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2009/03/01

Ion Tiriac and Guillermo Vilas and a few Kneissl rackets from www.80s-tennis.com

An Interview with Jens Wehrmeister of 80s-tennis.com

The first decades following the birth of "open tennis" in 1968 were the seventies and early eighties, and naturally with them came a fresh wind in the visual aspect of tennis not only in the way of playing the game. www.80s-tennis.com is a page dedicated entirely to the rackets, apparel and aesthetics of those years, we had a chat with the mind behind it, Jens Wehrmeister.


Avec Double Cordage: Jens naturally your focus is on the eighties, but particularly the early eighties stuff is a development of the innovative introductions of the seventies, when some ski brands stepped into tennis, like Rossignol and Fischer. Can you tell us a bit about some of the names that expanded form winter sports into tennis?

Jens Wehrmeister: Indeed, there were a couple of European ski brands stepping into tennis in the seventies, amongst them several Austrian companies. Let me pick out three ski & tennis companies and tell you a little bit about their history. One has to mention Head in the first place here I think, because Howard Head was one of the most ingenious and versatile sports engineers ever, having contributed a lot of innovations to both the ski and tennis industry. He founded the Head Ski Company in 1948 and sold it to AMF in 1969. The Head/AMF company made itself a name as racquet producer in the 70s, when they had American top star Arthur Ashe under contract. Howard Head then became majority share-holder and chairman of the board of Prince Man. Inc. Striving to improve his own poor gameplay, Head invented the first oversize racquet Prince Classic and obtained a patent in 1976 that covered tennis racquets with size 95-135 square inches. The Prince Classic, made of aluminium, was released to the market in 1976 and became and a very popular racquet. Howard Head also pioneered the development of the legendary Prince Graphite racquet, the first racquet solely made of graphite.
Another big name is German company Völkl that was founded already in 1880. However, it took almost a century until Völkl started constructing tennis racquets. Their first one was introduced in 1972: The legendary
Völkl Zebra - the first all-fiberglass tennis racquet ever available on the market. In the late 70s, the Servo Soft type became Völkl’s best selling racquet with more than 300,000 Servo Soft frames sold on the German market alone, pretty amazing. Now I’d like to turn to my personal vintage racquet brand #1 – Kneissl. This Austrian company is even older than Völkl, founded in 1861. Between 1919 and 1921, Franz Kneissl became the first to mass-produce skis. In 1932, Kneissl was renamed as “First Austrian Ski Company”. They expanded their range of products to tennis goods in the 70s and presented the first fully synthetic tennis racquet in 1978, the White Star Pro (head size +8%), a real silver bullet with previously unknown ball acceleration power and precision, impressively demonstrated by young Czech Ivan Lendl hammering himself way up to the top with the White Star Pro. It marked the beginning of a unique chapter in the graphite racquet era, being the prototype of a lot of follow-up models by both Kneissl and Adidas (Adidas racquets were produced by Kneissl until the early 80s) that basically remained unaltered over ten years until 1987, when the very last model of the White Star Pro / White Star Masters line was launched, the White Star Master 10. All these racquets, including the famous Adidas GTX Pro Ivan Lendl and GTX Pro-T Ivan Lendl frames, were more or less merely paintjobs of the White Star Pro prototype from 1978. Nowadays it is totally inconceivable that a newly developed racquet stays on the market almost unaltered for 10 years! The very last White Star type, the White Star Masters 10 racquet, also marked the definite end of the small-headed racquet era in 1987. Back then, the Masters 10 had already been kind of exotic, the last dinosaur.

 John McEnroe, Fred Perry shoes and Fila overall
John McEnroe, Fred Perry shoes and Fila overall

 

Other ski companies entering into the tennis industry were, as already mentioned by you, Rossignol (France) and Fischer (Austria). Not to forget Fila (Italy), but their tennis racquet episode lasted only a few years from the late 70s till 1984. Fila most obviously had bigger success with their tennis clothes, thanks to their flagship player Bjorn Borg, but also a lot of other prominent tennis professionals. To my mind, in the 70s and early 80s Fila in fact made the most beautiful tennis fashion ever seen on this planet. Italian sports fashion company ellesse never produced tennis racquets, but stepped from ski into tennis fashion in 1975. Just like Fila, Ellesse released a wide range of lovely classic tennis clothes until the mid eighties, also supported by many popular players such as Guillermo Vilas, Chris Evert and Boris Becker.

