The year was 1995, racquet technology had already begun to move toward longer tennis racquets. Tennis racquets had been always made to a length of 27 inches. This being the standard length for most tennis racquets was constant across the industry. Manufacturers have been always trying to find new ways to design racquets to help players improve their game. Starting in the early seventies, racquet companies introduced racquets with larger head sizes, then came the wide body racquet which help players with slower swing speeds generate more power. Now adding to the length of a tennis racquet seemed to be the next new breakthrough. Racquet companies began to introduce new racquets with anywhere from a quarter inch to 2 inches of extra length.
How Big Bubba was MadeAs extended length racquets became the new craze manufacturers were rushing to get their version into the market. In a lot cases, companies would add length to an existing model and call it the XYZ long body. No one knew at the time what the extra length offered in terms of an added performance benefits to the player. Meanwhile at GAMMA Sports, we were taking a different approach to designing a longer racquet. The company’s founder, Dr. Harry Ferrari, and his lead engineer, Ron Carr, upon reading the ITF rule book, found that the longest allowable racquet length was 32 inches long and the largest allowable headsize was 137 square inches. Dr. Ferrari’s thinking was: If we are going to go long and big, let’s go all the way. Let’s create a racquet that will create a buzz around the tennis industry. Little did we know that the racquet we were designing would lead to a major rule change by the International Tennis Federation (ITF).
The original Big Bubba racquet was made using 100% Ultra High Modulus Graphite Fiber. It was a very stiff yet light racquet having a weight of 9.5 ounces despite being 32 inches long and a head size of 137 inches. The goal was to make the racquet light enough so players of all levels could swing it since it was 5 inches longer than the standard 27-inch racquet length. After several months of testing, we had the racquet we wanted and it was ready to be launched into the market.
The Big Bubba was recommended for players with short controlled strokes who needed a racquet with maximum power potential. Compared to typical 27-inch long oversize racquets, the Big Bubba provides over 25% more power, twice the sweet spot area, up to 35% more court coverage, over 30% greater serving accuracy, and up to 10% greater topspin. In our minds, we thought we designed the perfect racquet for the club player looking for the ultimate game improvement racquet. Little did we know that there was a storm brewing on the horizon.
Changing the Tennis Industry
Gamma launched the Big Bubba in the winter of 1996. It was an instant success. Everyone wanted to try the big racquet with the funny name. We could not keep the racquet in stock. To meet the consumer demand for the Big Bubba, we had to arrange air shipments of the racquets shipped into our warehouse. Being a small family owned tennis company that was more known for the GAMMA premium string line, it was exciting to have a racquet that was in such high demand. The buzz around the Big Bubba was so great it started to capture the attention of not only the club players but tournament players wanting to give it a try to see what all the hype was about. Tennis pros wanted to see if what they heard about the racquet was true. Could they increase their serve speed along with their serving accuracy?
While all of this excitement was going on with the Big Bubba and other long body racquets in the tennis market, the ITF began to take notice. It became public that the bosses at the ITF feared that a racquet like the Big Bubba would have a negative impact on the game of tennis. There were people in the industry calling the Big Bubba the “Frankenstick”.The ITF feared the extra-long racquets would be so powerful they’d reduce the game to a boring fast-serving and quick-kill-shot contest. “We don’t want all the tennis players at the club serving like [Mark] Philippousis with nobody being able to return the ball,” said then ITF President Brian Robin, referring to the Mark’s blazing service missiles. “We believe [we] are correct, but we’re not able to prove [it].” The ITF decided to reduce maximum length to 29 inches, effective 1997 for league players and effective 2000 for pros. Within months of launching the Big Bubba, it would be deemed illegal for use in sanctioned league and tournament use.
The publicity generated by the Big Bubba and the ITF rule change and caught the attention of a reporter at ABC news. An avid tennis player news correspondent Mike Von Fremd reached out to GAMMA Sports to do a story about the Big Bubba for ABC World News. Mike visited the GAMMA offices and interviewed Dr. Ferrari and Ron Carr. Through the interview, we could tell our side of the story and let the world know that we were very disappointed with the ITF’s decision to ban all racquets over 29 inches long. Especially since they could not prove that the top players with big serves would take over the game. The story aired on ABC’s World News Tonight on September 4th, 1996.
Since the change in the ITF rule, GAMMA has introduced new Big Bubba racquets at the maximum length of 29 inches long. Currently GAMMA offers the RZR Big Bubba that still has the largest legal headsize of 137 square inches and a length of 29 inches. The original Big Bubba has become a collector’s item on Ebay and other tennis collectable sites. It was nice that for one brief moment a racquet created in Pittsburgh PA was the center of such a hot issue in the world of tennis.