That's just the way the ball bounces

TENNIS hackers reviewing the changes of equipment in their sport over the past five years or so have discovered a fable on their hands. In a small way the new technology of tennis illustrates the hopes, the partial solutions, and the inevitable frustrations of all technology.

The tale begins with the dream of The Perfect Racket. Once upon a time a tennis racket was a poor, primitive wooden thing, subject to warping and sooner or later ending up as a collection of splinters with a handle, thanks to one last exuberant overhead smash.

It took almost a century, but the bashers holding the kindling wood in their astonished hands finally blurted the classic words of faulty toolmakers since the Stone Age: ``There's got to be a better way.'' And so metallurgy came to tennis.

But if steel rackets didn't warp or splinter, they were not above cracking. And when you hit off-center, your elbow was ready for replacement too, as the shock ran up your arm, vibrating it like a tuning fork.

So -- Phase 2 -- aluminum frames were devised to give your racket more flexibility.

Once technology gets down to perfecting, things happen fast. In no time at all, along came graphite, with a dab of fiber glass mixed in. ``The power of metal, the feel of wood, and better control than either'' -- so went the slogan.

Was this progress, or was this progress?

Simultaneously the hitting surface was enlarged, and we had the ``oversize'' racket and the ``midsize'' -- which was quite oversize enough, thank you. The player had a ``sweet spot'' big enough to hit two grapefruit, to say nothing of a single tennis ball.

Furthermore, new strings were developed, combining the sensitivity of gut with the durability of nylon.

Puny fellows with barely enough coordination to walk on the court without tripping suddenly came up with a serve to frighten Ivan Lendl.

But the tennis technologists were not through. These tangle-footed novices had to be able to stand up to deliver their instant aces, and so everybody started to manufacture The Perfect Sneaker, with ``foot cradle'' arch, suede toe-cap, and ribbed tread that would hold an Indianapolis racer to a turn at 100 m.p.h.

Bionic tennis rackets. Pogo sticks for your feet. Onward and upward! And we haven't even considered the improved composition of court surfaces -- nor will we. Enough perfectibility is enough.

Has anything else gone unlisted in the tennis-technology revolution? Think hard. That's right. The ball. The ultimate object, whose efficient propulsion over the net is the point of the game.

What has happened to the tennis ball, the sovereign center of the whole enterprise, to which rackets, shoes, and courts are mere subcontractors? Surely the ball has been perfected beyond all the other perfecting put together?

Not at all. The tennis ball became famous as one of the few goods that stayed at about the same price during double-digit inflation. It also remained at the same level of quality -- if that. There are those who believe tennis balls bounced truer and lasted longer years ago when they came in white only.

Tennis balls are now tinted the colors of Popsicles you would never dare taste. A two-tone ``optic'' tennis ball has been promoted with the promise (or threat) that you cannot take your eye off it.

A couple of years ago a new ball was introduced with the recommendation that it would stay on the racket longer while being stroked. Maybe so, but it didn't stay on the market long enough for anybody to find out.

And still, after a limited amount of play, a ball will either fluff up or go bald -- slowing down like a car with the brake on or sailing like a rocket with a tail wind. All balls, with virtually no exceptions, will bounce lower -- and lower.

What is the moral of the fable? That something always gets rather comically neglected in every attempt at technological perfection?

But even if somebody invented The Perfect Ball to go with The Perfect Racket and The Perfect Sneakers and The Perfect Court, would everything be perfect? There would still be the sun in your eyes. There would still be the odd pebble to provide the interesting bounce. There would still be the occasional gust of wind to carry the perfect ball away from your perfect racket, as if attached to a joker's string.

So tennis will always remain an art as well as a science.

For this reason, if no other, we hackers may hope that all the people who dream of The Perfect Computer or The Perfect Defense System or The Perfect Genetic Code also play tennis.

A Wednesday and Friday column

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