Tennis has seen and scorned them all. It is no small marvel that the Prince has survived, much less succeeded, in a sport so notoriously resistant to change that it has only recently recovered from the trauma of the introduction of yellow tennis balls. Yet, survive the Prince has, to the point that in many areas of the country Head's snowshoe is now on the other foot, so to speak. While many Prince devotees swear by it as a cure for tennis elbow, it has also caused a rash of tennis nose, which is a tendency to look down on the poor traditionalists and ask what in the world they intend to do with those antique minirackets. Stir their espresso? Filter out lint? Swat gnats?
Fads and foibles aside, what makes the Prince certifiably special is that it has achieved what merchandisers only dream of and no amount of endorsement money can buy: word-of-mouth acceptance. Today at least 700,000 players are flailing away with their trusty Prince rug beaters, and Head considers each one of them his best salesman. Their spiel is the same: "I'm getting more balls back"; "I don't have to be as careful"; and the clincher—"I'm beating people I never beat before." In short, by decree of vox populi, the only imprimatur that really counts, Head's contraption works.
Indeed the Prince had to deliver, debuting as it did in 1976, the year that the great tennis boom peaked and then went bust. Over the past four years racket sales have fallen from a high of $184 million to $138 million and the number of players has shrunk from 28 million in 1978 to 20 million. In large part, the defectors were more interested in following the latest fashion than the bouncing ball, and when the game proved more difficult to master than anticipated, the faddists folded their designer togs and moved on to jogging and roller skating.
Which is just fine by Head, who explains that the enthusiasts who remain "are the kind of players we like, the hardcore kind who are serious about their games and their equipment." Surprisingly, in these inflationary times, while the cheap wooden rackets made in Taiwan have all but vanished from the sales charts, the Prince Graphite, which goes for a very serious $250, has become the nation's No. 1-selling racket. The Graphite, along with the original Classic ($65); the newer Pro ($90, unstrung), an aluminum racket that's stiffer than the Classic; and the newest addition to the line, the Woodie ($140), a composite of wood and graphite, has helped boost Prince sales 55% this year. Overall, with three models—the Graphite, Woodie and Pro—among the 12 best-selling rackets, Prince has come from nowhere to glom 13% of the market and is challenging front-runners AMF (28%) and Wilson (24%).
Given Prince's performance, imitation was inevitable—up to a point. Head's patent, a strong one, gives Prince exclusive rights to all rackets made with hitting surfaces of 85 to 130 square inches. The hitting surface of a standard racket is 70 square inches. When the crash came, rather than jump off a ledge, rival manufacturers leaped into the breach with a new design called—shades of Motown—the mid-size. With robust names like Big Bubba and Black Max, the middies are 20% larger than conventional rackets and a square millimeter or two short of infringing on Prince's preserve. In return for handsome royalties, Prince has granted Wilson a five-year license to make a Prince-sized racket called the Wilson Extra. And finally there is the Weed Killer, the creation of an eager Ohioan named Tad Weed, which is one third larger than the Prince.
Where is it all leading? To a revitalized tennis racket market, and to the disappearance of a lingering geriatric stigma the Prince has had to bear. Among the first notables to adopt the Prince, blithely ignoring the purists who called it the "cheater," were veterans Clark Graebner, Ion Tiriac and Don Budge, who called it "by far the best racket I've ever played with." Terrific, but the fact that they are elder statesmen of the game only reinforced the notion that the Prince was more crutch than cudgel, an aid for lovable old codgers who have lost a step or three. The oft-heard rap is: If the Prince is so good, why aren't the touring pros using it?
An increasing number are, thanks to the introduction of the Graphite and Pro, both stiffer models specifically designed for the big hitters. Gene Mayer was ranked 148th in the world when he picked up the Graphite; now he is sixth. Two years ago Pam Shriver used her Classic to become, at 16, the youngest player ever to reach the finals of the U.S. Open. And though young Paul McNamee discovered the Graphite only six months ago, he used it to upset John McEnroe in the French Open and, teamed with fellow Aussie Paul McNamara, to win the doubles at Wimbledon.
There have been other success stories. Vince Van Patten, for instance, Prince in hand, catapulted from 311th to 34th in 1979, his first year on the tour. Nonetheless, while industry prophets like Gene Scott agree that it is no longer a question of if, but when, the oversized bat will become the dominant weapon on the pro tour, it figures to be later rather than sooner. The vast majority of pros have spent a lifetime grooving their swings to conventional rackets, and to devote the month or more that it takes a skilled player to adapt to the larger model is a disruptive risk that few have been willing to take. Besides, as Head notes, the potential for improvement with a Prince is inversely proportional to the ability of the player, ranging, he says, "from 150% for the beginner down to 3% for the world-class player."
Still, it is a crucial 3%. Sammy Giammalva, a former U.S. Davis Cupper who competed at Wimbledon this year along with his sons Tony, a first-year pro, and Sammy Jr., a national 18-and-under champion (all are Prince players), explains: "Like everyone else, I thought the Prince was a toy, a gimmick. But I found that the larger head gives you extra confidence, which is a big edge. Especially on tough, split-second returns off sharp volleys and blazing serves. Even world-class players mis-hit those two or three times a set. In a tight match, hitting them can be the difference between winning and losing."
Allen Fox, tennis coach at Pepperdine University, agrees. "Look at the Wimbledon finals this year," he says. "If McEnroe had been using a Prince, I think he would have beaten Borg. And he would have won more easily at the U.S. Open." And look at Fox' Pepperdine team, fourth-ranked in the nation last year: every player uses a Prince. "That's because I told them I would personally thrash anyone who didn't use it," he says. "The advantages are too great, the results too dramatic to ignore. A year ago a junior player named Rodney Harmon expressed some interest in attending Pepperdine. But he was ranked only 46th in the 18-and-unders, so we said we'd have to think about it. What happens? He picks up a Prince and—bingo!—he jumps to fourth in the country and everybody's after him. He's at Tennessee now."