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The Man Who Reshaped Tennis
Franz Lidz
December 09, 1991
Inventor, novelist, curator, engineer Siegfried Kuebler made fat a force with his widebody racket
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December 09, 1991

The Man Who Reshaped Tennis

Inventor, novelist, curator, engineer Siegfried Kuebler made fat a force with his widebody racket

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Kuebler had remembered his mother's bedtime stories, fantastical tales of Bedouins healing themselves by placing hot irons on their stomachs. So he went to the library at the University of Freiburg and read up on cauterization. He later published his own treatise, Die Lötkolbentherapie (Curing with the Soldering Iron). The introduction warns: "Not for cowards and people who feel pain easily."

"A tennis elbow is full of miniature cuts," says Kuebler in a gentle, singsong accent that trails off, never quite ending squarely at the end of a sentence. "But your body, unaware of this, does not provide white blood cells to heal it. To alert the body, you must supply more pain. By applying 500-degree heat for 10 seconds, you're letting the body know there's a problem. Ten seconds is nothing compared to all the seconds in your life."

Inventors often have peculiar visions of the world. As a health precaution, Alexander Graham Bell covered the windows in his house to block out the harmful rays of the full moon. Thomas Edison was convinced that "little people" were living in his brain. As idiosyncratic as the next inventor, Kuebler has phenomenal persistence, self-belief bordering on evangelism, a gift for visualizing things that never existed before and the desire to get rich. Yet for all his success, Kuebler and his wife, Barbara, live modestly in a white-trimmed split-level house in Uberlingen, a cozy hamlet overlooking the Bodensee.

Until the late '60s, all rackets were made of glue and laminated wood. Now, of course, wood is out of play. In its place are lighter, tougher high-tech materials: graphite, boron and Kevlar—a plastic fiber used in bulletproof vests. Presumably, Kevlar frames can deflect anything Boris Becker could fire at them short of a bullet from a .44.

Contemporary marketing strategies revolve around such unnatural wonders as variable density stringing, perimeter weighting systems and lateral stability construction. The science behind the Resonanz R-50's width may be too complicated for human beings to understand. But Kuebler gives it a try. "Resonance frequency is the time a racket takes to bend backward and recover," he says. "Before the R-50, frames would still be bending back when the ball left the strings. My racket is so stiff that its resonance frequency is almost the same as the time the ball is on the strings. Less energy is lost in bending; more goes into the shot."

Conversations with Kuebler often proceed as a kind of free association. He compares designing rackets to test-driving race cars, to building suspension bridges, to tuning violins. Kuebler apprenticed with a violin maker in 1946. "My boss, Herr Woitok, made Stradivariuses out of maplewood," he says.

Kuebler slides behind the desk in his study, pulls a violin out of a drawer and plucks it. Woitok believed violins had to be broken in by virtuosos like himself. He would fiddle around with newborns for an hour before letting Kuebler near them. "Herr Woitok played them like a madman," recalls Kuebler, who thinks infant rackets are equally impressionable. "I wonder how a pro can play with a freshly strung racket! Tennis strings must be set into place. The first 30 minutes are the most important."

Kuebler's greatest invention may be the life he patched together out of a childhood disrupted by war and the devastation that it left. He was born in Jerusalem. His family belonged to the Templar Society, a religious sect that broke from the Lutheran Church in the mid-19th century. An oppressed minority in Germany, the Templars immigrated to Palestine, where they established flourishing farming communities.

When World War II broke out, British troops rounded up all the Templars in Jerusalem. Kuebler's father, Friedrich, was taken to an internment camp called Akko, near Haifa. Eight-year-old Siegfried, his mother, Paula, and sister, Gisela, were interned a few months later at a settlement in Tel Aviv. As Rommel's army advanced toward Egypt, the male Templars were shipped to Australia, and Friedrich was placed in a camp outside Melbourne. After the male Templars were sent Down Under, Siegfried and his mother and sister were moved to Akko, which was encircled by barbed wire and cut off from the Mediterranean by a sand dune.

"Each day I heard the waves rolling along the coast," Kuebler says. "I could never see the water, nor feel the wind. That was the most terrible thing."

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