SI Vault
Goodby to the woodsies
Curry Kirkpatrick
November 17, 1975
Robin Blackburne, the man behind this strange racket, cries "Eureka!"
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November 17, 1975

Goodby To The Woodsies

Robin Blackburne, the man behind this strange racket, cries "Eureka!"

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Since then, Blackburne has "restrung" almost all the big-name manufacturers' models—Wilson, Dunlop, Bancroft and Head, even the French Gauthier and the new graphite jobs—and some companies have expressed interest in production. At this point, however, everybody has been stumped by the fact that no machine exists to handle the double strings, by the heavy stress factor that causes conventional wood rackets to crack along the laminations and by excess head weight. Given the trend to lighter rackets, nobody wants to swing one that may feel like a five-iron with a watermelon stuck on the end.

That old miracle graphite could be the savior of the Blackburne innovation. "It used to frighten me that almost no rackets cost over $45," he says, "but suddenly this bloody good graphite number is going for $150 and up, and they can't sell enough of them. Graphite's strength-to-weight ratio is staggering. The material can withstand the stress my double-stringing demands, and it will be light enough as well. As for the cost, I remember the original ball-point pen sold for $35 in the 1940s. The demand should far exceed the supply for this, too. For a while."

A veteran at the game of revolutionary inventions to save mankind, Blackburne's recent past is filled with ideas whose times haven't come. He grew up in England before moving to Bermuda 15 years ago and founding the Bristol Cellar, that beauteous pink island's leading wine merchants. He has since thought up a new reading device for hospitalized invalids, an original electric razor and a snow ski that is so revolutionary he won't even tell his tall, blonde and exquisite wife Joy what it is.

"I've always been dissatisfied with the design of things," Blackburne says. "My grandfather said, 'The lazy take the most pains,' and I guess I'm lazy enough to work my rear off to find an easier way of not working. Or to make a change. Even the bastardization of the English language by commerce gets to me. I would make it against the law to use words out of our dictionary as product labels. 'Dash,' 'Tide,' 'Whiz,' 'Velvet Squeeze,' whatever. It's awful what they've done to words. Why not name products with nonwords? Why not call a soap 'Pling,' for instance?"

His family—Joy; their young daughters, Amanda and Sacha; the cats, Spic and Span; and the rabbits, Romulus and Remus—all have come to an enviable accommodation with the fanciful flights of the head of the clan. Likewise, Blackburne's friends and neighbors. "This time, with the crazy racket thing," says one friend, "I think that Robin's made one too many trips down to the wine cellar."

But the creator has found solace in and gained increasing confidence from the reactions to his racket by important people in the tennis community. While deploring the appearance of the instrument, most of the players who have used it admit it "plays better than it looks."

Vitas Gerulaitis, the young American pro, reached the finals of the Princess Hotel Invitational in Bermuda against Jimmy Connors recently. He hit with the racket a couple of times and said it "felt good, easy to get used to." Gerulaitis told Blackburne he'd "make a lot of bread on it." And Jack Kramer said he loved the idea.

One morning at breakfast, while discussing the ignominy of frame shots with Kramer, Blackburne dramatically pulled some rackets from his black bag. Kramer was awestruck. "Of course," he exclaimed. "You've got it!"

Even if Blackburne hasn't got it, in the event that he gets his double-stringed brainstorm into production, surely there are enough wealthy hackers out there who will fall over themselves buying it just to be the first on their blocks. Still, the inventor opts for the practicality of the instrument over the novelty. "Tennis is such a percentage game of inches," he says, "that a single shot which does or does not go in on match point means $25,000 to these professional chaps. Is my racket, which would save them that point on a frame shot, worth that much? At a lower level of play, is it worth more than that in pride? Of course it is."

Blackburne himself has achieved some measure of that pride by using the racket to win the first tournament of his career, a mixed-doubles affair at Coral Beach. "I can't play with the ancient standard thing anymore," he says. "I see one of them lying around and say to myself, 'What old-fashioned-looking trash.' "

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