Revenge of the spaghetti strings?

Many tennis commentators decry the demise of the wooden racket, with a smaller head and less forgiving nature, it demanded a more considered and poised form of play. While it is unlikely that a current professional, raised on cutting-edge carbon fibre rackets would revert to lumber, there is an outlawed stringing method which could have more appeal.

As the world’s Tennis elite battle through the early stages of the Australian Open, you have to wonder how many would give anything to get their hands on a racket which would be able to propel them to the latter stages with relative ease. As unlikely as it sounds, such a thing did exist over 30 years ago.

In 1978 Tennis’ governing body, the ITF banned a very novel invention which became know as ‘spaghetti strings’ or the ‘spaghetti racket’. The patent for the unique stringing system was submitted in 1977 by a German man named Werner Fischer. The spaghetti racket had 3 planes of non-intercepting strings in comparison to a conventional interwoven stringbed (Figure 1). The spaghetti racket was banned because it reportedly allowed a player to produce very unpredictable shots. The call for the banning came from the professional player’s, in particular Guillermo Vilas who opted out of a 1977 tournament final against Ilie Nastase who was putting wild spins on the ball. The ITF allowed the spaghetti strings to enter the professional game  without testing them in a laboratory first, a mistake they would never repeat!

Figure 1. Spaghetti strung racket

Science of spaghetti strings

Dr Simon Goodwill and Professor Steve Haake of the Sports Engineering Research Group wrote a scientific paper on spaghetti strings concluding that spaghetti strings impart approximately twice as much spin on the ball in comparison to conventional strings. The intricate combination of rollers and interlocking ‘spaghetti’ threads allow the strings to deform laterally during impact, storing energy. This stored energy is returned to the ball as topspin, the additional downward force of a ball with topspin causes it to have a lower trajectory and land sooner on the court. Therefore, a player with a spaghetti racket was able to apply a wider range of topspin to the ball, making their shots less predictable to the receiving player. In addition to this finding, the results also showed that spaghetti strings will cause the ball to leave the player’s racket slower and at a higher angle relative to the horizontal.

Evolution of the tennis racket

Tennis rackets have changed considerably since spaghetti strings were banned in 1978 (Figure 2). Racket manufacturers began experimenting with composite materials in the late 1970s and 1980s, mainly due to their high stiffness-to-weight ratio in comparison to wood. A modern composite racket is both lighter and stiffer than a traditional wooden racket. Composite materials have also allowed head sizes to increase by approximately 30-40%. These advances in racket technology have allowed professional players to hit their shots faster and with increased accuracy.
Figure 2. Traditional wood racket and modern composite racket

Spaghetti strings in the modern game

The modern game of tennis is all about power, in comparison to the traditional serve and volley. So, what would happen if the spaghetti strings were reintroduced? In the modern game the receiving player is confronted with a ball which can be travelling very fast and with a considerable amount of topspin. They must transfer a lot of energy into the ball in order to reverse its direction and spin. However, spaghetti strings are less powerful and will cause the ball to leave the racket at a higher angle. So while they might be able to apply confounding levels of spin to the ball, they wouldn’t be able to generate the levels of power which is inherent in the modern game. Reintroducing spaghetti strings could result in two opposing styles of play, spin and power, the spaghetti racket which was originally a threat to the status quo might provide an interesting edge to a game without  toppling the established order. Maybe the ITF should reconsider whether the spaghetti strings would improve spectator appeal by bringing unpredictability and tactics to the modern game, whilst removing the dominance of the power player.

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About Dr Tom Allen

Dr Tom Allen is a lecturer in engineering design at Sheffield Hallam University. He leads the University's BSc (Hons) Sports Technology course and is the associate editor of Sports Engineering.

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