Pickleball Points: Caveat emptor

Date Published: 
Feb. 2, 2018

I finally have to speak my mind about some of the ridiculous commentary about pickleball paddles on social media.

Modern pickleball paddles are constructed of the same materials used in tennis racket construction, and their inherent playability characteristics are the same in both. However, I keep reading paddle reviews that would suggest otherwise, and my concern is that the so-called “experts” are, perhaps intentionally, confusing the average pickleballer.

Step back a moment.

The first tennis rackets were wood, and the first major innovation in tennis rackets occurred in the late 1940s, when various wood laminates were used to strengthen and improve playability.

Although Wilson has since been sold multiple times, I was fortunate to join Wilson Sporting Goods in the ’70s, when Pepsi Cola purchased them and invested significant money into R&D. At the same time, Pepsi hired a bright eyed young engineer named Doug Dempsey as the Wilson engineer then responsible for Wilson’s technology and R&D.

One of my jobs at Wilson was to play test every competitive racket, as well as every R&D racket. Our friendship grew because Demsey wanted to understand more about tennis playability expectations, and I wanted to learn more about racquet engineering.

Thanks to Pepsi, Doug’s R&D budget was bigger than the sales of some tennis companies, and it might have been the most extensive period of racket R&D.

According to Dempsey, “The Wilson Stan Smith/Jack Kramer Autograph racquets were the evolved perfection of the utilization of the material wood for tennis racquets. That said, it took every ounce of the approximately 13 ounces of the basic structure to be sufficiently strong. On a typical laboratory fatigue tester, this resulted in a life of approximately four (4) hours, or 14,000 impacts.”

Aerospace materials were then offered to manufacturers of sporting goods, but a piece of performance sport equipment made of these new materials could not just be stronger, it had to outperform their wood counterparts to justify the cost of change. Doug believed that a product should be designed to take advantage of the new materials, and not copy old designs.

As he immersed himself in these new materials, Doug realized the average consumer and the pro-level player were each looking for different things. The consumer wanted the magic bullet to help their game, while the pro wanted the product to do with the ball exactly as he/she demanded. It was in this spectrum that the good engineer had to find the answer.

The following example is just a peek at the playability challenge in sports equipment.

The year Stan Smith and Billie Jean King each won their respective tennis singles championship titles with their Wilson rackets, 1972, I asked them both for quotes for a planned Wilson advertisement. Although they had slightly different cosmetics, the rackets they used had the exact same racket construction.

One told me they liked their racket because it was flexible, and the other said they liked it because it was not flexible. As it turned out, one perceived flexibility as what the entire racket did at impact, while the other perceived flexibility as to what happens within the head of the racket. Both were correct.

Notice that their concerns were playability, not durability.

Doug brought me a R&D graphite-composite tennis racket prototype years before a successful graphite racket ever was introduced to the market. Before a new product was offered, we first play-tested it internally to determine if it enhanced playability. If so, we might have it play-tested for performance attributes by 50 or a hundred top national professionals, and blind consumer product-tested at famous tennis camps around the country.

By the time of a new product introduction, we knew everything about that product, both technically and from a playability point of view.

Doug went on to say, “As a direct result of the phenomenal properties of these new aerospace materials, new performance characteristics became possible. A graphite /epoxy composite tennis racquet structure weighing only 7 ounces might provide 10 times the fatigue-life of wood construction!”

He pointed out that composites provided new benefits, such as the possibility of increased power, foam comfort grips, stabilizing weights buried within the structure, areas of different stiffness to maximize force transmission or reduce vibration and even provide the same performance characteristics of other materials at lower cost.

But composites added not only benefits but aerospace buzzwords that could be used by copycat manufacturers to confuse tennis consumers.

In 1984, about the same time composite tennis rackets were finding their own benefits, an engineer at Boeing, tired of wood pickleball paddles, created the first composite pickleball paddle using scrap honeycomb material used in aircraft production, and subsequently formed Pro-Lite Pickleball Paddles.

Today, their Titan and SuperNova are good examples of just how far composite technology in pickleball paddles has advanced over the last three decades.

It probably went like this: An engineer designed, and then selected, aligned and sandwiched certain materials in the SuperNova with the idea to achieve specific playability benefits which were suggested by a pro player.

So, with this history and decades of experience, please understand why I cringe when I hear and read what the “experts” are saying and repeating about pickleball paddle construction.

Let’s start with the English language. A composite is “a thing made up of several parts or elements.” A paddle with a graphite facing is a composite as much as a paddle with a fiberglass facing. There is no such thing as a graphite paddle versus a composite paddle.

And the materials used to produce these paddles can come in varying qualities, just like the quality of these internet product reviews. A reviewer shouldn’t say something like, “Graphite has a softer touch but smaller sweetspot” until they explain variables, such as the quality of the graphite, composition of the core, design reinforcements, head shape and weight distribution.

In fact, it is beyond me what kind of paddle design with graphite could give both “soft touch and a small sweet spot.”

Many pickleball consumers are retired and living on limited budgets, so I ask you, the “experts,” to do a better job explaining product characteristics.

Secondly, I ask those manufacturers who produce junk paddles with inferior materials simply to meet a lower price point to desist, as inferior paddles only dampen enthusiasm for this great game. The shock generated from cheap graphite can cause “pickle elbow,” and I have hit with some cheap graphite composite paddles that I was afraid would loosen my fillings or break my elbow.

I understand the pickleball industry has grown leaps and bounds to support the growth of players, but consumers deserve better. Our old-fashioned formula was simple: Make a better product and people will decide to buy it, and there is no need for exaggerated or misleading claims.

I want to thank my friend Doug Dempsey, the patent-holder on the Composite Perimeter Weighted System, for coming out of retirement to help me explain the technical side of tennis racket construction for this article. Dempsey was responsible for R&D at Wilson, and later VP of Technology/Operations at Huffy Bicycle.

I worked in the influential “Tennis Promotion” department at Wilson, which was the face of Wilson in the ’70s, where we, among a variety of other key functions, recruited the top tennis players from around the world.

As director of Court Sports, I went on to introduce Wilson Tennis to Europe, Africa and the Middle East. I later introduced the then new oversized Prince Composite Tennis Racket to Europe, and still later a complete line of composite Wimbledon Tennis Rackets around the world.

I periodically consulted via my Baker Company with other tennis companies, including Spalding, Snauwaert, Donnay, Tacchini, Fila, the USTA and the Association of Tennis Professionals.

Vaughn “The Baron” Baker is a Senior Olympics gold-medalist in pickleball, and is public relations director for the First State Pickleball Club (FSPC) and captain of the Ocean View Crew pickleball community. He spent his career working with top tennis professionals while working for Wilson Sporting Goods and introducing the Prince Tennis Racket and Wimbledon Tennis Lines. For more information, visit PickleballCoast.com.