Lawn Tennis was invented by a Welshman, Major Walter Wingfield in 1873, but the all important tennis racket strings were invented in France in 1875.
Up until then, the Babolat company, based in Lyon, used natural gut to make strings for musical instruments and as casings for cooked meats.
However, when they were approached by sports equipment inventor, Englishman George Bussey, to turn their skills to the world of sport, they jumped at the challenge and became the first to produce strings for tennis rackets. Now they are the number one world supplier of strings as well as number one for balls in France and rackets in Europe, the USA and Japan.
Synthetic strings are made on their premises at Corbas, Lyon and natural gut strings are made at Ploërmel in Brittany. There is a factory producing stringing machines in Besançon.
Babolat are the official stringers, rackets and ball suppliers at Roland Garros which starts this month on May 27 – they use up to 46km of strings in their workshop during one tournament.
The company quickly cornered the market in tennis strings as the game grew rapidly in popularity. In the 1920s Suzanne Lenglen, the very first female tennis star, used their strings and so did the so-called Musketeers – Jean Borotra, Jacques Brugnon, Henri Cochet and René Lacoste – who won the Davis Cup for France.
It has remained a family affair. Eric Babolat is the present CEO and is the great-great-grandson of founder Pierre Babolat. In 1925, his son, Albert Babolat, developed the VS natural gut string which became their benchmark product and is still sold today.
In 1955 Pierre’s grandson, Paul, developed the first Babolat synthetic string. A second generation Pierre Babolat created the first tennis racket frame and Eric Babolat, who became head of the family company in 1998, has further diversified to introduce tennis balls and shoes to their range plus the first digitally connected racket.
25% of top players use Babolat strings. The world record for the fastest service was by Andy Roddick in 2004 using Babolat strings and was 249km/h (155mph).
One racket uses 12metres of string and the company says that 50% of a racket’s performance is down to the strings and the rest is due to the frame. Most players now use synthetic strings, but the company still produce them out of gut, which comes from cows, and contrary to popular belief has never been from cats.
Several stages are needed to create the string. First, 42mm wide bands are cut from the 40-60metre long intestines. They are then stretched, stripped of the gut’s internal layer made of transverse cells to keep only the lengthwise cells for elasticity. Seven strips are then twisted together to make a string. They go through seven chemical baths to tan, whiten and clean the material before being dried and tested. Only the best get through the strict quality control.