In the spring of 1977, the tennis world got destabilized during several months following an invention by a German horticulturist: the Spaghetti strung racquet.
The history of sport has always been shaken by inventions, innovations and discoveries that changed it forever or just disrupted it for a few months or even just a few days. Blame it on researchers, highflying scientists or some highwayman. These blasts were often beginning as the prerogative of a few, but ultimately benefitting everyone. The turbo engine has propelled Renault to the cover of the newspapers of the world in the 70s. Catamarans and other trimarans shook the well organized world of sailing. But on boats or in motorsport, technological advancements are essential components. High Jump was never the same after Dick Fosbury became Olympic champion in 1968, crossing the bars on the back when the belly roll had lived. The polyurethane swimsuits in swimming, the appearance of aluminium studs (which helped the West Germans to win the World Cup 1954, Editor's note) or the moves to tartan ash for athletics races are other markers of these perpetual changes. And tennis is no exception.
The Spin’s panacea
It started with Spencer Gore, this English player who decided to go to the net at Wimbledon at the end of the 19th century, a heresy at the time. Racquets were made of wood, then metal, then metal and plastic. The stringing was made of strings, synthetic, sheep guts. The handle got extended for two hands backhands, the screen got expanded. But the most famous episode of this frantic quest of performance dates to the spring of 1977. Code name: "Spaghetti sprung racquet". At this time, there was a legal blur in tennis racquets' reglementation. Erwin Fischer, a German horticulturist, stringer in his spare time, stepped into the breach. In the spring, this peerless handyman proposed to a few players on the tour to try his revolutionary racquet of which he doubled the strings with rubber inbetween the intersections. The effects were multiplied, particularly the spin, and the ball was becoming uncontrollable for the opponent. Many tennis players contacted were sceptical. «At first, players didn't like the object that they thought was craft and unreliable
, says the former BNP Paribas' Cup Davis, Georges Goven, who was to make his own model a few months later. Superimposed and unstrung strings were giving a better safety for shots and unexpected effects. Little by little, mentalities evolved…
In June 1977, the Australian Philips-Moore tried the famous double-string racquet at Roland-Garros. The antipodes’ elder passed a round, played above his supposed level and played it hard with Balazs Taroczy, an Hungarian quarter-finalist in Paris the previous year. The visual and the sound impression were staggering: catapult effect, unreadable trajectories for the opponent, strange noises, unmanageable rotation, unpredictable rebound, caught off guard volley players, opponent relegated behind the line, near the tarps. The impression was such that some players made their own handmade one. They added two or three strings to their traditional wooden racket. Bits and bobs of hoses, rubber and strings… During the summer, Georges Goven used it with delight on the French satellite tour. Some protests then started to rise amongst players against this unfair racquet that allowed lifters from the bottom of the ATP rankings to make miracles.
Vilas started the riot
At Forest Hills, Flushing-Meadows ancestor, early September, the modest American Mike Fischbach adopted it and got out of the qualifications to beat Billy Martin and the legendary Stan Smith... The German horticulturist's mirage-racquet made a subject for debate. It was accused to destroy the game, to authorize anonymous players to get unlikely victories. Christopher Roger-Vasselin, father of Edward, semi-finalist at Roland-Garros in 83, remembers: «After my return from the US Open, where I had lost in the qualifications, I saw one lying around at Roland, I tried it and found it great. For the Poree Cup, I ordered three of them from my stringer. It did incredible spins. The difference was as big as between a Ping-Pong racquet made of foam and a wooden board. And with its incredible effects, it gave a huge advantage to the player who were using the spin
» And Roger-Vasselin made it to the Cup Poree's final at the end of September, one of the only ones of his career, defeated by Guillermo Vilas. 1977, was the Argentine's year: finalist in Australia, he won in Paris and in New York, to which he added the tremendous total of fourteen other tournaments and five finals. The most famous one took place in Aix en Provence, a week after the Poree Cup. When Vilas arrived there, he hadn't lost on clay for fifty-three matches, a record only beaten by Nadal many years later. After, he was also to win twenty-eight games in a row. Only problem, he lost that day against an ageing Nastase the golden racket of the Aix country club. The Romanian was using that time the spaghetti sprung racquet that he thought vulgar a few weeks before. Disappointed, Guillermo Vilas gave up…
This was the straw. The best got reluctant. The racquet with double stringing was accused of changing the essence of the sport, eliminating differences in favour of the weakest. The controversy amplified until October 1977. The date on which the International Tennis Federation decided to ban the use of this racquet. "The spaghetti strung racquet denaturalised the game with incredible spins. It didn't allow to play otherwise. Before this episode it was possible to play tennis with any type of racket in the absence of legislation regulating them. From then on, they set the size and nature of the stringing
" remembers Christophe Roger-Vasselin. Ironically, in fact, the spaghetti strung racquet forced the hierarchs to define new rules and codify the size of the racquets, the surface of the screen and how to string the racquets (there was only one way to do before, Editor's note). A lifting required with the arrival of new composite materials, new manufacturing processes of the frames, the stringing ... As for the spaghetti strung racquets, they are now down in history enthroned here and there in a few museums dedicated to tennis throughout the world...
By Rico Rizzitelli