|There was a time (still familiar to those of us of a certain age) when tennis balls flew off racquets made of wood. This required a greater precision of contact than today. The sweet spot was smaller. Power was harder to generate. Serve-and-volley was preeminent. It was a game of finesse, not brute force. The leading players were ballerinas, not sluggers. They sparred like pirates, jousting across a deck of grass or clay.
However, the early wooden racquets were brittle and dry. They broke. Enter in the 1930s America’s Theophilus Anthony Davis. He applied the cross-grain construction common to airplanes of the day (he was an accomplished pilot) and incorporated wood with high moisture content. These extraordinarily attractive racquets, like airplane wings, would bend but not break.According to the Ultimate Tennis Book, “Davis perfected the wooden assembly” of tennis racquets. He employed the techniques of plane construction–flexible yet strong–to build some of the world’s finest tennis racquets and surely among the most beautiful.
The result was a TA Davis (TAD) racquet that was equally akin to a work of art as it was an implement to propel a tennis ball. Racquet names such as the “Classic,” “Imperial” and “Olympiad” did not overstate their regality. Art deco signage and Greek frieze symbols adorned their frames.
The wood for these racquets was sourced from maple trees in the Adirondack mountains of New England, 3,000 miles from sunny southern California where they were constructed. It took three months to make a TAD racket.
The company’s location in Hollywood also gave the company close proximity to an eclectic mix of tennis-crazed celebrities such as Charlie Chaplin, numerous amateurs and pros, as well as the aviation wizards who inspired its innovations in wood-racquet design.
Descendent Todd Davis, keeper of his family’s illustrious tennis history, today plays out of the Lost Creek Country Club in Barton Creek. When we met, he generously brought two large boxes of memorabilia and his museum quality collection of TAD racquets, each more stunning and interesting than the other.
Todd recounts that, by the late 1970s and early 1980s, changes in racquet technology were advancing. Artificial materials were rapidly replacing wood in racquet construction. His forbearers eventually responded with their own fiberglass-infused racquet; but it was too little too late. By 1981, Todd’s father (for) and his partner (against) could not agree on converting to metal or graphite, says Todd. Moreover, they had pridefully rejected the prevailing marketing strategy of paying pros to play with their racquets. Eventually, the Davis family’s role in the business that bears their name dissolved.
The demise of TA Davis racquets is unfortunate but not tragic. To my knowledge, Rembrandt had no heir who furthered his masterpieces. Nor did Raphael have a successor. This was a family, an American business, and an expression of exquisite workmanship that will forever be a part of tennis history. No king of the court, no matter how noble, reigns forever. But what a reign it was.