ADC: Obviously not only ski brands stepped into tennis as it became a more popular sport, but also sports brands like Puma, Le Coq Sportif, Diadora and Lotto followed Adidas into tennis and some of them even produced rackets, and even Yamaha and Kawasaki rackets could be bought. Which rackets do you consider the most characteristic ones of the Nastase Borg Mac Lendl era and which are the most collectible items and which the oddest ones?

Jens Wehrmeister: This is a wide field - one can easily mention twenty types of racquets here. In general, any racquet played by top stars like McEnroe, Connors, Borg or Lendl is considered a highly collectible vintage racquet. In 2008, I wrote an article for German Tennis Magazin that covered the ten most collectible 80s tennis racquets. Naturally such a top ten selection also is a subjective thing to a certain degree. The ten most collectible 80s I chose for that article were: Donnay Borg Pro, Adidas Ivan Lendl GTX Pro & Pro-T, Dunlop Max 200 G, Puma G.Vilas, Wilson Pro Staff Mid, Rossignol F 200, Prince Graphite and PG 110, Donnay Pro One and Boris Becker Worldchampion Racket (limited edition of 3,000 pieces). While the latter was released in the mid 90s, it merely was a paintjob of the Puma Boris Becker Super, so it has its roots in the 80s. The Puma Boris Becker Super of course is highly collectible, too, just like its precursor Boris Becker Winner. Other highly collectible and charismatic 80s racquets are e.g. Slazenger Vilas V-24 (played by Guillermo Vilas and Pat Cash), Kneissl Super Pro Vario, Le Coq Sportif Concept 3 Oversize (played by Yannick Noah) and Head Prestige Pro. And then there’s the Kuebler Resonanz R 50, the first widebody racquet ever, a big triumph of German engineering skills, invented by Siegfried Kuebler, an ingenious engineer who to this day has contributed a lot of essential innovations to the racquet industry. As for collectible wood racquets, Dunlop Maxply McEnroe certainly is another must-have.

 Vilas and Tiriac in ellesse
Vilas and Tiriac in ellesse

 

With regard to highly collectible racquets of the 70s, one certainly has to pick out the famous Vilsbiburger tennis racquet with double-stringing (“spaghetti strings”). This unusual racquet, invented by Bavarian Werner Fischer and released to the market in 1976, produced an incredible, erratic topspin and overnight enabled weak players to beat stronger players. It was also used by professionals, for example Ilie Nastase. When Guillermo Vilas met Nastase for the first time with his Vilsbiburger racquet in the best of five-set final of the 1977 Aix-en-Provence tournament, he dropped the first two sets by 6–1, 7–5 and then retired in protest of Nastase's use of the Vilsbiburger racquet. Thus Nastase snapped Vilas' world record 53-match winning streak on clay courts which stood until the record was broken by Rafael Nadal in 2006. “It was really the racket,” Vilas said. “I didn’t lose against a player, I lost against a racket.” He and his coach Ion Tiriac then used their big influence on the ITF, causing it to quickly ban the Vilsbiburger racquet.

 Pirelli Technort B1 racket, MacGregor and Myriac, Diadora ad
Pirelli Technort B1 racket, MacGregor and Myriac, Diadora ad

 

As for odd racquets, there were many around in the 70s and 80s… well, the Vilsbiburger racquet certainly is an odd one. Another remarkable odd racquet was the Snauwaert Ergonom (1983) with its angular head. The Hexon Aggressor (1982) also was an absolutely unusual racquet, just like the MacGregor Bergelin Long String (1986). You can find many more examples of oddish racquets on my website under http://80s-tennis.com/pages/oddities.html

ADC: Can you tell us about Barry Borg and his treasure?

