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Spaghetti Stringing (Part 1: A Brief History)

Posted 3rd May 2020

Image 1

Clockwise from top left: Barry Phillips-Moore, Christophe Roger-Vasselin, Mike Fishbach, Georges Goven.

In the modern game of tennis, the size and composition of rackets are strictly controlled by the sport’s governing body, the International Tennis Federation (ITF). In order to comply with the ITF Rules of Tennis, rackets must have a uniform string bed comprising interwoven layers of main strings and cross strings. Only one set of strings is allowed on the hitting surface of the racket. But for the first hundred years of the game’s history, such rules did not exist and unusual racket designs and stringing systems were commonplace.

An example is the ‘double-strung’ tennis racket, a racket with two sets of main strings, one on each side of the racket. A double-strung racket is believed to have first appeared in 1881, in a patent by Englishman Alex Hodgkinson for a wooden racket designed to minimise frame hits. Double-strung wooden rackets were seen again in the 1920s with strings that wrapped around the frame, for the same purpose of helping to prevent mis-hits. With improvements in rackets, balls, court surfaces and playing techniques, however, the need for such rackets soon decreased. Half a century later, the double-strung racket reappeared again in perhaps its most famous manifestation, the ‘spaghetti’ stringing system invented by Werner Fischer, a West German horticulturist.


The Development

Werner Fischer’s double-strung system was conceived in 1971. The system featured five parallel pairs of cross strings, which were situated between two sets of mains. The cross strings were not interwoven with the mains, thereby creating three separate layers of strings and allowing the main strings to move freely side-to-side. The mains were instead tied together with five thin pieces of twine, called ‘holding strings’, which looped around each main string at the five locations near the cross strings. This caused the main strings to move together laterally as a unit. If one of the main strings was pulled sideways, all the mains would move. To reduce friction and wear between the mains and crosses, short sections of plastic tubing (‘sheaths’) were threaded onto the main strings at the points where they intersected the cross strings. The highly movable string surface was deliberately designed to impart exaggerated topspin to the ball, making it incredibly hard for the opponent to gauge.

"I was used to the tremendous cut and spin you could get with the foam-covered Ping-Pong paddle and I wanted the same effects in tennis." – Werner Fischer1

Fischer experimented with the double-strung system during the early 1970s at his company base in Vilsbiburg, Germany. In its conception, Fischer’s unique system had no formal name, but was initially known as ‘Vilsbiburger’ stringing, named after his home town in Bavaria. Fischer also collaborated with another well-known German inventor – Siegfried Kuebler. Kuebler had recently revolutionised the tennis racket industry with the release of the Mark 77 in 1972, which featured interchangeable handles of three sizes and bands that could be inserted in a groove around the head to fine-tune the racket’s weight. Kuebler began manufacturing frames for Fischer and after four years of development, the double-strung system was finally released to the market in 1976. The racket was introduced as the ‘Original Werner Fischer’ in an aluminium frame derived from the Kuebler Plus 20.

Fischer soon began to provide double-strung rackets to his struggling local tennis club, TC Vilsbiburg. The men’s team, which included Fischer himself, quickly emerged at the top level of competition with the help of their Vilsbiburger rackets, after years of playing at an unremarkable standard. The team became Bavarian team tennis champions in June 1977, gaining promotion to the German Tennisbundesliga, the highest team tennis division in Germany.

The Vilsbiburger racket was used to great success in 1976 and 1977 by Fischer’s teammate and touring pro, Erwin Müller. Along with his success with the TC Vilsbiburg team, Müller beat a number of higher-ranked German players including Frank Gebert, Werner Zirngibl and Peter Elter. In June 1976, Müller won a German tournament and in 1977 reached the semi-finals of the German National Tennis Championships.

Following its release, the racket technology quickly caught on throughout German clubs, but remained predominantly with amateur players until 1977. Despite Müller’s success with the racket, Fischer was unable to popularise it among other professional players, nor did his invention capture the interest of the German tennis establishment.

