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When Wood Did What it Could

Over the years, every sportswriter in Webb Weekly has discussed how the change in the construction of bats has affected the junior level of baseball and softball because of safety concerns. When a pitcher hurls a ball towards a batter, and it comes back at him or her with the velocity to punch a hole

Over the years, every sportswriter in Webb Weekly has discussed how the change in the construction of bats has affected the junior level of baseball and softball because of safety concerns.

When a pitcher hurls a ball towards a batter, and it comes back at him or her with the velocity to punch a hole through their gut, it can pose a problem. So new restrictions were put on bats and manufacturers had to follow suit or be banned.

Another issue was that smaller boys and girls, usually known to hit a single or an occasional double, were now popping triples or an odd home run. So, was it the kid or the bat making it happen? Hint: steroid use is illegal in Little League. But composite bat construction took on all who could afford it.

I am not well versed in baseball or softball, but when manmade materials, and not trees, replace the art of fitness, hitting and hand/eye coordination, there might be flys in the ointment. Pop flies that is.

Wooden bats are history, except in the pro leagues. Ironically, tennis (both pro and amateur) took a different track, giving up on wood decades ago and has “courted” composite frames with no looking back. And, with no restrictions placed on them.

Let me tell you how it’s changed the game of tennis at all levels.

The earliest tennis frames were constructed of wood. When I started playing the game in 1979, most everyone was using a wooden racket. Some were metal or aluminum. Wood had a “warm and forgiving” feel and was easy on the arm and shoulder. I used Donnay, my friend Tom used Snauwaert. Anatol used a Slazenger and John used a Wilson. All but Wilson have gone out of business.

When Ivan Lendl started using composite frames in the early 1980s, it changed the game. He took a “power game” to new levels with a new stick. Slowly but surely, others followed, including John McEnroe, who feared the feel and touch game would be lost to the new graphite frames. He eventually adapted.

On the local level, it was the same scenario. I remember trying out the newfangled graphite rackets and thinking, “Wow, the balls really zing with these things with much less effort than wood.” Everybody who started using them was gaining several miles per hour on each serve and stroke — not by lifting weights on the weekend, but by merely investing in a new racket!

As an instructor, it also became apparent that with proper timing, racket head speed, and decent stroke production that a well-practiced junior player (even one in a dainty, frilly tennis skirt) could now produce blistering shots that only an adult could before. When feeding balls, you needed to take extra care in not getting rifled by one in the leg or groin.

Baseball and softball officials outlawed the new wave of high-powered bats. In tennis, they welcomed the howitzers with open arms. No bans on them! This has changed the game dramatically, and I will tell you how.

First off, in the 1970s, before the change to the high-octane stuff, professionals were serving in the 110-115 mph range. These days, it’s not uncommon for some of the men to serve at 135 mph! If you get hit in the right (wrong) spot, it could do severe damage.

Because of that, professionals don’t rush the net as they once did. They don’t serve and volley because sometimes the return comes back as fast if not FASTER then the serve. That means less time to react to the speeding yellow meteor that could take their head off.

As I said, no modifications (besides head size) as in baseball. We now have 18-year-old pros hitting the ball as hard and fast as Nadal, Murray, Federer. Because of that, players need to gain more agility and speed to keep up. More pounding, more injuries. And the new rackets are harsher to the arm and elbow because they flex less than wood.

Watching old tennis footage of guys and gals playing with wood frames, versus the players of today, makes it look like a slow-motion replay! I think it was more challenging and rewarding to learn with a wooden frame. The youngsters of today try to end a point with one powerful swipe. I learned to “construct” a point. The new wave says, “Grip it and rip it.” In other words, microwave tennis.

I see old wooden rackets at yard sales and flea marts and want to cry. Being offered for a few bucks and wholly forgotten by a nation who doesn’t want to play anymore. Of course, they warped easily if left in the rain or humidity. My mom got me a triangular “racket press” one year. You’d slide your frame into it and clamp each corner with screws till tight. Then it felt like you were lifting weights on the way to the courts!

No need to do that with the new Kevlar/tungsten/graphite/uranium/titanium rackets! They not only produce a storm but also can withstand one!

Each Webb writer felt the restrictions placed on junior bats was well justified. When bats come with warning labels attached, they might be onto something. In tennis, it’s another story. More power means more glory. And money. Our writers moaned about the cost of a new bat these days. Guess what? A new tennis frame, such as a Babolat Pure Drive can cost $225 plus stringing. A far cry from when I paid $75 plus strings for a Donnay Borg Pro model in 1980!

Other sports, such as golf, are also struggling with possible restrictions. New balls and drivers are making course changes inevitable. The courses need to be made longer because the players are hitting them farther! But, no injury warning labels. Yet.

The biggest difference these days in the youth sports and equipment I mentioned? Knock on wood; kids are still playing Little League and softball in decent numbers. Unfortunately, tennis courts have tumbleweeds on them. Kids take to tennis like a visit to the dentist. Because most don’t like to work up a sweat, the question of them using ANY type of racket is a moot point.

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