Jens Wehrmeister: That’s a strange story, and a sad story unfortunately. He contacted me one day by email and offered to send me pics of his incredible Borg collection for publication on my website 80s-tennis.com which I happily accepted. It was a big pack of printed pics I received by post, but many of these were out of focus, covered only a part of the collector’s item or had a finger covering a part of the photo. I picked out the best ones and put them on the website and politely thanked Barry for his contribution, but also very kindly drew his attention to the fact that it was a pitty many of the pics were too bad for being published. Then he started acting crazy all of sudden, heavily cursing at me and abandoning the contact. He obviously is a guy who cannot bear any kind of criticism. I never came to know who he really is and how he managed to get his hands on all these Borg treasures. I only know he is living in the USA and announced to open a “Tennis Borg Museum”, but as far as I can see, this hasn’t happened yet.

 Barry Borg's treasure
the treasure of Barry Borg

 

ADC: There are many tennis collectors out there and lots of web-sites on the matter like www.raqueta.net from Spain, can you name a few more and tell us the stories behind them?

Jens Wehrmeister: I cannot tell you much about other racquet collector websites, that’s their job I think, but certainly about the vintage racquet collectors who are contributing to the racquet gallery on my website so busily. Collecting vintage racquets is a worldwide affair, I receive emails from all over the world. Many of these people are located in the USA, Asia and Italy. The typical vintage racquet collector is aged +40 and male. This is why I was so happy when Virginia, a collector from New Zealand with a great 300+ collection of racquets, got in touch with me. She has a great passion for 70s/80s racquets. Soon there was a second female contributor, Marina Gorena from Argentina. My main contributor is Massimo from Italy, a guy with immense dedication who has an amazing collection of virtually all 70s/80s vintage racquet must-haves – and they are all brand new, apart from a very few “only” mint exemplars! He keeps on sending in pics of newly bought racquets all the time, although already a year ago he declared that he considered his collection finished. But I think he has meanwhile realised that the next racquet never is the last racquet… There’s always one more racquet that he previously didn’t know or see and wants to add to his collection. Indeed, collecting vintage racquet is a matter of passion and nostalgy, many get heavily infected with the collector’s virus and can never stop. And why should they? Well, space often becomes an issue at a certain point… Other great collectors (and contributors to my site), I know are Bob (USA), Rodney (Australia), Jaap (The Netherlands) and Andrè (Belgium), amongst others. A big thank you to you and all the other contributors of my site!

ADC: What about vintage tournaments?

Jens Wehrmeister: I have to admit I never took part in any vintage tournament and also haven’t paid that much attention to this topic so far. I know that in several countries there are vintage tournaments in local tennis clubs sometimes, at which everybody has to use a wood racquet for example, and possibly also dress in authentic 70s/80s tennis apparel. I would like to organise a small vintage tournament one day and invite all my website contributors to this event. That would be a nice get-together.

 Fila racket
Fila racket

 

ADC: Tennis in Germany had a sudden boom with Boris Becker's win in Wimbledon, apparently in 1985 there was only one German journalist to cover Wimbledon, the year after almost every German news paper had someone there. What is the state of German tennis now, and what do you think are the reasons behind its current condition?

Jens Wehrmeister: I fear we will never experience this unique historic situation again in Germany that we had both an extraordinary male and extraordinary female champion at the same time from the mid 80s until the late 90s: Boris Becker and Steffi Graf. But the dominance of these superb players concealed the fact that there was not so much behind them, no other world’s no. 1 candidate, apart from Michael Stich, who ranked second in 1994 on the ATP world ranking and won Wimbledon in 1991. Before and after Boris and Steffi, German tennis produce many good players, but no champions. The male generation after Boris, led by Tommy Haas and Nicolas Kiefer, was quite promising and had much more potential than the female generation that came after Steffi. Haas managed to become world’s no. 2 and Kiefer world’s no. 4, but none of them has ever reached a Grand Slam final, to say nothing of winning at Grand Slam title. They both have been plagued by many severe injuries during their career, this certainly was a big hindrance. But it is most evident they both just don’t have Becker’s calibre. Presently Haas and Kiefer, both over 30, are once again back on the ATP tour, trying to gain ground again.

