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Ever since the first stringed racquets appeared as early as the 15th century, the item has been the object of regular innovation, as much for its shape as for its constituent materials. There are hundreds of patents to prove it. To meet the requirements of the times, solid wood gave way to laminated wood, which in turn gave way to metal in the form of steel and then aluminium; now these have been replaced by composite materials, where the glass-fibre reinforcement is being replaced by carbon.
(Published on January-February 2006 – JEC Magazine #22)
BY LAURENT BLARY, PRODUCT MANAGER, TECNIFIBRE
The pros have new requirements
It is no secret that to prevent losing the “winning sensations”, the competitive tennis world is rather resistant to change. The international tennis elite play one tournament after the other, eleven months a year. Players have very little time for testing and adopting new products. In the past, the pros used flexible racquets reinforced with graphite fibres for better control and strings in highly elastic material, such as natural gut, for greater power (for example, Pete Sampras). For the past five years, the trend has been reversed and the rising new generation, led by 2005 Roland Garros winner Rafael Nadal, is now playing with much stiffer racquets to maximise power, keeping it in check with strings made of much less elastic material, such as polyester monofilament.
An overview of racquet sports Tennis
Any player, from a world champion down to the weekend player, must make the most of a trade-off between power and control. The power is needed to keep the adversary at the back of the court; the control, to keep the ball in the court.
Therefore, racquet manufacturers need to provide “winning” solutions by tweaking some of the racquet parameters in one direction or the other along the power/control scale: - weight: the lighter the racquet, the more easily it is handled. The trade-off is a loss of power, due to the lower inertia, once the racquet is moving; - inertia, i.e. the distribution of the different masses on the racquet to compensate (to a greater or lesser extent) for the lack of power. Tennis is a dynamic sport, so the way the racquet is set into motion when hitting the ball must be taken into account.
The trick is to propose a fairly lightweight racquet with high inertia and the weight concentrated in the head, which gives a racquet that is lightweight when static, but which has a lot of power in use;
- size of string bed: the larger the hitting area, the greater the power and the tolerance (as the only dynamic part of the racquet, the strings will play an even greater role); - racquet stiffness, which is a function of the constituent materials (usually graphite) and of the design of the frame profile. The stiffer the frame, the more powerful it will be and the less easily the ball can be controlled (fig.1).
Squash, the most aggressive racquet sport, involves two players who compete side by side to take over the most strategic spot on the court and thereby control the game. Outclassed for decades by English and Commonwealth-country players, Tecnifibre and its emblematic player Thierry Lincou have finally put an end to the supremacy of Great Britain (where the game was invented). Lincou, from Réunion, became world champion in 2004 (fig.2). As a top-level player wearing Tecnifibre’s colours, Lincou helps the brand develop and perfect its racquets and strings by testing them. To give you an idea: Thierry Lincou uses only about fifteen squash racquets per year, highlighting the reliability of racquets that continue to perform in spite of repeated impacts with walls.
Badminton can be a boisterous game that requires quick and powerful players – especially at the top level. Badminton is highly developed in Asian countries, which produce most of the world’s best players, and is also practiced a lot in Northern Europe. These are the two main markets for this indoor game, which can be played by up to 16 players on a surface area that is about equivalent to a tennis court. France is catching up at the international level through an extremely dynamic school programme that has made badminton the second-most taught individual primary school sport. It is a relatively easy, playful game that combines concentration with fun and exercise, whatever the player’s level.
About Tecnifibre Headquarters: Feucherolles (France) Turnover: Ä14 M 20 employees Serving 70 countries around the globe Racquet sports (Tennis, Squash, Badminton) supplier
Industrial partners: Racquet strings: Cousin Composites (Wervicq-Sud, France) Tennis balls: Bridgestone (Japan) Stringing machines: Spenle Pizzera (Lyon, France)
The world tennis market
North America is the leading market in terms of volume and value, closely followed by Europe and Asia. The world tennis market is dominated by Anglo-American brands like Wilson (Amer group), Head (HTM group in Austria) and Prince.
French brands started out specialising in strings – gut for Babolat and polyurethane-impregnated multifilament for Tecnifibre – and are making a spectacular entry into this market as the sector’s specialist brand names.
The world tennis-racquet market breaks down into two large families: - aluminium racquets, which are sturdy and cheap for a beginner or for purely recreational tennis. This market segment is handled more especially by the large sport superstores; - lightweight, high-performance graphite racquets for dedicated players, in or out of competition. This customer base is “ courted” by the sector’s speciality stores.
In the overall market, an estimated seven million racquets or so are sold per year the world over (fig.3).
About 60% of these are in graphite and 40%, in aluminium. Asia – principally Japan and China – is offering prospects for strong growth in the near future. All production is located in China, for several reasons: - proximity to the largest carbon-fibre suppliers, which are based in Japan (Toray, Toho and Mitsubishi); - a huge need for labour, as there are up to 140 stages in the production of a graphite racquet; - the manual tasks involved in the finishing stages of production require great precision and standardisation.
Today, the racquet market – all sports lumped together – accounts for nearly 900 tons/year of carbon fibre, mainly high-strength (HS) carbon. The tennis industry alone consumes nearly 600 tons of that.