Will’s World Handles With Care

By Will Carlin

Just before the start of the 1921 Wimbledon finals, the two opponents— Philadelphia’s “Big Bill” Tilden and Brian Norton from South Africa—posed for a photograph.

Norton wore a thick camel hair coat with large light-colored buttons. In the style of the day, he had the oversized coat collar turned up. Though the coat was almost assuredly expensive, its look was countered by an overfilled right pocket that bulged out from Norton’s waist and by big, baggy sleeves that were folded back as if Norton hadn’t had time to have the coat tailored.

Tilden, on the other hand, was dressed in a perfectly fitted bright white v-neck sweater trimmed with thick navy blue stripes around the collar, the wrists and the waist. The neckline of his long-sleeved white button down shirt was visible, and his white canvas pants had a single pleat. Known to pay considerable attention to his appearance, Tilden looked resplendent.

In Norton’s right hand are two tennis racquets. It is hard to see the handles in the photograph, but it looks like one of them has strips of white tape on it. If true, this would be slightly remarkable for the time, for it was still another few years before anything regularly started to cover racquet handles. For most of Tilden’s era, there were no grips, and the handles were all wood.

It wasn’t until the 1920’s that leather started to appear, and when it did, you couldn’t really call it a grip; initially, leather was wrapped around the base of the handle as a type of flange largely to prevent the hand from sliding too far down the racquet as hand and handle became sweaty.

As more and more players began using leather on their racquets, the leather crept steadily upward, serving less as an outcropping and more as a grip. Racquets, however, were still sold “bare” well into the 30’s. This was true not only for tennis, but also for squash.

In fact, in a photograph taken of Donald Butcher and Charles Read just before they played the first British Open squash final in 1931, sharp-eyed viewers can see that Butcher’s racquet has a leather grip and the slightly older Read’s handle is all wood. Perhaps it is not unrelated that Butcher won the match.

When young players first start playing squash, most hate being shown the grip; they just want to hit the ball. As they get better and better, however, the importance of the grip increases dramatically. This is true in any sport where an implement is used to hit a ball; in perhaps the greatest book ever written on golf, “The Modern Fundamentals of Golf,” Ben Hogan wrote 19 pages on just the grip. 19 pages.

In squash, a sport where a fraction of an inch can be the difference between a Ramy Ashour winner and a tin, the grip is one of the most important elements in determining the angle of the racquet as it impacts the ball. Better players always have hated to have the racquet slip, even slightly, during impact.

With leather as the only option for forty years or so, there were scores of white shirts ruined as players used them to wipe dry dirty leather grips between points. That’s not to say, however, that there weren’t differences among grips; some were made with pliable leather (“for a more comfortable feel”) and others had a thin extra strip of leather sewn beneath the main grip to provide a tiretread- like feel for better traction.

As some players began making racquet decisions based significantly on the feel of its grip, some manufacturers began to market themselves (Fairway Grips, for example, used to include little certificates in the form of tags to be attached to racquets so that their owners would know that it had been “Fitted with a Fairway Grip— The Best Grips in the World”).

Along the way, players tried putting things on their leather grips to increase tackiness. Resin, glue, honey, tar, sawdust and spit all were tried, but it was gauze that had staying power. In fact, it was once the height of cool to have some green gauze on top of your leather grip (sometimes, in an unknowing nod to Tilden’s initial use of leather, only at the grip’s base).

\In the early 70’s, there was a momentary surge in towel grips. Made of terrycloth, they were large and fluffy at first, but they absorbed sweat very well and after a single match, they had almost molded to the player’s hand. The trouble was that after a few uses they lost much of their appeal, and after they dried, they often became hard and brittle.

In 1977, everything changed with the introduction of Tourna-Grip. The light blue overgrip was the first that was thin enough not to radically change the grip’s dimensions, but absorbent enough to handle sweat effectively. In addition, it could be changed much more easily than trying to change an entire grip. It was everywhere for a long time, and it still is used today by a number of loyalists.

Today, overgrips are soft, padded, clothlike and tacky. Most are exceptional, and it is only under extreme circumstances that they start to slip in a player’s hand.

Racquet technology usually gets the credit for the increase in shotmaking in squash, and there is no doubt that it has radically changed the game. It is surely not a coincidence, though, that the greatest shotmakers also started emerging just as overgrips emerged.

If Ramy’s grip, for example, sometimes slipped as he went for one of his trademark nicks, he surely would make more errors. And if he made more errors, he might just decrease the number of times that he tried such a shot. And if he went for them fewer times, would he be as scintillatingly good at making them?

C’mon, get a grip.