Years ago, back when Howard Head was just an impoverished young inventor struggling to sell a new-fangled metal ski to an indifferent world, a friend staying overnight at his Baltimore flat was awakened in the wee hours by an unholy wailing. Fearing bloody murder, the friend rushed to investigate and found Head thrashing in his sleep and crying out, "I know I'm right! I know I'm right!"
And so he was, as evidenced by the small fortune he schussed off with after revolutionizing the ski industry in the 1950s and '60s. Now a mellowing 66, Head has learned to endure—indeed, savor—rejection, because he has come to see it as a measure of man's vision. It is axiomatic, he says: "The more innovative the concept, the greater the resistance." In other words, when you're right, derision is the prelude to acclaim.
Head, a 6'4" gangleshanks with a Mr. Clean pate, should know. Just four years ago, when he loped onto the courts brandishing his latest brainstorm, a racket that looked as big and unwieldy as a screen door, he was greeted by a chorus of guffaws and wisecracks that would have shamed Fulton into scuttling his steamboat. Hey, Howard, the wags chortled, what are you going to do with that contraption? Strain spaghetti? Chase butterflies? Seine for minnows? Teaching pro Vic Braden allowed as how Head's bionic banjo would add a new dimension to the game: "Now when you serve, you'll hit both your legs rather than only one."
Head just smiled his all-knowing smile, but not Mal Bash, a Head associate who had been corralled into trying out "this big, funny-looking snowshoe of a racket." Bash says, "It was embarrassing. People would come up and ask, 'Is that thing legal?' and, in all seriousness, 'What kind of game are you playing?' "
Tennis is the game, Prince is the name, and nowadays the only one who is laughing is Head—all the way to the bank. Yes, Howard was right. Again. At a time when sales of other rackets have been dying like so many drop shots, the Prince line has taken off like a moon ball.
At the Metropolitan Racquet Club in Houston, for example, Prince accounts for approximately 85% of the club's racket sales. At Paragon Sporting Goods Center in New York City, one of the nation's largest discount athletic equipment stores, tennis manager Conroy Peterson claims that the new Prince Graphite is so "wildly successful" that his customers are wistfully intoning Some Day My Prince Will Come. "We're so deluged with orders that right now the waiting time for delivery is three months," Peterson says. Twenty-six blocks north, at Feron's Tennis & Racquet Shop, Bonnie Kasten adds, "You don't have to sell Prince rackets. They just come in the back door and walk out the front."
And for good reason, says Head, indulging in a little I-told-you-so savoring. "The Prince is the shape the tennis racket should've been in the first place. I have no doubt that in three or four years it will be the conventional frame and the others will be thought of as small, funny-looking and old-fashioned. This is no boomlet. It's an absolute explosion. The word is out: the Prince is for real!"
As real, at least, as any innovation can be in a market that is crowded with dozens of rackets that promise unreal results. Certainly the Prince folks spare no superlatives in proclaiming that theirs is "the most successful racket in tennis history," the one with four times the effective hitting area, the one delivering more power, control and consistency, not to mention "twice as much fun, twice as many rallies." All of which is backed up by diagrams and the kind of technical lingo that has Prince owners talking of polar moments of inertia, centers of percussion and coefficients of restitution.
As a rule, such sales pitches for rackets have been about as credible as player endorsements; Bjorn Borg could win with a frying pan, and anyone who believes that the pros' brand allegiances aren't for sale to the highest bidder—Borg gets at least $600,000 a year for using the Don-nay wood—better guess again. The differences among the best conventional rackets are too slight for the big-money players to concern themselves with trifling matters like truth in advertising.
However, the geometry of the Prince is obviously very different, the first radical change in racket design in a century. Oh, there have been a few oddments over the decades, beginning with the rectangular racket that Richard Sears used to win the first national championship in 1881. There were experiments with a racket that was bent like a pitchfork, the better, one fancied, to scoop up those devilish low balls. And so on through the years: diagonal stringing, crooked handles, elongated handles and even a ventilated handle with a tiny, battery-powered fan inside to keep the grip dry.