insight - Ottmar Barbian

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occupation - Director Sales & Marketing, HEAD

Director Sales & Marketing, HEAD
Until the 1970s, practically everyone engaged in racquet sports was using wooden racquets with leather-gripped handles and natural gut strings. The introduction of aluminium and steel frames paved the way for increasingly lightweight and highly durable materials.

Today most racquet frames are made from lightweight graphite or graphite composites that incorporate materials such as titanium, kevlar or fibreglass, giving added levels of frame flexibility. With January welcoming the ATP Tour to Doha, Oryx talked to Ottmar Barbian, of HEAD, the choice of racquet from Qatar Open defending champion Andy Murray.

How has the design process changed with advances in technology?
HEAD are always looking to develop technologies and materials that advance the game of tennis but are also environmentally friendly. A recent example of this would be HEAD’s patented Twintube technology, which offers less environmental pollutants than most solvent-based lacquers, yet creates a more durable design.

How closely do you work with the top players during the design process?
We work with players like Qatar Masters defending champion Andy Murray early in the design process, as their experience offers great insight into the performance characteristics needed.

Is there any difference between the racquet a professional would use and one that an amateur would use?
Yes; there are significant differences. The amateur or recreational player requires more support from his racquet as it relates to power and comfort. In addition, this player needs a lighter racquet for greater manoeuvrability and a larger sweet spot which allows for greater ‘forgiveness’. A professional player needs a racquet that allows him to control his game. Professional racquets are usually heavier and have a smaller head size. These racquets are the same as those available to consumers at retail but are tuned based on their individual weight and balance needs.

Are string and grip design part the process?
Given that string and grip greatly influence the performance, it is certainly an important part of our design process. The string and frame of a racquet really perform as a system, so any changes that are made to the racquet design affect string design, and vice versa.

How long from start to finish does it take to design a racquet; from drawing board through to use by a professional?
The complete process – briefings to production – takes approximately a year and a half. Before we start with drawings, we develop a detailed briefing for the designer that includes details on target audience, technologies, and specifications of the racquet.

What fundamental differences are there in designing tennis racquets to those of, say, squash or racquetball?
The design process between sports is actually pretty similar, as are the materials used; however, a player’s needs are different in each sport, so we develop all racquets based on in-depth analysis of the required benefits needed and a prediction on how needs may change in time.

How do you choose the colour range, and does it vary greatly each year?
Rather than changing colours each year, we establish primary colours for specific racquets so that consumers can identify with that racquet. For new models, we select new colours with the support of design agencies and focus groups.

Is there a course for racquet design, and if not, how do you break into this field?
The fundamentals of racquet design, such as material knowledge, project work, and construction mechanics, can be learned in various master courses; however, the experience we have gained in 30 years of developing racquets has been the greatest teacher. Theory is certainly important but it can never replace practice and experience. Both areas have to supplement each other to achieve success.

If there were no international rules, what else could you do to the racquet to improve its performance?
Without international rules, adding an external energy source – such as an electronic technology or battery – would be one way to improve racquet performance.

Over the last 50 years, which racquets stand out in terms of innovation?
There have been many innovation trends over the years, such as oversize or whole body racquets. With the titanium discovery, HEAD was able to design a lightweight racquet that offered greater power.

Today, the greatest technologies, such as YOUTEK, focus on the individual needs of each player. HEAD’s YOUTEK racquets provide the best combination of materials and technologies to meet individual needs on the court, as evidenced by its use among the top professionals in the world such as Novak Djokovic and Andy Murray.

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