 Snauwaert Ergonom racket, Puma California shoe, Fila shorts
Snauwaert Ergonom racket, Puma California shoe, Fila shorts

 

Another veteran German player is Rainer Schüttler (32), who at least reached a Grand Slam Final in 2003, when he lost to Agassi at the Australian Open and ranked ATP no. 5, but only had this one outstanding season. After frustrating years with many injuries and round one losses, Schüttler had a marvellous comeback at Wimbledon 2008, when he surprisingly made it into the semis. The younger generation is lead by Philipp Kohlschreiber (25), a great technician, but inconsistent player who also lacks self-criticism. But this generation seems to be even weaker than the Haas/Kiefer generation. Not to mention the ladies – after Steffi Graf’s demission in 1999, the German ladies tennis has degenerated into total insignificance. I’m not an expert with contemporary German tennis, but some people complain that we don’t have a national elite youth training centre like the French have at the Roland Garros stadium in Paris that produced ambitious top ten players such as Tsonga, Monfils, Simon and Mathieu. In Germany, all of the 16 federal states do have their own elite youth training centre, and two of them even have two. There was an attempt in the past, though, to establish a national elite youth tennis centre in Hannover, but it didn’t work for some reasons and was abandoned in 2007.

ADC: In Sweden Tennis is currently suffering a low after the post Borg Wilander Edberg era, but sure there must have been a few brands coming from Sweden supporting the high times. Can you tell us something about those little known Swedish brands and also some details about Tretorn which at a certain point produced everything from shoes to racket and not only balls.

Jens Wehrmeister: Tretorn was constructing tennis racquets already in the 60s, when they released an odd metal racquet to the market that could be dismantled into single parts. But it didn’t succeed in the market, and also the other racquets produced by Tretorn in the 60s and 70s weren’t big sellers. The most popular tennis product manufactured by Tretorn to this day is their unpressurised tennis ball that lasts for ages. In the 70s and 80s, Tretorn had Bjorn Borg under contract, for some years, the Swede champion wore Tretorn tennis shoes at tournaments in the USA and Tretorn clogs all over the world. In the mid 80s, there was an advertising campaign with Borg praising unpressurised Tretorn tennis balls.

 Lacoste metal raquet
Lacoste metal racquet

ADC: Some rackets just seem to be timeless and somehow Connors is involved in one way or the other, the Wilson T2000 stemming from a much older Lacoste racket stepped through the ages thanks to him. When you think about the Wilson Pro Staff racket that Connors introduced in the early eighties and then went from Edberg to Sampras and Courier and eventually to Federer it seems like the game needed more than a decade to adapt to the sudden jump of technology that happened in the early eighties, the Prince Original Graphite has a similar story dating back to the early eighties and then passing through the hands of Agassi and Chang and still now there are players like Xavier Malisse using rackets based on it, also the Head Prestige rackets sure saw quite some paint jobs. Do you think the Babolat Pure Drive which also dates back some years to the Pro Kennex Destiny mold could have a similar story?

Jens Wehrmeister: Without a doubt, the Babolat Pure Drive already is a modern classic. There was a “The ten greatest racquets of all time“ article last year in Tennis Magazine that chose the Pure Drive as one of the ten greatest racquets ever. That caused a controversial discussion, as many people were complaining other racquets had more legitimation to be included in the top ten list. Frankly I didn’t know the Pure Drive dates back to the Pro Kennex Destiny mold… but I think you are right that its history is comparable to the one of the Wilson Pro Staff or Prince Original Graphite racquet.

 Fila rackets
Fila rackets

 

ADC: To a certain degree what Borg and Fila were in the seventies and early eighties, Agassi and Nike were in the late eighties and early nineties, introducing new colors and styles like the worn out jeans shorts, pirate bandana and black shoes, all things that Nadal took a couple of steps further. What do you consider the most remarkable or odd innovations in tennis equipment to surface in the nineties?