"Unfortunately, Müller, like me, was a working-class kid in an upper-crust game. He has a hick accent, he drinks beer between games and he doesn't behave in the classic manner. He turned off the rest of the pros." – Werner Fischer1

Fischer’s creation did, however, attract a great deal of interest from both the national and international media. The racket featured in numerous magazines and newspapers and in November 1976, Fischer was even invited for an interview with popular German television show ZDF Sportstudio. Fischer soon received a flood of enquiries from potential customers, to which he offered to prepare a racket for between 120 and 150 DEM (roughly €60-75 today).

The racket encountered mixed reactions and acquired numerous nicknames, some more complimentary than others. In Germany, Vilsbiburger rackets were sometimes referred to as ‘Wunderwaffe’ (Wonder Weapon) or ‘Wunderschläger’ (Wonder Racket), but also as ‘Fliegenklatsche’ (fly swatter), ‘Vilsbiburger Keule’ (Vilsbiburger Club), ‘Softpatsche’ (Soft Slap), ‘Fischerpatsche’ (Fischer Slap) or even ‘Matratze’ (Matress). With growing attention across the globe, another more famous and lasting nickname for the system was soon derived – ‘spaghetti’ stringing. The name referred to the impression of scrambled spaghetti given from its conglomeration of nylon and rope.

"I took the racket to a teaching pro and he said it was ugly, primitive and, besides, the major makers had tried everything, and I should forget it." – Werner Fischer1


The Controversy

In the summer of 1977, wishing to grow his business, Fischer entered into an agreement with Gunter Harz, a distributor of tennis rackets in the United States. Harz was employed by Fischer's company, Fischer Besaitungstechnik GmbH, as its international sales manager and was responsible for finding licenses to sell the double-strung racket abroad. Harz was also tasked with persuading professional tennis players to use Fischer’s invention. In return, it was agreed that Harz would receive a percentage of the license fees he secured for Fischer’s company.

Fischer’s spaghetti racket was first used in a major professional tournament at the French Open in May 1977, by 39-year-old Australian veteran Barry Phillips-Moore. Considered well past his tennis prime, Phillips-Moore was successful in winning his first round match convincingly against Chilean player Patricio Cornejo. He went on to lose in the next round against Balázs Taróczy, the Hungarian quarter-finalist in Paris the previous year, but played above his supposed level.

"I saw a training model of Fischer's racket and hit 10 balls with it. It was the greatest thing since boiled water." – Barry Phillips-Moore1

The next month, Phillips-Moore had continued success with the spaghetti racket, reaching the third round of the Belgian Open in Brussels before losing to the first seed and eventual tournament winner, American player Harold Solomon. Once again, it was the innovation and not Phillips-Moore’s talents that were cited as the reason for his success. Solomon had in fact already encountered the spaghetti racket in November 1976, when Werner Fischer attended the Cologne Grand Prix tournament with the intention of introducing his invention to major players. At the time, however, when introduced to the racket, Solomon immediately dismissed it.

The unusual racket did not go unnoticed. The little-known American Mike Fishbach came upon the spaghetti racket while travelling on the European circuit, first noticing Phillips-Moore playing with the racket in Belgium. Fishbach was intrigued, but Phillips-Moore allegedly refused to let anyone examine his equipment. In July just four weeks after the Belgian Open, while playing a tournament in Gstaad, Switzerland, Fishbach noticed a racket resembling Phillips-Moore’s while browsing a camera store. Fishbach attempted to purchase the racket but the shop owner refused to part with it. Fishbach was confident, however, that he could assemble one himself and returned home to New York to create his own spaghetti racket.

