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Tennis Collecting
by Paul Sanchez

For a sport that has been around for better than 400 years, collecting and their values are still small and the collectors few. For a hand full of dollars and time and patience and a little knowledge, anyone can become a good collector and come up with a collection, as I did, in a very short time.

Tennis was called "Jeu de Paume" in the courts of the aristocrats of France when it was played in the courts of royalty and noblemen of France. The name, tennis, is believed to have come from the cry of the server to his opponent immediately prior to putting the Jue-de-Paume ball into play. The original ball was wool wrapped in leather and was much heavier then todays bouncy balls and was said to have resulted in the death of Charles the VIII when he was struck in the head with one of these balls. By the end of the sixteeenth century there were 200-300 courts in Paris alone and another couple thousand in the country

Tennis declined in France eventually but was picked up enthusiastically by the Brits, who called it Real Tennis and the Australians who called it Royal Tennis and the Americans who called it Court Tennis. courts from this period were also about half the size of todays courts and the equipment was vastly different from todays. The balls were originally wool wrapped in leather and wound with twine.

Without spending much time in the history of tennis, it should be noted that tennis as we know it today has been around since the mid 1700's finally arriving at the shape and size of todays courts around the mid 1800's. The net was another issue for some time. Originally around two feet high. On a court shaped like an hour glass, nine feet narrower at the net than at the baseline, which was 3 feet longer than it's modern counterpart.

The All England Croquet Club added tennis in 1875. That first tournament, was not highly regarded even among it's champions for many years, those prefering it's indoor counterpart. The break on the middle weekend was to coincide and not to interfere with the Eton-Harrows cricket match at Lords. The services boxes have shrunk 5 feet since then and the net was still 5 feet at the posts with a drop to 3 feet in the middle. The ball though roughly the size of today was rubber and sewn together. They didn't become joined by cement until 1924 and the covering was white cloth and not fuzzy like today. It wasn't until 1880 that the net was lowered to just 6 inches above today, the server was required to stand behind the service line and the players changed sides at the end of each odd game.

So the game has changed alot since it's inception as has it's equipment. Racquets of that period were "Flat Tops". This shape has changed alot also to round and ellipse and even convex, cupped frames. Turn of the century balls still had no fuzz. Racquets, balls and anything tennis from this period are very valued. Racquets around this time also had a small piece of leather around what we call the butt, to help the grip. This was to continue for several decades. It became common for the champions to add tape over the wood above the leather strip. It wasn't until the late 30's that leather grips were added to the production of these frames.

Wood racquets and cat gut reigned supreme for the next 40 years or so. Alot of different racquets came into being during this time. Some hybrids combining metal and wood. Some even having metal, piano wire, strings. But the basic wood racquet was the tool of the day.

This is where I finally come into the picture. I started playing in 1969. The best selling racquet of all time was the King of the day, the Jack Kramer Pro Staff. The was the most widely sold racquet of all time and may still be. Most players had them or used one at one time or another. Today, this racquet is a must have for any collector and not hard to find in very good condition.

Which brings us to the most important point of all. Condition. I went to visit a man who had several hundred racquets, mostly Wilson. He wanted to sell them all to a collector. I could not have been more disappointed. Everything was beat: cracked, warped and just not in very good condition. I did not see anything worth buying from him. Just like most all collectibles, it's condition is the most important. If you want to add a racquet simply because it's rare and you haven't got it, go for it. But keep looking. Only mint, like new, is drawing the big bucks. I have grabbed other frames less than perfect, simply because I wanted them. And this is fine if the collection is for you.

So what is worth the most? Old, very old frames from the 1800's. And rare frames not mass produced. Then there is this big gap to the 70's (1970's). For some reason racquets from this period are worth alot of money. Again mint condition, or better, never used. Among these are these early Head Models, graphite/wood hybrids like the Edgewood and Vilas. Donnay and Bancroft Borg models. Wilson BJK and Chris Evert Autographs. Adidas models used by Nastase. Even rare, to us, models of Japanese frames by Futabaya. Most of us have or know someone who has these models at home.

Big money is in even early graphite models. Prince Boron fit's into this group and is one of the prettiest of all frames. Head Graphite Edge and Snauwert can bring good money and are enjoyed by people as players frames today. Dunlop 200G's can be good money because of John MacEnroe. Models used by Lendl include Kneissl and Adidas and bring big money also. The earliest graphite model by Wilson the Ultra and it's kin is worth alot to a collector. This model also includes the earliest of Wilson's perimeter weighting system, PWS. First models had lead rivets, later models the characteristic bulge at 3 and 9 o'clock. Wilson first two Pro Staff models, the Chicago and St Vincent are quite collectible and still valued as players frames. Models that Becker played with by Puma and Estusa are valued for the same reasons, collectible and playable.

Earlier steel and aluminum frames aren't gathering alot of interest. You may find some interest in having some of these anyway. Models by Le Coq Sportif and Rossignol may be fun to have and some can bring good money like the Le Coq Sportif Concept Three, which had three beams. There is also great interest in most open throat wood frames. Most of these are also hybrids, having graphite laminate overfaces, like the Davis CL500, and Slazenger Lotus.

Have fun collecting. Most of these can be found for pennies on the dollar. I have found Ultras for as little as $3 at thrift stores. Same is true for nearly all the frames mentioned. Places like thrift stores have no idea of the value of older graphite and wood racquets and these can be bought for just a few dollars. Used sporting good store can also be a good source for such frames as can garage sales. I just last weekend bought two St Vincents Pro Staffs for $5! So these are out there. You don't find them featured on the Antiques Roadshow, so no one is watching for them. Yet.

But they will eventually. So grab them now while the getting is good. And not just old racquets, but balls, magazines, ads, store displays, trading cards, stamps and a hundred other tennis stuff.

M. Paul Sanchez
Maranatha Tennis 2000