It's all very sporting, but isn't it time we made a new racquet?

What’s the point of running fast for a random track length, say, 100m? And, even more bizarrely, running fast on the same track while jumping over 10 hurdles? Even as the hurdle race is one of my favourite track and field events.Questions about the ‘point’ of a competition don’t have simple answers. But this is the wrong time to ask them with a hectic period of sporting activity about to start. Olympics, Euro, T20 World Cup, they’re all scheduled over the next few months.

The Olympics has grown to include 33 sports in 2020 from 9 in the 1896 inaugural games. One marvels at the human ability to devise multiple methodologies to test capabilities along the dimensions of the Olympics’ original ‘Citius, Altius, Fortius,’ motto. The governing thought behind most sports is a display of these essential attributes:

Physical: Speed, stamina, strength, flexibility and control/precision.

Mental: Analytical ability and memory.

Psychological: Teamwork and reaction to pressure.Straight-up speed, stamina and strength tests, such as races, jumps, wrestling, boxing and weight lifts, have minimal rules. These disciplines, however, don’t fully test the precision dimension. Introducing an object that must be hit or guided opens many possibilities to make this display of control and precision complicated and entertaining.Adding an object to be hit brings tremendous variety, because the different types of balls, discs and pucks that can be hit, need bats and sticks to be hit with, and nets and goals to be hit over or into, each with its own variety. This mushrooming of different sports, starting with just the simple concept of hitting an object into a target, is remarkable.

And yet, recent meaningful innovation within individual games has been almost non-existent.

Among the main racket sports – tennis, badminton, table tennis and squashbadminton and squash are played with an object designed to slow down. Badminton is a rare sport that uses a feathered object. The ball used in squash is unique in that it can be ‘squashed’ between two fingers, such that the two opposite sides touch.

The origin of these sports dates back many centuries. Badminton dates back two millennia. The origin stories are, of course, not verified. But it is possible that boredom with the then-existing tools and rules drove some initiatives to add more variety to the games. For example, squash originated in a school in England in the early 1800s when the boys playing the game noticed that a punctured ball – and, thereby, more ‘squashable’ – created more variation in play.

These changes do add a remarkable variety to these games. The feathered shuttle allows players to display a wide range of shots – from a gentle touch at the net that barely results in the shuttle moving forward to a fully powered smash. The fastest smash has been measured at a shuttle speed of 550-plus kmph. (The fastest tennis serve is of around 250 kmph.) Players utilise the squishiness of the squash ball by exploiting the squash court’s corners and the bottom part of the wall.

Badminton and squash brought this novelty of slowing down the object to be hit. Since then, there has been minimal change in these and other racquet sports. It’s time for some changes.

A routinely discussed point is the need to introduce more variety into tennis, a game that has seen the slow death of net play and nuanced shot-making giving way to baseline power hitting. A natural hurdle to change is the impact it has on the preparation and youth training routines in the ecosystem. The innovation must be subtle enough that the game’s main elements survive, yet meaningful enough that it impacts the style of play.

Rapid innovation would lead to the birth of a new game -such as pickleball, which borrows elements from table tennis, tennis and badminton. As long as all sports have the same point and purpose (or none at all), some tweaks to the old games would be refreshing.


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