Novak Djokovic held it lightly, feeling the contours as if he were examining a T. rex bone at a natural history museum.
To be fair, the Wilson Jack Kramer Autograph tennis racket is a dinosaur.
"It's the first time in my life" to hit with it, said Djokovic, born in 1987, long after wood joined the museum shelves of tennis history. The fifth-ranked player in men's professional tennis who competes with a Wilson nBlade graphite racket added, "Now I realize how tough for the players it was 30-40 years ago to play."
During the last three decades, racket technology has advanced astronomically. The sizes, shapes, materials and performance of the main tool of tennis, on display Monday as the fortnight of Wimbledon begins, are nothing like they were two or three generations ago.
To understand these technological changes and help shape the debate about increasing power in tennis, USA TODAY enlisted nearly a dozen top pros to hit the 1970s-era wood rackets. They were supplied by the Newport, R.I.-based International Tennis Hall of Fame.
The wonderment Djokovic experienced brings to mind how the generation of Rod Laver and wood rackets gave way in the 1970s to Jimmy Connors and his metal T2000. Next came the stronger, lighter, bigger, more powerful frames used today.
Laver, the last man to win all four Grand Slam tournaments in a single year, said it "just wasn't that big of a deal" when the metal era arrived. Perhaps not. But it definitely grabbed everyone's attention.
So did our hitting experiments in March at the Pacific Life Open in Indian Wells, Calif., and the Sony Ericsson Open in Key Biscayne, Fla.
It wasn't quite like Bode Miller barreling down the slopes on wooden skis without release bindings or Lance Armstrong tackling the Alpe d'Huez on a three-speed bike. But almost across the board, it was an eye-opening experience. Many, including Djokovic, had never played with wood.
"It feels like a different game out there, to be honest," 2005 U.S. Open semifinalist Robby Ginepri said. "It doesn't give the pop or the spin that the graphite rackets have today."
It would be "almost impossible (to win a match on tour) unless your opponent misses every single shot," 18-year-old Vania King, one of the USA's more promising players, said while laughing.
Although most could hit proficiently after a few minutes, the pros noted a significant decrease in power and spin and a diminished sweet spot. Only one player, 2004 U.S. Open champ Svetlana Kuznetsova, felt confident enough in her strokes with a wood racket that she could win a match on tour.
"Your chances of missing are a lot higher," top-10 player Tommy Robredo of Spain said. "That racket doesn't get much spin. … If I played with a racket like this, for sure I would have a lot more touch, because you cannot play with power. You have to play with other things" such as spin.
It's a far cry from today's rackets, which, depending on your point of view, have helped democratize the sport or dumbed-down technique and given way to brute force.
"I love the new rackets because they have made, and kept, tennis fun for players of all abilities," said pioneer Billie Jean King, who won the 1967 U.S. National Championships (which became the Open in 1968) with a then-new metal frame.
Wood good for touch, technique
Players trying the old rackets felt they had less maneuverability with wood, which is 25% to 40% heavier than modern frames. In many cases, they were forced to alter their grips and flatten their strokes to hit the ball cleaner because the hitting area of the older frames is considerably smaller (80 square inches vs. 90 to 120-plus square inches).
But a few players noticed more "feel" with wood.
"I tried a drop shot, and I knew exactly where it was going to go," said Mike Bryan, who, with twin brother Bob, is part of the top-ranked doubles team in the world. "You can feel it all the way to your hand through the wood."
"Definitely for the feel and touch, it's great," 10th-ranked Daniela Hantuchova of Slovakia said.
But using the wood also led some to observe how much easier the game has become with today's technology.
"You have to have very good technique to play with this one," Russian Kuznetsova said of the wood.
"Technology can hide flaws in your game," Bob Bryan said.
Hall of Famer and TV commentator John McEnroe agreed. Comparing the power surge in rackets and strings to modern-day baseball, he said, "If they had some of the equipment we have in tennis, they'd be hitting the ball 700 feet."
