• Brett Bothwell

Super-Flex Racquets: A Step Backwards for Tennis

Here we are in 2021 when advances in science and technology have transformed nearly every aspect of life on earth in colossal ways. It's a time when progress is being made in leaps and bounds in everything from medicine to communications, from ground travel to space travel, and yet the tennis industry has decided that now is the perfect time to take a step backwards in the design and engineering of racquets. When industries all around us are moving forward and embracing enormous technological changes and challenges at a scale never before seen, the tennis industry has gone all out to give tennis players everywhere, "retro engineering".


As a member of the professional tennis community for over 25 years and with over 35 years of design and engineering experience, it's disheartening to see industry leaders shy away from the true challenge of the modern high-impact racquet dilemma: how to harness all of the advantages of super-strength, super-lightweight high-tech materials and state of the art manufacturing techniques in order to optimize racquet performance while minimizing physical punishment to players' bodies in a racquet for players of all levels.


Super-flexible high-tech carbon composite racquets, currently the hot trend in the market, are designed to mimic the flexible performance of wood racquets from the old days as a way to make a carbon composite racquet comfortable. To think that a carbon-fiber composite, the same material used to make spaceships, rockets and advanced airplanes and all kinds of other high-tech equipment, and one of the strongest, lightest, most advanced materials available on earth, is being engineered in tennis racquets to bend and twist and to act like wood, one of the oldest and heaviest materials available for racquet making! It's technological surrender, a white flag signaling a dead end for conventional racquet design in the era of modern high-impact, big power tennis. When one of the great materials of the new century is dumbed down to behave like an older far inferior one in order to solve a problem with a 100 year old design model, it's not difficult to conclude that a part of the equation is broken.


Elephant on the Court


The glaring issue is the danger of players blowing apart their arms as racquets and strings get stiffer. It's been festering for two decades and it's not limited to recreational players like it may have been in previous eras, it's an issue at the professional level as well. Even players with great technique are having serious arm and wrist issues. Since the introduction of the first super-stiff, super-powerful hollow carbon composite frames in the late 1980s and early 1990s, the occurrence of serious arm injuries has accelerated. The problem was made worse when the popularity of a super-stiff string made of polyester exploded, and together with super-stiff frames made for an even stiffer and more dangerous situation that exists today.


The issue of physical punishment is so pervasive that racquet makers today are willing to do almost anything with the conventional racquet design model to make a racquet that's comfortable enough for at least a portion of the tennis population to play regularly without getting sore, even if it means pushing past the natural limits. In conventional racquet design, apart from specifics of the stringing, the only means available for reducing stiffness in the hitting quality of a racquet is to make the frame flexible, like old wood racquets. The flexibility of the frame absorbs ball impact energy to control ball rebound speed and to reduce shock and vibration. However, when a frame is made more flexible and comfortable it also becomes less powerful and less stable and consequently less accurate as well. Flexibility has limitations and at some point a racquet can become too flexible.

Conventional Racquet Dynamics Illustration

For example, a racquet can be so flexible that it no longer has the structural stability to control ball flight, or it can be so flexible that it absorbs too much ball energy, resulting in no power. A racquet like that is essentially unusable. That's where we are with new super-flex racquets. There are a number of them in the market today. In order to make stiff racquets and stiff strings comfortable enough for players to use regularly without risk of serious injury or discomfort, manufacturers have pushed outside the normal limitations of the conventional design model to produce racquets that are so flexible and soft (comfortable) that they lose structural stability for swing speeds above beginner/intermediate level and they lose the capacity to produce any notable power, which is a bad quality for a beginner type racquet. The usual objective for a beginner is extra power. It's a clear indication that the design model is a bad fit.


The problem of physical punishment exists with players of all levels, particularly at advanced levels where polyester is the predominant string. It's advanced players that are using some of the stiffest equipment, and they need power and control too. It's essentially impossible to soften up a conventional frame enough to fend off injury potential, while still remaining stable and powerful enough for a professional player. A true solution is a racquet that works for players of all levels.


Sticks-With-Strings: Limited Options


The scientific approach to the big racquet dilemma is not to dumb down high-tech materials to behave like old ones but to fix the broken design paradigm. The current paradigm, which dates back more than a hundred years to the first racquets ever made, could be called the "sticks-with-strings" approach. Apart from the stringing, which can be the same in any racquet, there's only one element that can be modified to significantly affect overall performance from one racquet to the next, the frame. The sticks-with-strings approach doesn't offer many options. The strings are what they are and the frame is either flexible or stiff or somewhere in between.


