to play and compete, so I intend to play more professional events this year and improve my ATP ranking."
Too many missed chances prove Watson's downfall
Heather Watson was left to rue missed chances as she slipped to a 6-4, 3-6, 6-3 defeat against Kiki Bertens, of the Netherlands, in the second round of the ASB Classic in Auckland today.
The British No 1, who had overcome the fifth seed Sorana Cirstea in the first round, converted only five of 12 break points against an opponent ranked 14 places beneath her at 63rd in the world.
Watson also struggled on second serve, winning just four points in the first and third sets combined, in a match which lasted two hours and 14 minutes.
The Guernsey player will remain in Auckland to compete in the quarter-finals of the ASB Classic doubles with Marina Erakovic before heading to Hobart for her final tournament ahead of the Australian Open.
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