When John Powless showed up at the USTA men's 55 Grass Championships last August with a bag full of rackets that were 29 inches long, his opponents at Philadelphia's Germantown Cricket Club all had the same reaction. They laughed.
For well over a century, 27-inch-long racket frames have been standard in tennis, and Powless's elongated sticks seemed more appropriate for raking leaves than for stroking forehands. But the giggling stopped when foes saw what Powless's mighty model did for his serve-and-volley game. Just two weeks after switching from a conventional-length racket, the 63-year-old Powless dominated his younger opponents in Philadelphia, dropping only one set en route to the title. In the process he racked up a number of converts.
"Everybody thought I was crazy when they first saw [the racket]," recalls Powless, who owns a tennis club in Madison, Wis. "By the third day everyone wanted to try one."
Long rackets are evoking a similar response from tennis players across the nation. Less than a year after its debut, the 29-inch frame is being hailed as the most significant design advance since Howard Head invented the oversized racket for Prince two decades ago.
Like Head's innovation—which increased a player's margin of error by enlarging the hitting area—the extra-long frame aims to make tennis easier to play. Lengthening a racket provides three benefits: increased power (the longer frame provides greater leverage), additional reach and a more effective serve. With every additional inch in one's arm span, the angle down into the service box sharpens by 5% to 6½%.
For proof of the racket's effect on the serve, look no further than baseliner Michael Chang. Widely acknowledged as the fastest player on the men's tour, Chang, at 5'9", is also among the shortest. His counterpunching and indomitable spirit carried him to the game's upper reaches, but his benign serve was often a liability. Since he couldn't do anything about his height, Chang asked Prince to make his racket grow. The company spent several months tinkering with a 28-inch prototype and then let him use it exclusively in 1994.
Nobody noticed the difference in Chang's model, but the change in his serve was apparent almost immediately. He went from serving 256 aces in 1993, to 366 in 1994 and 499 last year—while reducing his double faults. His year-end ranking climbed from No. Sin 1993 to No. 5 in '95.
This year Chang has advanced to the Australian Open final, beaten Andre Agassi twice and risen to No. 4, within striking distance of tennis's top spot. "My serve is about five to seven miles an hour faster, and my placement is better," Chang says. "Plus I get more power overall, so I've become better at attacking and at finishing points."
Lest one assume long frames are just for shorties, 5'8" Mariaan de Swardt of South Africa has used one to vault from the triple digits to No. 28 in the women's rankings, and both 6'4" Mark Philippoussis of Australia and 6'6" Todd Martin of the U.S. have been practicing with extended models.
So why isn't everybody switching to the longer frame? For one thing, pros are loath to try new equipment in midseason. For another, the new racket adds less to the games of players who already have monstrous serves, such as Pete Sampras, or booming baseline games, such as Agassi. "Long rackets won't benefit everyone." concedes John Embree, business director for rackets for Wilson. "Some may find they sacrifice control for extra power."