Column: The people behind tennis in the U.S.
Originally Published: November 14, 2007 5:59 p.m.
Wilson, Head and Prince are currently three of the main tennis racquet manufacturers in the United States and hold a major share of racquets sold in the world. Just who are they, and how did they acquire that status?Over the past century, more than 30 tennis racquet manufacturers have come and gone; some well known like Bancroft, T.A. Davis, Dayton Steel, and the E. Kent Company. Mergers, acquisitions and other shifting social and economic conditions have helped create and expand the market for sporting goods manufacturers.A New York banking firm hired a man by the name of Thomas E. Wilson to take over the Ashland Manufacturing Company that had gone into receivership in 1914. Previously it had made violin strings, surgical sutures, and strings for tennis racquets, all byproducts of animal slaughter.Wilson hired E.C. Seaton (who worked for Spalding for 12 years) to become a manager of the newly acquired company. Seaton convinced Wilson there was money in the sporting goods business and through his contacts set the wheels in motion to guide them in that direction.By 1931 the name changed to the Wilson Sporting Goods Company, even though Thomas Wilson left the company in 1918.In 1931, tennis champion Ellsworth Vines became the first tennis consultant hired by Wilson and stayed with them until 1947. Jack Kramer became an advisor in 1947 (and still is today) helping to design tennis equipment. More than 10 million autographed Jack Kramer tennis racquets were sold during the next 30 years.The company has changed hands many times but seems to continue to land on its feet, with current tennis players representing them such as Roger Federer, Serena and Venus Williams, Justine Henin and Novak Djokovic.The next two major tennis companies have an unusual story because they were both created/purchased by an aeronautical engineer named Howard Head.Head, while learning to ski in 1947, was frustrated with the quality of the clumsy and heavy wooden skis. He soon developed a lighter and more efficient ski consisting of two light layers of aluminum bonded to sidewalls of thin plywood, with a center filling of honeycomb plastic.One thing led to another and Head founded the Head Ski Company in 1950. Later they ventured into tennis and other racquet sports.He used a similar solution to improving tennis racquets, making the Arthur Ashe racquet, which became very popular.The company thrived in many ways and in 1971 the then-60 year old multi-millionaire sold the company and decided to take up the game of tennis.Once again he became frustrated, finding the racquets too difficult to hit the ball squarely with such a small hitting surface. Head spent two years designing an oversized racquet to replace the traditional wood one, patented it in 1975 and decided to try manufacturing and selling it himself.He purchased a company called Prince that was founded in 1970 that built tennis-throwing machines, successful to a small degree. Then with his new racquet, now called the Prince Classic, he slowly but surely revolutionized the tennis industry. By 1980, Prince controlled 30 percent of the entire tennis racquet market.All of these companies have gone on to be bought and sold, and had their ups and downs in the market, but are still going strong today.(Chris Howard is a local USPTA Tennis Professional with over 30 years in the racquet and fitness industry. He can be reached at 928-445-1331 or email@example.com)