She was only 16, only 16, already a 6-footer, and from Baltimore, not exactly the cradle of tennis champions. "I was a pretty unusual package," Pam Shriver was saying the other day, thinking back to the late summer of 1978, when she became the youngest U.S. Open finalist ever.
Her racket was the strangest part of it all, though. She just had to walk onto a court at the Open and the crowds started humming. Her racket was . . . was . . . just amazing. It was this big butterfly net laced up tightly with acres and acres of string. A racket on steroids. A mutant.
It was radical, much the same as Cal Ripken wearing a glove with 2-foot fingers, or swinging a bat the width of a telephone pole. Tennis rackets had been the same for a century. No one had seriously challenged the design.
"It's been maybe 10 years since I saw a tape of the match," Shriver said of her loss in the finals to Chris Evert, "but I remember Virginia Wade talking about the racket on the broadcast. She was talking about how it just sounded so different, and how the ball stayed on the racket so long."
Tennis would never be the same. Within five years of Shriver's trip to the finals, every pro was using an oversized or midsized racket. Today, you can't even buy an old, standard racket. They are antiques from a day when the game was slower and gentler. Evolution has occurred. The game has changed forever.
It all happened because of Howard Head, who designed the racket for Shriver. A weekend hacker, he kept hitting balls on his racket's wooden throat, so he started tinkering with ideas, concepts. He died last weekend at 76, his place in the his
tory of the sport singular and immense.
"I guess we made an odd couple back then," said Shriver, who remained friendly with Head until his death. "Opposite sexes, 50 years apart. He had an ingenuity you seldom run across. I wish I had been older. I came to appreciate him much more as I got older. Back then, to me, it was just like, 'Wow, who is this bald-headed guy?' "
Head had approached Don Candy, Shriver's coach, in the summer of 1976, after working on the new design for a couple of years. They put one in Shriver's hand and sent her out on the court in Candy's back yard. She was 14, a junior champion.
"I don't even think the racket had a name on it," she said. "It was just this prototype. I was as open-minded about it as any young person could be expected to be. Obviously, my coach had a lot of influence. I never went back to the old racket."
She went out on the junior circuit with it. "Tracy Austin told me I was out of my mind," she said. "Some people said it had to be illegal. Mostly, they just made jokes. They said it
was a snowshoe. A trampoline. Howard was with me for a couple of years. I remember him watching me play in the national juniors."
The racket was out on the market by then, but it was a novelty, used mostly by older players looking for extra power. Only after Shriver reached the Open final did the pros begin paying attention. They discovered a racket that offered that power without diminished control.
It was miracle of physics. The racket used only 60 percent more string than the old one, but the "sweet spot," the middle, the part where most balls were hit, was three times as large. Players got to more balls, hit more balls better and hit everything harder. The speed of the game multiplied.
"When I made the Open final, there were only three pros using it, as far as I knew," Shriver said. "Ion Tiriac was another. I remember seeing a copy of the sales chart after I made the final. It was one big climb."
Head had designed the racket with hackers in mind, and it did make the game more accessible to millions. But the impact on the pro game was enormous. Rackets of all shapes and sizes appeared. Power became the essence. It still is.
"Howard was very humble about having had such an impact on the sport, basically reinventing it," Shriver said. "The truth was that he really just wanted to play better himself. It all grew out of that."
Ironically, he never did reach the level he wanted.
"There really wasn't anything he could do to make him play at a super-high level," Shriver said. "It was like, 'OK, now I've redone the racket, what else can I do?' I think he felt some frustration about that. He didn't ever conquer it."
It was one of his few failures. This was a man who made his fortune bringing snow skiing out of the Stone Age, designing the aluminum ski. He also tinkered with new designs for scuba equipment.
"It was so simple," Shriver said. "He figured that sports could be made easier, and he just went out and did it. It was a dream, and he had the thought and resources to pull it off. What he did for tennis, it's incredible. It certainly took an original mind."