"I'm 48 now, and I hit my serve harder than when I was 25," added the three-time Wimbledon champion, who transitioned from regulation wood to midsized graphite over the course of his pro career in the 1970s and '80s.
"It's gone way too far."
Tools become artifacts
Carrying around three antiquated rackets — Jack Kramer, Spalding Pancho Gonzales Autograph and Wilson Stan Smith Autograph — at a pro tennis tournament is akin to driving a shiny 1920s-era Cadillac into the parking lot.
Heads turn. Passersby stop and stare. People approach and want to handle them or share stories of a bygone era.
Standing in line at the food court at the Sony Ericsson Open, Susan Mueller of Miami rushed up. "Where did you get those?" the 70-year-old asked.
Mueller has collected wood rackets for years from bargain sales, antique stores and estate sales. She has 55 displayed in her playroom at home.
Some just couldn't avoid the sarcasm when they noticed the old-time rackets.
"Good luck with those!" one said.
But most were fascinated and nostalgic. "Oh wow, I remember playing with wood" was a common refrain.
Crowds gathered to watch today's pros hit with yesterday's relics. Many snapped photos.
Tennis insiders, though, say it is just nostalgia.
"Advances in racket technology have in many ways enhanced the entertainment value of tennis by enabling players to do things with the ball that they couldn't do 10 or 20 years ago," said Larry Scott, CEO of the women's Sony Ericsson WTA Tour.
In many respects, tennis mirrors the inevitable march of progress in all sports as equipment, fitness and athleticism improve.
Stuart Miller, technical manager for the International Tennis Federation (ITF), which oversees testing and regulations in tennis, said space-age materials such as boron compounds, graphite and Kevlar have made rackets bigger, lighter and stiffer. That and improved manufacturing processes allow players to swing harder, better manage off-center hits and generate more spin.
"It has unlocked many performance advantages," Miller said.
Nine-time Wimbledon champ Martina Navratilova, however, blames the tennis industry — $108 million in U.S. racket sales last year, according to the Tennis Industry Association — for boosting the power quotient as it endeavors to produce more powerful rackets for pros and amateurs.
"Racket manufacturers are dictating the type of rackets we are seeing today," Navratilova said.
Until the late 1970s, governing authorities in tennis took a laissez-faire approach to racket technology, leaving the design and dimensions open to the whims of players and manufacturers.
"You can play with a tomato can on a broomstick if you think you can win with it," U.S. Tennis Association President "Slew" Hester Jr. said in 1977.
Tennis has periodically imposed rules on racket technology in response to advances that seem to threaten the integrity of the sport. That can only go so far.
"You can't un-ring a technology bell in any sport," former tennis pro and TV sports commentator Mary Carillo said. "I have a hard time renouncing technology the way a lot of people do. There are all kinds of ways to frame the argument for or against it."
String to swing bigger
Indeed, rackets aren't the only factor that has contributed to the increase in power and speed, according to players.
Better strength and athleticism are backing up juiced-up rackets. Many male pros launch serves in excess of 130 mph with regularity. The women, too, have jumped on the power bandwagon. Venus Williams holds the serve speed record at 128 mph.
Some cited synthetic strings as a reason for today's baseline-hugging style, in which winners can be launched from deep in the backcourt. The strings bite into the ball more, which allows for bigger swings with more margin for error.
"You couldn't really generate as much spin as with the newfangled rackets," U.S. teen King said of playing with wood.
The Bryans said their volleys with wood felt almost the same as with today's rackets. But like several other players, they said serving and hitting groundstrokes were compromised.
"You only get 50%-60% of your normal power," said Bob Bryan, who nonetheless would like to see a "cap" on some of the advancements in racket technology.
Others are more resigned to technological advances.
"That's the evolution of the sport," five-time Grand Slam champ Martina Hingis said. "It's hard to stop that."
But Djokovic can envision a dystopian Brave New World where players are secondary to technology.
"I'm imagining myself standing next to the court and (having a) robot in-stead of me play with the racket, like PlayStation," he said with a laugh.