“I saw Barry playing with it in Brussels, and, just by looking at it, I had a gut feeling that it was the racquet for me. It fit my type of stroke perfectly.” – Mike Fishbach2

Later that year, Fishbach arrived at the US Open with a homemade spaghetti racket constructed using nylon strings, plastic tubing and adhesive tape and rigged with Venetian blind cord. Fishbach, who at the time was ranked 200th in the world, won three rounds of qualifying with his converted AMF Head Professional racket before upsetting Billy Martin and former US Open and Wimbledon champion Stan Smith in successive singles matches in the main draw.

"Of course it's legal. I could play with a shoe or a tree or a bottle of apple juice and it would be legal." – Mike Fishbach3

It was British player John Feaver who finally ended Fishbach’s run in the third round using a conventional racket. Fishbach's success in the tournament with the spaghetti racket, however, was enough for him to climb to 94th in the ATP rankings. Conversations around the racket’s legality began, and following Fishbach’s defeat of Stan Smith in the previous round, there was already talk of outlawing the controversial racket, or ‘Fishbach’s magic wand’ as Sports Illustrated later dubbed it.

"You don't know what's going on with the bloody thing. You can't hear the ball come off the face. It looks like an egg in flight. When it bounces, it can jump a yard this way or that, and up or down." – John Feaver1

The spaghetti system soon made an impression on other touring professional players, who began adding extra strings and making their own handmade spaghetti rackets from conventional wood or metal frames. In September, two weeks after the US Open, no fewer than seven of the thirty-two players entering the Porée Cup in Paris were using double-strung rackets. A relatively unknown French player, Christophe Roger-Vasselin, used a wooden Slazenger Challenger No.1 spaghetti racket to reach the final. The tournament was won by Argentine Guillermo Vilas, winner of both the French Open and US Open earlier that year, using a conventional racket.

“After my return from the US Open, where I had lost in the qualifications, I saw one lying around at Roland, I tried it and found it great. For the Poree Cup, I ordered three of them from my stringer. It did incredible spins. The difference was as big as between a Ping-Pong racquet made of foam and a wooden board. And with its incredible effects, it gave a huge advantage to the player who were using the spin.” – Christophe Roger-Vasselin4

In the same tournament, Romanian former world No. 1 and second seed Ilie Năstase was beaten by French player Georges Goven in the first round. Goven used a spaghetti racket fashioned from a Lacoste steel frame, known to most as the Wilson T-2000. Năstase vowed he would never play against one again, even declaring it was beneath his dignity in an interview that week with German publication Tennis Magazin.

“That's the first time I've played against someone using one of those things. It's also the last. In future I shall refuse to play.” – Ilie Năstase5

To the surprise of all who had heard his unabashed comments, Năstase himself used a spaghetti racket to win the Raquette d’Or Championship at Aix-en-Provence the following week. The racket, an aluminium Adidas ADS 660, was prepared by Werner Fischer himself and was personally delivered by car to Năstase shortly before his final match against Guillermo Vilas. Vilas was so disgusted with the increased topspin imparted by the racket and the high, unfamiliar bounces, that he forfeited the match in protest after dropping the first two sets, ending a 46-match winning streak. The next week, Vilas was forced to miss a tournament in Madrid with a wrist ailment, claiming he had injured it trying to return Năstase’s unpredictable shots.

“I am completely disconcerted and discouraged by the trajectory of those balls. You understand that Nastase, plus the racquet, that's just too much.” – Guillermo Vilas6

In the same tournament, Georges Goven reached the semi-finals along with fellow Frenchman Éric Deblicker, who had also played with a spaghetti racket before losing a close five-set match to Vilas. But while both Vilas and his coach Ion Tiriac publicly condemned the racket after the tournament, suggesting it should be banned, Vilas is known to have used a racket strung with Fischer’s system to great effect during training sessions.

