Welcome to the third and final instalment in our trilogy to mark the 40th anniversary of Rogers Cup in Montréal. After delving into how tennis—and tennis fashion—have evolved, we’re considering another force of change in the modern era: technology.
Rogers Cup’s touchdown at Parc Jarry in 1980 just happened to coincide with a resounding racquet revolution. The profound change really took shape starting in 1982, as players gradually abandoned their trusty wooden racquets—the norm despite René Lacoste’s tentative move to steel in the 1960s—in favour of graphite composite models.
In addition to being more resistant and having larger heads, racquets made from the innovative material were more robust and lighter (4 to 5 ounces lighter!). Predictably, the vast majority of players from Lendl to Evert made the switch, gaining more power and control in the process. Only Vilas (on the decline) and Borg (on the fast track to retirement) stayed loyal. Even Yannick Noah, the last player to win a Grand Slam with a wooden racquet at Roland-Garros in 1983, eventually succumbed to the temptation.
At the same time, courts started to switch to synthetic turf. Until the late 1970s, most major competition courts were clay or grass. While Roland-Garros and Wimbledon follow the tradition to this day, the Australian Open decided to forsake grass for Rebound Ace in 1987 and then for Plexicushion in 2008. In 1978, the US Open moved from Forest Hills to Flushing Meadows and dumped its Har-tru green clay for DecoTurf, which has since become ubiquitous across North America.
Things didn’t stop there. In the early 1990s, speed radars began popping up everywhere, and the serve went from being a way to put the ball in play to a deadly weapon wielded masterfully by the likes of Sampras, Ivanisevic, Krajicek and Rosset. As the game’s racquets and courts evolved, wide-eyed fans were overwhelmed by avalanches of aces zipping by at over 200 km/h. The record-breaking velocities prompted all sorts of problems—not the least of which was the new level of danger for net cord judges, who were eventually replaced by electronic sensors.
It was also a time in which prize money hit an unprecedented high at professional tournaments, which were broadcast around the world. As sporting and financial issues intertwined, the pressure on chair umpires and linesmen and lineswomen skyrocketed, sometimes causing some of the more sensitive players to forget the rules of etiquette (look up Nastase, Connors or McEnroe on YouTube and you’ll see what we mean). Tennis being a sport of judgment and not interpretation, errors were quickly deemed unfounded and unfair. In the 1980s, engineers came out with the Cyclops, a system of infra-red beams to assess length, but it wasn’t until Hawk-Eye was released in 2006 and HD cameras were installed in every corner of the courts that technology became an official’s best friend.
And what about the more recent—and upcoming—technological changes? Despite a few generation gaps over the years, tennis has never been more popular or more widely followed and certainly has its share of dreams and ambitions for the future, from smart racquets with in-built tech (in stores now) to the complete obsolescence of line judges. Techies and pragmatists love the idea. Incurable romantics (don’t call them old fashioned!), not so much. Which side are you on?