This article is part of FT Globetrotter’s series on the joy of tennis
Tennis toys are a bit like sex toys: until you ask around, you don’t realise how common they are.
When I mention tennis gadgets to the ladies I play doubles with, one pulls out a weighted silver chain that measures the correct height (91.4cm) at the centre of the net. Another shows me her tennis-training app, and describes the massage gun and portable ball machine she has at home.
I’m a gadget sceptic: I generally avoid anything that requires reading an instruction manual or risks becoming household clutter. But as I struggle to improve my tennis game, and recover after it, perhaps some new tech will be worth it? To find out, I assembled a collection of gizmos — from eco-friendly tennis balls to vibrating trousers — and gave them a whirl.
I went from not quite seeing the point of this contraption to becoming practically addicted to it. The Topspin Pro is a vertical nylon screen surrounding a tennis ball on a spring. You hit the ball and then slide your racket along the screen to get your muscles to memorise the correct angle for topspin forehands and backhands. (If you’ve ever been told to “brush the ball”, that’s the motion this teaches; it’s far steeper than I’d realised).
South African tennis coach and entrepreneur Phillip Hofmeyr developed the prototype for the Topspin Pro using a hula hoop and a coat hanger. The current version — which he says sold 20,000 units last year — fits into a compact pouch and takes about two minutes to assemble. Company videos show players using it on the court, but I pushed aside some furniture in my office and now practice strokes between sessions at my desk. I can feel the difference when I’m playing for real. £129, topspinpro.com
Wilson Triniti Pro tennis balls
If you don’t yet feel guilty about your tennis-ball consumption, you should: the world consumes more than 300mn annually, plus the 125mn single-use plastic sleeves they’re packaged in, estimates Jason Collins, Wilson’s senior director of global product.
The company’s partial solution is Triniti Pro: longer-lasting balls that come in a non-pressurised, recyclable paper sleeve. The balls need less pressure because of a polymer added to the core, and a new “stretch felt” exterior is meant to improve how they feel to hit. They cost about 50 per cent more than regular balls, but Wilson says they maintain their bounce four times longer.
The new balls sound different: there’s no satisfying whoosh when you crack open the can, and they have more “thud” than “ping” off the racket. But they seem to bounce as well as regular balls, and there’s the energising jolt that comes from knowing you’re destroying the planet a bit less. Collins urges players to try Triniti Pros more than once. “The first time, your reaction is ‘oh’. By the second or third time, people get hooked.” I’m open to switching, but I need to make sure that my tennis partners are, too. From £11 per ball sleeve, wilson.com
Dario — my tennis teacher in Madrid — assembled this contraption from equipment sold by a Spanish firm, Amaya, which makes gear for rhythmic gymnastics. (Perhaps he was tired of reminding his students to bend their knees.)
Picture a three-hook belt and ankle straps, connected along the back of each leg by a powerful elastic band that won’t let you straighten your legs. (To make this yourself, be sure to choose bands that are four or five inches shorter than the distance from just above your ankles, to the tops of your legs.) You waddle uncomfortably on to the court, then practise playing in the same crouched position as the pros. It’s a relief when you finally take off the harness, and you’re at least aware of how far your knees usually are from the correct position. ritmica-amaya.com
Functional Tennis Saber
The Saber is a tennis racket with a shrunken head that trains you to hit the ball on the “sweet spot” — the area in the string bed that delivers the most punch. It’s the latest creation from the makers of another sweet-spot trainer, an all-wooden paddle called the Original Tennis Pointer. The new version is easier to play with because it has strings and a larger hitting surface. Dario immediately declared it una maravilla for teaching. It didn’t revolutionise my game (I think I was already mostly hitting the sweet spot). But like wearing two swimsuits before a race, or swinging with two baseball bats before going up to the plate, hitting with the Saber did make using a regular racket seem much easier. €149.95, functionaltennis.com
Slinger Bag ball machine
I hadn’t played tennis against a machine since the 1980s, so I was surprised when balls shot out of the Slinger with powerful topspin — more than almost anyone I play with can muster.
Slinger is the brainchild of a Canadian tennis enthusiast and entrepreneur who saw a market niche for a machine that club players could both afford and hoist in and out of their cars. It’s a 15kg rechargeable box on wheels, which also cleverly has a phone charger and slots for rackets and gear. It releases the 144 balls in its hold with a pleasingly throaty thump.
It takes a few tries to position the Slinger and adjust its ball speed (an oscillator tray is part of the extras package). Once set up, its challenging shots are good training. And a ball machine might be the ultimate pandemic-era sporting companion: the company says that since launching in March 2020, it has sold more than 40,000 units worldwide. But the Slinger probably isn’t for me, since I don’t have a car or the tenacity to practice alone. And despite all its features, it never once told me, consolingly, “nice try”. £895, slingerbaguk.frameworksports.com
SwingVision shot-tracking and analysis app
To use SwingVision, you attach your phone to the back fence of a tennis court (it helps to have a height-adjustable holder), match a horizontal line on the app with the nearest baseline, then play. Afterwards, you can watch video of your points (with dead time automatically edited out) and see detailed stats on all your shots — from the speed of your serves to where your backhands land. Developed with the guidance of American former pros Andy Roddick and James Blake, the technology is miraculous — and no doubt useful for spotting weaknesses. Though be prepared to discover what you look like from behind. SwingVision Pro, $12.49 a month, swing.tennis
WeedSport CBD Muscle Stick
This waxy, khaki-coloured rub-on stick, which claims to aid muscle recovery after sport, is made in California (of course) out of “craft hemp flowers” and essential oils. Sadly, it’s non-psychotropic, though its scent — a mix of marijuana and mint tea — makes you briefly smell like you’ve just smoked pot. Having the stick reminded me to massage my muscles after tennis, and doing so was pleasant, though I’m not sure it did much beyond that. $38, weed-sport.com
Normatec 3, Hypervolt 2 Pro and Vyper 3 recovery devices
“What are those?” my son asked, pointing to two black nylon legs with black tubes running out of them, on our sofa.
“Oh, those are Mommy’s vibrating pants,” I explained.
They were one of three products I sampled from Hyperice, which specialises in sleek-looking warm-up and recovery devices. The rechargeable Normatec 3 legs — which uses compressed air to send pressure up and down your legs to relieve sore muscles — look like a cross between BDSM gear and a kit from 20,000 Leagues under the Sea. A tennis friend with achy legs swears by them. I found the experience relaxing, and an excuse to watch midday Netflix. But for the price — they start at $799 — and the storage space, I wouldn’t want to own a pair.
I preferred the compact intensity of the Hypervolt 2 Pro ($349), a handheld vibrating massage gun that’s apparently one of Naomi Osaka’s favourites. After Hyperice’s app led me through a 24-minute “lower body refresh”, I had the loose, tingly feeling that follows an actual human massage.
I also liked the vibrating massage roller called the Vyper 3 ($199), though using it took some practice, and my downstairs neighbours probably thought I was making smoothies on the floor. It changes intensity automatically, via Bluetooth, as you follow exercises on the app to massage your legs, feet, back and rear end. The smaller, cheaper Vyper Go ($129) is meant to be portable, but I can’t imagine rolling around on it in public after a match. Then again, tennis toys are nothing to be ashamed of.
Which tennis gadgets would you recommend? Tell us in the comments
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