"Guillermo simply is unbeatable with the double-stringing system in his training matches!" – Ion Tiriac7


The Ban

Prior to the appearance of the spaghetti racket, the ITF had no rules for what constituted a legal or illegal tennis racket. The double-strung racket was first brought to the attention of the ITF in May 1977, through a telex sent by the Swiss Tennis Association that sought clarification as to whether the ITF accepted a new tennis racket being marketed with double strings. Other inquiries and comments from national tennis associations, players and journalists soon followed. In July, at the Annual General Meeting in Hamburg, the ITF responded by inviting member associations and players to submit reports on the double-strung racket.

At the request of the West German Tennis Federation, a study was subsequently undertaken by the Technische Universität Braunschweig (Technical University of Brunswick), to analyse the effects of the double-strung racket. Following a number of tests, the 30-page report produced by the University concluded that on certain court surfaces, balls hit with high topspin into the baseline area had such a high bounce, that they were virtually unreturnable and could only be returned when hit right after they bounced. The study also suggested that a player using the double-strung racket was restricted to a limited range of shots, with high spin shots played almost exclusively due to them being the most effective. The German federation submitted an assessment of the study to the ITF, lending support to the growing concerns. The ITF also received written reports regarding double-strung rackets from the Swiss and Austrian tennis federations, where the racket was being widely used.

As the season progressed and following numerous ‘strange’ results involving players using the controversial racket, the ITF was subjected to mounting pressure from players, officials and national tennis federations to control the racket. The situation reached its peak following the events in Aix-en-Provence and the threat of top players boycotting the upcoming 1977 French National Championships in protest against the use of the racket by rival players. In October 1977, following a demonstration game in Barcelona using both double-strung and conventional rackets, the ITF Management Committee temporarily suspended the use of double-strung rackets. The ruling was based on the primary objection that the racket was substantially changing the nature of game with its unusual amount of spin. It had also been reported that the ball made one set of strings hit the second set and was therefore deemed to be hit twice, something already illegal in the rules of tennis. The temporary ban was intended to last until permanent rules could be written to determine the legal size, shape and composition of rackets.

Following the ban, The ITF appointed a new technical sub-committee to assess the spaghetti racket and commissioned Sportalma, an independent Italian testing laboratory, to conduct tests using stop-action photography in order to assess the effects of the racket on the ball. The studies by Sportalma concluded that double-strung rackets imparted an average of seventeen per cent more ball rotation to the ball than a conventional racket. Eventually, after considering many opinions, results of research, high-speed photography and demonstrations, the ITF permanently banned the racket from sanctioned competition in July 1978, following a vote at the AGM held in Stockholm. New rules were immediately introduced to explicitly prohibit future stringing designs that departed from the woven, uniform norm. Following the announcement, the ITF even invited other manufacturers and inventors to submit all new racket designs so it could test their effects on the new rules and spirit of the game.


The Reaction

When the temporary ban on double-stringing came in October 1977, Werner Fischer allegedly had already bought around 2000 Kuebler Mark 77 and Plus 40 Alu rackets for conversion with his system. The ruling by the ITF caused disaster to his promising business and ultimately put an end to the promising but short-lived partnership with Siegfried Kuebler.

"If the ban had come one year later, I would have become a millionaire, but instead, I was financially ruined". – Werner Fischer7

Gunter Harz, however, still saw an opportunity to profit from the invention. During the period he was employed by Fischer GmbH, Harz had begun working on improving Fischer’s design. Shortly after the temporary ban went into effect, the original agreement between Harz and Fischer was altered to give Harz exclusive rights to market the racket, with Fischer receiving a percentage from the sales. This included sales of any modifications of Fischer’s design developed by Harz. In January 1978, another agreement was made that gave Harz the rights to use Fischer’s name in forming a corporation in the United States, to manufacture and distribute double-strung rackets and stringing systems worldwide. By the time Harz left Fischer GmbH for the United States, he had developed a modification using four rows of pre-moulded plastic pieces per layer of main strings. The pieces encased the main strings in tubes and bound the main strings of each layer together. The modifications were intended to decrease topspin imparted to the ball and to give the ball more speed. Under the newly formed Werner Fischer Sports, Inc. based in Omaha, Nebraska (which later became Gunter Harz Sports, Inc.), Harz began to market both rackets and stringing kits using his modification, under the name of ‘Play Spaghetti’. At the time, prior to the ITF’s ruling, the rackets sold for around $100 while the kits were sold for around $40.

