Babolat hits tennis industry with high-tech rackets

BOULDER — Babolat, a French manufacturer of tennis rackets and strings, introduced a first to the tennis world last year: Two rackets made of materials created through nanotechnology. This year, the company expanded its nanotech line.

?We’re in the early stages of the new technology,? said Jean-Louis Boyre, president of Babolat VS North American Inc., the company’s U.S. operations based in Boulder. ?We’ve introduced four rackets, two last year and two this year. Sales were OK last year, but most people still have no idea what nanotechnology is, so we’re trying to explain the benefits.?

Nanotechnology is the manipulation of molecular particles on the atomic level, and a process that allows scientists to form new materials and achieve desired properties. It takes its name from a nanometer, a billionth of a meter, or about one one-hundred-thousandth the diameter of a human hair. It is a realm in which the laws of classical physics yield to those of quantum mechanics, and where the powerful bonds between atoms overtake the effects of gravity.

For those in the health, aerospace, security and technology industries, nanotechnology has already created such a buzz that the National Science Foundation foresees a $1 trillion market by 2015 for nanotech products. The White House alone has proposed that $710 million be spent on nanotech research next year — a 17 percent increase over the 2002 budget — on development of everything from water-filtration systems to military clothing that can guard against germ warfare.

In the world of tennis, Babolat worked with French manufacturer Nanoledge to create a new, stiff and lightweight material called VS nanotube. These nanotubes have strings of carbon molecules that are five times stiffer than traditional graphite and 100 times stronger than steel, yet at one-sixth the weight. Remarkably, a VS nanotube is also 50,000 times thinner than a human hair.

Babolat’s first two rackets to use this technology were the VS Nanotube Power and the VS Nanotube Drive. In these rackets, the carbon nanotubes rigidify two stabilizers located on both sides of the racket’s center. The VS Nanotube rackets provide 50 percent more torsion resistance than standard carbon rackets and are designed for use by club players who seek lightweight, performance-oriented, oversized rackets.

?Torsion flex is a problem with these rackets because the bigger the head, the more likely there will be a flex in the head. So we placed the nanotech material inside of the head for better flex and torsion resistance,? Boyre said.

In August 2002, Babolat launched two more rackets, the VS NCT Drive and the VS NCT Control, each retailing for around $200. NCT ? or nano carbon technology ? rackets use carbon nanotubes to stiffen the stabilizers that run from the top of the handle to the middle of the frame on both sides of the racket. By positioning the nanotubes in this manner, they help minimize flex and torsion, the vertical bending and side-by-side twisting of the racket upon ball impact.

Babolat launched their lines of rackets in the United States in 2000, and today top tennis players such as Lindsay Davenport, Andy Roddick and Pete Sampras are known to play with Babolat rackets or strings.

In light of Babolat’s investment in nanotech materials, Boyre remains cautious about the extent that the new technology will affect the sport.

?I don’t know if (nanotechnology) will revolutionize the tennis industry,? Boyre said. ?Right now, the use is very limited because the costs are so high. But as it becomes bigger and cheaper, who knows? Maybe we’ll have a completely nanotechnology (manufactured) carbon racket in 10 to 20 years.?

Though Babolat, a family-owned business founded in Lyon, France in 1875, is a well-known brand in Europe as a manufacturer of strings, including natural gut strings, its name for rackets, especially within the United States, remains somewhat unknown. However, given its innovative products, this may soon change.

?We only started making rackets in 1995, and so we are a relatively small player in U.S. market, holding only 5 to 10 percent market share,? Boyre said. ?But this is still a significant share when considering that Babolat only started (marketing its products) in the United States two years ago.?

Current worldwide revenue for Babolat is around $13.6 million.

Babolat opened its U.S. headquarters in Boulder in January 2000 for sales and marketing purposes. The company chose Boulder because of an already existing partnership with Rocky Mountain Sports, Boulder, which acts as its fulfillment arm.

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