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Original Issue


It's here, the aerospace entry in the racket war—the invincible graphite-reinforced tennis racket that boasts just about everything except an automatic return system and remote-controlled autoplay. But snob value and the latest in tennis chic do not come cheap. The Cannon racket, produced by Aldila Inc., originator of graphite golf shafts, costs $200 unstrung. This futuristic weapon is coal-black with yellow racing stripes, open-throated with a calfskin grip and can be obtained in airy weights ranging from 11 to 13 ounces.

If the price seems a little steep, you can select the C-6 (C for carbon, from which graphite is derived, and 6 for its atomic number) for a mere $139 unstrung. The big gun of ProGroup, Inc., the C-6 is also black and striped.

Though differing in design, the Cannon and C-6 have the same basic content—graphite fibers immured in a plastic matrix. According to the manufacturers, the effect is similar to burying steel rods in concrete—great strength with comparative lightness. Graphite frames are supposed to deliver faster serves and livelier shots, tempered by control. The stiffness of the face and stem eliminates torque and increases the size of the sweet spot. The frame is heat resistant and "virtually indestructible"; it won't shred, unravel or become "mushy" like wood. The only old-fashioned thing about these rackets is the one-year guarantee.

Just a few years ago the Smashers, Fiber-staffs and X-000s were going to wipe rickety old wood off the market. But today, racket sales for metal and nonwood composites (such as the fiber-glass-skinned aluminum models) have leveled off, and wood is again on the rise. Cheap versions of the metal and synthetic rackets bombed because of structural flaws. Welded or riveted, they have a tendency to snap, and the strings pressing against metal often pop. General "fatigue" sets in and many players find their gleaming rackets useless. Wood may splinter, warp, wilt and clack out a "thonk" instead of a precision-tuned "ping," yet for $30 to $40 a sound shopper can still get a durable racket from the smorgasbord of models available, e.g., Wilson's Jack Kramer or the Davis Imperial. However, in the $10-to-$20 range, most of the rackets are made of low-grade wood and are not carefully balanced. They serve only as a throwaway for the rookie debating whether or not to stay on the courts.

Given the abundance of reasonably priced rackets, it is difficult to imagine any earthling in need of these graphite wonders. At the moment, only the tennis junkie who devours five or six rackets per year seems a likely customer. The pros will continue to use the rackets they are paid to play with.

For the intermediate player, the hairline differences are negligible. President Ford, who averages a game a fortnight, says of his graphite racket, "It helps make a poor game a slight bit better." But then, too, the extra zap may magnify errors—like smashing the ball out of the court with twice the velocity. In the end, nothing will repair fractured strokes and transform a game from cotton balls to ballistic missiles but practice.