This may sound like the beginning of an international espionage plot, but right now, in the ramshackle basement of a Victorian cottage deep within the grounds of the old Ardsheal estate in the parish of Paget outside the glistening cobblestones of Hamilton, Bermuda, there is a wonderfully mad British wine merchant concocting the perfect gift for the tennis player who has every string, uh, thing. It is a racket with strings on both sides.
What Robin Blackburne devoutly hopes is that people will look before they laugh, contemplate the phenomenon before condemning it and, especially, that tennis players will rush to the net with it before rushing to judgment about his revolutionary creation.
Blackburne's idea, in short, is to eliminate the so-called "wood shot" or "miss-hit" by eliminating the frame itself from the hitting area of the racket. To this end, he has invented one whose strings are constructed along the same plane as the frame. Rather than ending at the frame, the gut or nylon is strung through the frame all the way around. This gives the racket two different string faces and results in nearly solid hitting surfaces on both sides, unencumbered by the ridges of wood or metal or fiber glass or graphite or any other of that nasty hard stuff that makes up the frame and interrupts the sweet "bing" sound of a well-struck tennis shot.
On first thought, if this instrument appears impossible to string and doomed to the problems of stress breakage as well as excess head weight; if Blackburne's claim that it presents a player with "90% more hitting area" sounds like gross exaggeration; if the racket itself seems too funny looking to be true—it probably is, all of that. But the bottom line is that it works.
Finely honed and wrinkle-free (which, if the thing ever gets into mass production, it most assuredly will be), this is a racket with which you can hit a shot almost on the edge and never feel the difference as the ball jets into the deepest corner for an outright winner.
Blackburne, age 42, derived inspiration for this hackers' dream tool from the difficult experiences of a doubles partner, George Wardman. Like a few of us who tend to grow older rather than younger, Wardman, the owner of the Coral Beach and Tennis Club in Bermuda, found himself having increasing problems with "frame shots" as he advanced into his 60s, playing in the late-afternoon light on his private grass court.
"It infuriated George that he kept hitting these woodsies," says Blackburne. "Then one day it suddenly occurred to me. Eureka! [Blackburne actually says things like woodsies and eureka]. The wood of the racket clearly projected half an inch out from the strings. If the entire surface were flat rather than ridged, there would be almost no wood shots."
If this seems more an elementary notion than a discovery for the ages, Blackburne is prepared. "A tennis ball is struck on the principle of a dart board," he says. "You aim at the middle, but most darts end up all around the circumference. Most players hit the ball nearer the frame than the sweet spot. Even at the net the average player often hits the ball on the frame. Only the best pros catch the ball in the middle constantly. Yet who among us has not seen even Rocket Rod slash one off the wood on occasion?
"Why, at Paris last year, I counted the number of frame shots in the men's doubles at the French Open. At least two or three occurred almost every game. I figured that to eliminate the ridge on a racket would be to find paradise."
After long hours spent accumulating drawings and specifications, testing different materials, discussing theories with patent agents and keeping his idea secret to the point of acting absurdly mysterious while carrying around preliminary sketches in a black bag, Blackburne finished his first prototype two years ago. He had used an old Slazenger frame, some used nylon string, an iron vise and three awls. He worked through the night and at dawn rushed to the Coral Beach courts only to discover the tennis backboard had been removed. So he went to a lawyer friend's home, borrowed a backboard and started hitting balls. "Eureka!" Blackburne said again. It worked.