Senior Writer Ray Kennedy being one of the most compulsively competitive men on the planet, it was fitting that he was assigned to write this week's story on Howard Head, inventor of the compulsively competitive tennis player's latest edge—the large-faced Prince racket. As Kennedy says, "The Prince is the technological epitome of an advantage, particularly for people who have slowed down a few steps or are a few pounds overweight." (These are purely arbitrary and hypothetical examples that have nothing to do with the 5'10", 185-pound Kennedy's personal reasons for employing a Prince.)
"A lot of the edge with a Prince is psychological, to be sure," Kennedy adds. "That wider surface makes you less tentative and seems to give you a half-a-court wider command. Whether this is actually true doesn't matter. If you believe something helps your game, then it helps your game. If I believed purple socks would do my game any good, I'd wear purple socks."
Purple socks may be about the only thing Kennedy hasn't tried to give himself an advantage in his myriad competitive endeavors. In the mid-'60s he was so into an omelet phase that he bought 26 different kinds of pan before finally finding, in a remote village in Brittany, the one that gave him the greatest edge over the eggs. For an advantage in doing crossword puzzles, he keeps his own list of arcane definitions on the wall of his office and spends an hour or two periodically reviewing them.
Kennedy is also a tough and imaginative chess player. "When I first started playing," he says, "I used very small pieces on a very large board, and I would always choose black. Then I would make certain that we played in a dimly lighted place. You'd be surprised how often an opponent would not see my black bishop lurking in the shadows."
As a young man Kennedy hitchhiked some 20,000 miles in the U.S., Canada and Mexico and became so good at it that, as an undergraduate at Notre Dame, he charged $1 per head for a lecture on his methods. One rule: "Wear a big rubber clown's thumb. This will make it clear that you have a sense of humor and are fun to ride with."
And during his Ping-Pong period, when he played on a TIME magazine team that won the New York City 'B' division championship three years running, Kennedy & Co. would arrive at a match with bare paddles and carefully cut sponge rubber faces from large sheets and glue them to the paddles. Opponents watched in awe, and presumably panic, as "we talked in very technical terms, as if we had some magic technological formula that no one else could understand."
But Kennedy is also a fan of something he calls reverse technology. "Not everything's best just because it's newest," he says. "To prove my point, I hereby challenge any reader of SI to a game of basketball '21,' and I'll win because I'll use the deadly accurate old-fashioned two-hand set shot that disappeared from the game 25 years ago. No one-hand jump-shot artist will come close to me. I have never been beaten." He pauses and then adds, "Of course, I'll be wearing purple socks."