Jens Wehrmeister: Guess what? I really can’t tell. In the early 90s, I stopped playing competitive tennis, and tennis took a back seat, although of course I kept on watching tennis on television and played a little bit on an irregular basis. But I kind of overslept the nineties and developed my passion for vintage tennis as late as 2005, when I started collecting 80s tennis racquets and fashion pieces, gradually developing a real sense for tennis technology and fashion. But it is mainly focused on the 80s – “my era”, the decade in which I started playing tennis myself - and also the 70s. It is possible though, that I will shift to the 90s as well one day, rediscovering another era.

 Estusa
Estusa Boris Becker racket

 

ADC: One of the more obscure brands to surface in the nineties was Estusa with Becker and Connors, what is the story behind it and do you know of any similar corss overs like the Nordica one that for a short time in the early nineties appeared on the tennis courts with Anke Huber, and seemed to follow the path of the eighties ski brands.

Jens Wehrmeister: Let me focus on Estusa. Taiwanese “Estusa Corporation“ was founded in 1984 by Jackson Tse, a learnt aircraft engineer. The name Estusa is a combination of “Tse” spelled vice versa and “USA”. The company produced tennis, squash and racquet ball frames. Estusa tennis racquets were manufactured in a factory (1000 employees) in Taichung (Taiwan), 75,000 pieces per month in 1990. In 1987, the “Estusa” company presented itself at the International Sporting Goods Fair (ISPO) in Munich for the first time. But Estusa’s breakthrough on the European market did not happen before the company managed to contract Boris Becker in 1990 and one year later also Jimmy Connors. For a five years contract, Becker was supposed to pocket 12 million US$. But in the first contract year, Becker continued playing the Puma Boris Becker Super with the Estusa logo sprayed onto the strings - he wasn’t satisfied with the Estusa Boris Becker Advantech racquet prototypes that were developed for him. This was possible thanks to a respective clause in Becker’s contract. Estusa had promised to precisely rebuild the Puma Boris Becker Super racquet for him, and there was any reason to believe they would quickly fulfil this task, as the Taiwanese had secured the services of German Günter Adam, the former chief racquet engineer of Puma, creator of all the Puma racquets developed for Vilas and Becker! When he left Puma, Adam had secured the right to pass the licenses for the racquet patents he had invented on to another company. In the end, Becker totally abandoned the Boris Becker Advantech line and Adam succeeded in delivering an exact copy of the Puma BB Super when creating the Estusa Boris Becker ProVantech PB that also had the same design and colours, only the inscriptions were different. It was not before 1991 though that Becker finally switched to a real Estusa racquet, the BB ProVantech PB - but he played it only for four months, according to his longtime stringer Uli Kühnel. So the liason between Estusa and Boris Becker wasn’t meant to last very long, in 1992, the contract was cancelled early. Estusa Boris Becker Advantech and particularly Boris Becker Provantech PB racquets are highly collectible, just like the bright yellow Estusa Pro Legend Classic that is inseperably linked to Jimmy Connors’ sensational 1991 US Open appearance, when he made it into the semis at the age of 39.

ADC: For most people that own some vintage racquets or apparel there's hardly anything they would trade them for, even though they are not really of any practical use, which are your treasures and which are the ones you are still looking for?

Jens Wehrmeister: I own a lot of the collectible 70s/80s racquets mentioned above. But there’s a special collection within the collection, and that is my “White Star Pro frame like” collection, consisting of almost all +8%-10% head size Kneissl and all respective Adidas frames. Only one is missing: The white version of the Kneissl Super Pro Vario racquet! I’ve been searching for years, but cannot find it… if somebody owns one and wants to sell it, please don’t hesitate to contact me contact@80s-tennis.com . With regard to vintage tennis fashion, I have many nice Fila Borg Bj and Ellesse clothes that I mostly wear off-court, as 80s casual fashion. They are just too precious…

 Estusa ProVantech, Sergio Tacchini jumper, Kneissl White Star
Estusa ProVantech, Sergio Tacchini tank top, Kneissl White Star


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for off topic and live score talk etc. visit the Bar Veronica