By Ilangkumanan Kashaban
It’s January and for die-hard sports fans worldwide, that means it’s time for the Australian Open. Yes, it’s tennis time! The first grand slam tournament of the year has kicked off, leaving tennis enthusiasts waiting with bated breath to find out if Serbian sensation, Novak Djokovic will clinch his sixth Australian Open title and tie with Australian legend Roy Emerson for the most Australian Open titles won.
Watching a tennis match is exciting, and the same applies to learning how the game has evolved over time, especially in the terms of the Intellectual Property Rights related to the game, or more specifically patents. Generally, a game of tennis includes a court, racquets, a ball, and a net. That sounds simple enough, so it may be a surprise to some that numerous tennis patents have been filed for many aspects of this game. Let’s look at a few of them:
Lawn tennis, anyone?
Patents for tennis were filed even in the early 1800s. In the late 1800s, Major Walter Clopton Wingfield, a retired British military officer, obtained a patent (US Patent No. US157259) for the construction of a portable court, through which the game of tennis was simplified, could be played in open air, and did not need to have special courts created for that purpose. Prior to the invention, tennis had been more of an indoor game enjoyed by few on account of the huge expense of erecting a building. Considering these limitations, Major Wingfield invented a portable court (Fig. 1) so that tennis could be within reach for all, with the portable court needing just a few minutes to be set up on a lawn or in any suitable-sized open space, either indoors or outdoors.
The portable court is made by inserting two poles into the ground at about 21 feet from each other. Between these two poles, a large oblong net is stretched, with a triangular-shaped net attached to each of the poles so that the poles divide the triangular net into two right-angle triangles. The net becomes the dividing-wall of the court and the triangular nets become the wings or side walls, while the floor is marked with paint-colored cord or tape to serve as the boundaries of the court.
Different strokes for different folks
The different varieties of tennis shots (also called strokes) make tennis an interesting sport not just to watch, but also to play. Tennis shots can be classified into three different categories, firstly when the ball is hit (serve, groundstroke, volley, half volley), secondly how it is hit (smash, forehand, backhand, flat, side spin, block, slice, topspin shot), and finally where it is hit (lob, passing shot, drop-shot, cross-court shot, down-the-line shot). To be able to deliver reasonably accurate shots, body positioning and hand movements are vital.
Duane Stotland obtained a patent (US Patent No. US4948372) relating to an instructional aid to be used on a tennis court as a guide to proper player positioning relative to the bouncing point of the tennis ball.
After frequent experimentation and observation, Duane observed that in returning a majority of groundstrokes, the optimum positioning behind the bounce point of the tennis ball remains fairly constant. He also observed that there existed two optimum distances, one for returning a stroke hit from service line area (Fig. 2) and a second for returning a stroke hit from base line area (Fig. 3).
Generally, this invention helps tennis beginners through the specific placement of adhesive dots on the tennis court that allows them to visualize the optimum distances based on the ball’s bouncing point and adjust their positions accordingly for the return stroke, thereby greatly enhancing and accelerating their level of play.
In or out?
Another patented invention (US Patent No. US5908361) by J. R. Fisher, W. C. Booth and F. E. McInnis, involves a system for determining the position of a ball striking a court. More precisely, it is a system that determines whether a ball is in or out of play. The system comprises of a sonar-like sound system combined with a pressure-sensitive system located on the court surface.
The sound system utilizes microphones and certain means to detect and analyse the sounds identified as balls striking the court surface. Once the sound system indicates that the ball is bouncing near or on a boundary line, the pressure system with its sensing elements is used to precisely detect the location of the ball. This invention definitely helps ensure the game is fair and square, as it prevents human errors in determining whether a ball is in or out of play.
In the nick of time
S. B. Crosby, Sr. is another individual with an intriguing contribution to tennis. He came up with a tennis watch (Fig. 4) that doesn’t only tell the time and date (chronograph mode), but also keeps track of the scores and game stats of a tennis match, such as the number of games played and the number of aces served in a game, set, and match instantly at the press of a few buttons (tennis mode) while playing a match (US Patent No. US7773461).
Stop that racquet!
Tennis racquets may look similar, but Wilson Sporting Goods Co. clearly believes they are not, as the company recently obtained a patent (US Patent No. US 9089743 B2) for a racquet with fewer cross strings (side to side) than main strings (up and down). The racquet consists of a lightweight, durable frame extending along an elongated axis with a head and a handle connected to each other by a throat, and a string bed (where the aforementioned cross strings and main strings interlace) attached to the head. Through the specific configuration of the racquet – which includes various aspects such as the shape of the head, positioning and optimized spacing of the string, and increased snap back speed and deflection of the strings upon impact with a ball – players using these racquets will be able to hit with more spin to the ball, increasing spin rates and improving the player’s ability to hit harder and faster.
Barely scratching the surface of tennis patents
The above-mentioned inventions barely scratch the surface of patents in the tennis world. Let’s not forget the tennis balls, shoes, automated line system and kinesiology tape commonly used by players. This definitely quashes any assumptions that tennis is just a simple game. As we look at these various inventions, it is mesmerizing and encouraging to see the continuous developments and efforts of so many people to elevate the game of tennis to a whole new level.
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