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Educating Stuff: Tennis in the round

Novak Djokovic and Andy Murray on Centre Court.
by Ben Swann
Wednesday 30 October 2013

The latest 'Educating stuff,' news and views from Wimbledon's Education Department, looks at some 'genius' ideas that could improve tennis...

‘Why don’t you make your tennis courts round?’

I have worked for a long time at Wimbledon and in the course of my job have been asked many odd questions by people about the intricacies of this tennis tournament, but none have flummoxed me quite as much as that one.  Working with students it is not often a good thing to become speechless, but when faced with a question like that I must admit to finding it hard to respond; my mind was racing.  Have they never seen a game of tennis before? What would the benefits of a round court be?  Would the lines still be straight? Would there be two nets? Is this something we all should have noticed was needed before now?

I eventually quizzed the questioner on their statement and asked whether they could expand on this idea. The answer they gave, like all great ideas, was both brilliant and yet flawed.  It seemed the theory behind this idea was based on the wear caused to the grass by the repeated playing of matches from the same opposite ends of the lawn.  Concerned about uneven court damage, the questioner had determined that a circular grass court which had net post holes to allow the net to move from an East to West position to a North to South position would enable the groundstaff to ‘rotate’ the court every set, thus spreading the wear to the court more evenly.  Brilliant.  The trouble is that Wimbledon lays its courts out so that the players always stand facing either North or South in order to minimise any glare from the sun during service games.  I put this to the questioner, who paused, then gave a triumphant solution.  Rotate the whole court.  Put the circular court on a turntable and rotate it every set, the net can be fixed and the court will rotate around it.  Genius. 

I left it at this, feeling that pointing out any financial implications to installing such a system within  an already well established stadium might ruin the moment, but the conversation did get me thinking about what other ‘genius’ ideas have not quite become the norm in this sport.

A quick walk round the Museum’s collection threw up these wondrous oddities:

  • ‘The Handler’ – a two handled tennis racket designed to ‘add versatility to your game’
  • A Dunlop ‘Donisthorpe’ -  a super oversized (we are talking huge lollipop proportions here, think Shirley Temple) wooden racket from 1950, possibly quite prone to warping
  • A 1920’s Dayton racket with piano wire strings; musically better than others
  • A Victorian ‘skirt lifter’ used to lift the skirt hem off the floor so that female players could move more feely around the court (though this one seems quite a good idea)
  • Hatton lawn tennis court definer by Jacques – essentially this is a fool proof guide to marking out a tennis court, so fool proof it only just stops short of being a portable pull out tennis court.  Quite a rare one this.

It seems that tennis has always been awash with bright ideas to improve the simple act of hitting a ball over a net, every last piece of equipment used in the sport has been honed down and refined over the years since the sport first emerged as a ‘garden pursuit’.  Balls are now not only made of rubber covered in felt, they are covered in glued on, not hand stitched, water repellent, high vis felt, with a pressurised ‘gas’ interior.  Rackets are made from all manner of futuristic materials and come in a variety of weights and sizes with the ability to customise them further by adding or removing mass.  Strings are so prolific in number that to mention just a few would be an injustice; think of a colour, think of a material and the chances are there is a string for you manufactured somewhere in the world.  Clothing too is insanely futuristic with built in breathability, sunscreen and compression fabric.  Gone are the days of the skirt lifter to be replaced with the ankle brace or an elegant kinaesthetic taped elbow.  Technology it seems is very much part of this sport.

So whilst we might all smile to ourselves at the ‘silly’ idea of a round tennis court, spare a thought for those other ‘odd’ ideas that have become main stream (the obvious one being the oversize racket).

Maybe tennis in-the-round is not so daft after all?  Imagine the possibilities for a new offshoot of the sport – mixed doublet singles!  Four players, two nets crossed in the centre of the court, each mixed pairing stand 45 degrees from one another and both teams serve at once putting two balls in play across four sides to the circular court.  A bit like tennis played on a hot cross bun.  It just might work...

If you would like to learn more about the technology already in tennis then why not book one of our Tennis and Technology packages and see what other inventions have shaped the sport you love.


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