Six months later, the new rules were introduced preventing use of the controversial racket, with the US Tennis Association (USTA) subsequently adopting the ITF ban. Both Harz and Fischer publicly criticised the ITF’s investigations and the USTSA’s implementation of the ban, and in December 1979 Harz filed a suit against the USTA for unreasonably restraining trade by forbidding use of the racket. Seeking $2 million in damages, Harz alleged that the USTA had conspired with other, more established manufacturers of traditional rackets to prevent the spaghetti system from being sold in the United States and abroad. Harz called into question the influence of well-known suppliers such as Bancroft, Dunlop and Wilson, who sponsored major tournaments and were supposedly invested in the ITF’s decision with the intention of protecting sales of their own rackets. Harz also contested the German Tennis Federation’s assessment of the Braunschweig study, which he considered to be misleading, and alleged that the demonstration game in Barcelona was played using poor copies of the spaghetti racket that were not strung to Fischer’s specifications. The court found in favour of the USTA in March 1981, concluding that the actions of the USTA were reasonable in serving the legitimate goals of both the USTA and ITF for “preserving the essential integrity of the game”8 and promoting tennis competition.


The Legacy

The spaghetti racket lasted only 6 months in professional tennis. In this short time period, however, the racket completely unsettled the sport’s governing elite, amounting to such controversy that it even triggered the ITF to invoke its power in ‘unusual situations’ to pass temporary rulings. The spaghetti racket undoubtedly left an intriguing legacy that would secure its place in the annals of tennis history.

Despite its brief period in vogue in the summer of 1977, it is difficult to gauge the longevity of the racket’s popularity if the ban had never been imposed. Aside from its controversial effect on the game itself, what isn’t so often documented is that the spaghetti stringing system was extraordinarily complicated and very labour intensive. Experienced professional stringers needed several hours to string just one racket and even Werner Fischer himself required about three hours work on a single racket. The spaghetti system was also famously short-lasting, typically withstanding only a few hours of play. The strung pieces were known to fall apart during the game and could be found all over the court. With the prize money offered at the time and at Fischer’s price tag, to have rackets continuously restrung with the spaghetti system would have been frighteningly expensive for the majority of players, amateur or professional.

During its appearance in professional tennis, there were many examples of rackets adapted to use the spaghetti system. At time of the temporary ban, in addition to Fischer’s rackets and the numerous homemade versions strung by players themselves, several other manufacturers were already marketing double-strung rackets. Nowadays, spaghetti rackets are scarce and depending on the particular racket model and stringing job (classic or modern copy) are very valuable. Recreations of the ‘famous’ spaghetti rackets have been sold online upwards of $400.


References:

1. ‘A Weighty Matter of Spaghetti and Tennis Balls’, Sports Illustrated, 3rd April 1978.
2. ‘Controversy Boils on ‘Spaghetti’ Racquet’, The New York Times, 9th October 1977.
3. ‘Fantastic, Guillermo!’, Sports Illustrated, 19th September 1977.
4. ‘The Spaghetti Strung Racquet, a Strange Kind of Western’, We Are Tennis, 21st August 2012.
5. ‘Nastase ‘Spaghetti’ Victim’, The New York Times, 21st September 1977.
6. ‘Vilas, Behind, Quits in Final Over Racquet’, The New York Times, 3rd October 1977.
7. ‘The famous Vilsbiburger Tennis Racquet, invented by Werner Fischer (GER): One of the greatest inventions in tennis history’, 80s-tennis.com.
8. ‘Gunter Harz Sports v. US Tennis Ass'n’, U.S. District Court for the District of Nebraska, 4th March 1981.


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