The widebody tennis racket may turn out to be the most revolutionary piece of equipment in all of sports, and its bizarre and bloodstained history is a tale as fabulous as any by Dashiell Hammett or Rudyard Kipling, or even that romantic artificer Rider Haggard. The earliest widebodies repose in glowing splendor in a hushed chamber of the Uberlingen Tennis Museum, a racket repository their inventor, Siegfried Kuebler, erected in his home. Here, in a remote corner of southern Germany, Kuebler and his elves worked great black lumps of carbon fibers into shiny white frames as mysterious as the Maltese Falcon and far more beautiful than the One Penny Black. You half expect to see Sydney Greenstreet lurking nearby with a speculative eye or Peter Lorre simpering in the shadows.
An air-conditioning visionary and a self-styled stoic from the Holy Land, Kuebler patented his Resonanz R-50 widebody in the Fatherland. European racket companies coveted his creation. American firms fought over it. A journeyman pro named Peter Grant mastered the racket's powers and used it to win the Grand Slam. But tragedy followed: Grant lost his desire, and then friends of his drowned in a horrendous hurricane that submerged the entire state of Florida. Aimless, distraught and sopping wet, he stood on the Golden Gate Bridge contemplating suicide.
Grant was really just another one of Kuebler's many brainchildren. Kuebler thought him up for a novel he wrote in 1984 on Fuerteventura, a desert isle off the coast of West Africa. Kuebler got the idea for the racket there, too, and when he got home he made one.
With its extra-wide frame, when viewed from the side Kuebler's Resonanz R-50 looks like a regular racket on steroids. Stiffer than a Wimbledon umpire, the racket seemed to send balls ricocheting off its strings. Hackers swore no racket's sweet spot had ever been sweeter. Still, skeptics branded it a Bratpfanne, or frying pan. Little did they know how hot that skillet would get.
The widebody is further proof that invention is the mother of necessity: Nobody was clamoring for a more powerful racket, but as soon as Kuebler created one, everybody had to have it. His innovation, in the form of the Wilson Profile, became the best-selling line on the market and jump-started the tepid racket industry. As Howard Head's oversized Prince changed forever the size of a racket's strung area—from 70 square inches to as much as 130—the Kuebler widebody obliterated conventional wisdom about the width of the frame.
Indeed, it was the first meaningful advance in racket technology since Head's jumbo hit the market in 1976. Most pro shops don't stock anything but widebodies now. "People have found out they don't need so much strength to get the ball going," says Kuebler. Every major manufacturer has gone the great wide way, though no other model balloons to the patented width of Kuebler's design.
Today's junior and collegiate circuits have more widebodies than O'Hare has runways, and the men's and women's pro tours are catching up. Monica Seles, Martina Navratilova, Arantxa Sánchez Vicario and Jennifer Capriati have all gone wide. Jimmy Connors reached the semis of this year's U.S. Open with a widebody. Wimbledon champ Michael Stich wields a modified widebody. There are still sonic holdouts, though, most of them highly ranked male pros. "Widebodies are too powerful," says Stefan Edberg, the world's No. 1 player. "Balls just take off. That's fine when you're striking the ball flat, but once you try to put on topspin, you can't get a grip on the ball."
By emphasizing power over control and finesse, Kueblernetics has contrived to make men's pro tennis blander, more predictable. It's as if professional baseball suddenly allowed aluminum bats. "Widebodies and normal rackets are as different as cannonballs and atomic bombs," said Ted Tinling, the late tennis doyen.
The father of nuclear racketry is neither a goofy Gyro Gearloose nor a nebbishy Nutty Professor. He's 60, trim and deeply tanned. He wears country clothes, a tweed jacket with elbow patches, comfortable shoes, an open-necked shirt, corduroy slacks. Kuebler is, in fact, completely unprepossessing except for one feature—a pale, white circle in the middle of his forehead, the result of a self-inflicted burn. "I burned a cut shut," he says.
Like Joan of Arc, Kuebler solves his problems by fire. When he couldn't shake an agonizing tennis elbow, he seared it with a soldering iron. "After three weeks it was gone," says Kuebler. The pain, not the elbow.