Certainly the design and manufacture of frames has become very sophisticated. Racquet frames today are incredible works of engineering and lately they include carbon composite "mapping" capacity which gives designers comprehensive control over frame response. Even carbon composites themselves are greatly improved but no matter how sophisticated the material or the process of fabrication, it's still just a frame with strings and the frame can only be one thing at a time, either flexible or stiff or somewhere in between.


It's the sticks-with-strings approach that results in the built-in compromise of racquet selection. The frame can't be stiff (powerful) and flexible (control/comfort) at the same time. It's one or the other. If more power, then less control/comfort; if more control/comfort, then less power. Round and round it goes. A player must sacrifice one quality to get the other. Other than the strings, the frame is the only significant element of the racquet equation which determines its performance qualities.


New Design Model


The solution to the broken paradigm is to move away from the sticks-with-strings approach to the "sticks-with-strings-plus-one" approach. The concept itself is not new, racquet innovators have been trying to add performance-enhancing elements to the racquet equation for decades. It's only recently that new materials and manufacturing methods make it possible to add something in a practical commercially viable way. In this new design paradigm, there's a third element in the racquet design equation, along with the frame and strings, by which to significantly affect racquet performance.


What's the third element? Suspension. It's a common engineering model used in a myriad of ways and it's not a secret. Every automobile has one. It's been pursued over decades by racquet innovators time and again. But now, by accepting the challenge of the modern high-impact racquet dilemma and by embracing the amazing qualities and possibilities of space age materials and revolutionary manufacturing methods, modern high-performance string suspension on racquets has arrived.

Modern Racquet Dynamics Illustration

With string suspension, the built-in compromise of racquet selection is eliminated. The frame has one job to do, be powerful, stable and accurate, and the suspension has another job, to control ball rebound speed, and to provide comfort, dwell time, accuracy, feel and touch (a suspension can provide power too but that wouldn't be its first purpose). Control and comfort don't have to be sacrificed for power, and power doesn't have to be sacrificed for control and comfort. The endless cycle of one for the other is resolved. A player can choose to have all of the best qualities together in the same racquet, for example, a super-powerful, super-comfortable racquet with great control and great accuracy. How's that for a refreshing choice?!


The dynamics of racquet performance are transformed by suspension entirely for the better. Every high-performance racquet for any player level can be just the right fit. Every racquet can be comfortable and powerful, with great control and accuracy. The playing experience is transformed for the better as well. A true suspension racquet is naturally lively and super-comfortable. Sweet spots are naturally extra large. The response is consistent and the easy ball release makes every shot just a little easier to execute. A suspension racquet is inherently stable and consequently precise and accurate. And maybe most important of all with the sticks-with-strings-plus-one approach, all of the different traits of racquet performance can be controlled individually and independently of each other.


A modern high-performance racquet built from the ground up for high-impact tennis, and based on a new design paradigm which allows all of the best qualities of racquet performance to exist together in the same racquet is available today from BOLT, the pioneer of modern spring suspension design.


Modern High-Impact Game Is Here - Time to Make the Leap


In the face of increasingly huge impact forces in the modern power game coupled with the super-stiff characteristics of modern equipment, the latest super-flexible carbon composite racquets epitomize the collision and the disconnect between modern power tennis and old-school racquet engineering. The old-school design paradigm has been maxed out by the modern game and now for the good of the entire tennis playing population, it should be replaced with a better one, one that will allow racquets to continue to evolve with the game as it gets more powerful and more punishing in the future.


The big racquet brands of tennis have millions of dollars invested in racquet designs, processes and endorsements, dating back years, that are based on the old design paradigm. They're not in a hurry to abandon those investments to build racquets based on a new paradigm, even if the new path results in a fundamentally better product. It's disappointing but understandable. For the benefit of all players, we hope the industry will embrace the modern design paradigm sooner than later, and move past the issue of physical punishment and on to the issue of making great modern high-impact racquets. In the meantime we hope tennis players will educate themselves and their fellow players, and seek out the best information and the best products available, and let them know that the BOLTs are here and moving tennis racquets into the future!


For further information visit: BOLT Racquet Lab

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