Three names sell tennis rackets: Rafa, Roger and Roddick. Walk around the U.S. Open this year and you'll notice the topspin-wielding heartthrob and world No. 1 Rafael Nadal playing with one of the best-selling tennis rackets in the U.S.: the Babolat Aeropro Drive. American ace Andy Roddick also favors Babolat. "Elder" statesman Roger Federer uses Wilson, the grand old brand.
Ten years ago, Wilson, Prince and Head were practically the only game in town, but Babolat has upended that trifecta in an unusual way. Babolat sold tennis string for more than a century before getting into rackets. It's still the king of string: Babolat's new RPM Blast strings are so hot that pros were begging for them at the French Open.
The new strings are just the latest in a series of winners that the family-owned, 135-year-old French company has hit in recent years. Unforced errors? Just about zilch. "It's the greatest success story in the history of tennis, barring Prince's success with the oversize racket," says Mark Mason, owner of Mason's Tennis Mart in Manhattan.
Founder Pierre Babolat started in a different game: selling strings for musical instruments. He developed the first natural-gut tennis strings in 1875. (Gut strings are made from a part of a cow's intestine called the serosa.) For most of the 20th century, Babolat's expensive gut was a must-have for serious players. In 2000, when the company branched out into rackets in the U.S., it inched its way in, getting promising juniors to use Babolat rackets by offering them free or reduced-price strings. "It was difficult to get the first players to use the racket because they would ask, Who are the other players using it?" says Eric Babolat, CEO and great-great-grandson of the founder. "Our strings were an important leverage."
The leveraging wasn't as vital once a 16-year-old junior named Andy Roddick picked up the stick at the suggestion of his coach; he became No. 1 in the world and won the 2003 U.S. Open swinging the distinctive blue-and-white-striped frame. Then a Spanish coach named Toni Nadal had his 8-year-old nephew Rafael try out a lighter version of the racket. That seems to have worked out well. "It was a perfect storm," says Greg Wolf, president of Midwest Sports, a tennis shop in Cincinnati. "But if it wasn't a great racket, it wouldn't have had legs."
Ten years after its U.S. racket debut, the French brand topped the charts at tennis-specialty stores with a 34.3% market share for the quarter ending in June, up 17% from the same period in 2005, according to the Tennis Industry Association. In 2009 its global sales for rackets, strings, shoes, apparel and accessories reached $150 million. U.S. sales are up 40% from last year. And that's in a terrible tennis economy. Although the number of players is up, total racket sales have fallen for three years. In 2009 total U.S. tennis-racket sales reached only $104 million, down from $121 million in 2007.
Babolat did more than just sign up Roddick and Rafa. "They did things differently from other companies," says Adam Queen, of Your Serve Tennis in Atlanta. "They supported rackets for longer periods and gave them a chance to grow." By introducing simpler lines and keeping them on shelves longer, Babolat developed loyalty. "Changing rackets, for a player, is a nightmare," says Eric Babolat. "When you love something, you want to find it again, and this is linked to our long-term way of thinking."
And then, with Nadal's help, Babolat went back to developing great strings. It released the RPM Blast four months ago, and stores can't keep it in stock. The strings became the talk of the French Open when John McEnroe gave them a shout-out and three of the four finalists used the distinctive black polyester cords. Their octagonal design and cross-linked silicone coating allow the main strings to slide out of position and snap back for more bite on the ball and a heavier topspin. In just four months, the RPM Blast, which costs about $16.95 (not including labor), accounted for 10% of Babolat's annual string sales. "We've never had a string in four months do so much," says Eric Babolat. "I think it's the best string launched since the beginning of the company." Pity that Babolat needed a century or so to create a racket to attach it to.