The History of Babolat, the World’s Oldest Tennis Brand: Babolat Brandography by Tennis Warehouse

When you think about the history of
tennis you must consider the brand Babolat.
They’ve been involved since the
game’s inception, and what a fitting place
for them to be located here in the
beautifully historic city of Lyon.
I think the most thing people don’t know about Babolat
is that it is a family business,
a family run company since five
generations and that we are existing since
nearly 150 years now. I think a lot
of people know the brand but don’t know
this kind of story behind it.
[Chris] Lucien, tell me a little bit about yourself
and how long you’ve been working with Babolat.
[Lucien] 37 years. September ’81.
[Chris] And yesterday you were taking me around the natural gut factory,
can you give me a little bit of the
history on natural gut?
[Lucien] We moved to Brittany because Brittany is the
main land where they have a lot of cows.
It’s raining, raining makes good grass,
good grass make good cows and
make good gut for playing tennis.
Before, in 1875 it did start in Lyon. The
neighborhood was Gerland part
and in Gerland was the huge slaughterhouse and
we are for the same reason in Brittany.
[Chris] There was indeed plenty of grass to
nourish the cows in the countryside of Brittany.
With seven slaughterhouses
surrounding Babolat’s gut factory,
workers process locally sourced quality cow
gut into the world’s best natural gut tennis string.
They need two cows for every
one string which is part of the reason
Babolat moved from Lyon.
Because before cow gut they used…
[Lucien] Sheep gut
and we change from sheep gut to cow gut
in the 70s beginning 80s
because the racquet went bigger and the tension was
higher so imagine the quantity of
sheep — and especially not cat gut because imagine
how many cat we have to kill to play one match.
[Chris] Okay so thankfully no
cats, but in the early 20th century
tennis grew in popularity which led to
the top players demanding thinner strings
and above all, higher tensions.
The famous Musketeers worked alongside
Albert Babalot to develop a string that
would change the game.
In 1925 the Musketeers were given string samples
listed alphabetically.
Once they had reached sample V they stopped and said
“V is superior” hence the name VS.
“V Superior” — V S
Worldwide demand for tennis
products came immediately after the war,
and manufacturers showed interest in
synthetic materials.
Third-generation Paul Babolat began distributing Babolat
products across the globe.
To meet the demands of the growing game of tennis,
Babolat offered tennis players
the option of synthetic strings.
Athletes continued for years
to dominate the tennis scene using Babolat strings,
one of which was Björn Borg.
I got to meet Borg in the early 90s when we were both
training at the same tennis academy.
He’d run out of racquets as he was stringing them
so tightly with his VS natural gut hybrid
that the frames were breaking.
I lent him one of mine as
we were using the same model.
He borrowed my racquet and I did my best
to borrow some of his style.
It’s a shame neither of us had a Babolat racquet.
Just a few years later the Pure Drive came along and
revolutionized the game.
[Eric] Babolat racquets started in the mid 90s.
It was a big ambition for us as a brand after more than
100 grand slams won with our string
to do the same with tennis racquets.
When my father took the decision
to bring the brand into racquets
it was obvious for us as a string
company that bringing something that
makes a good racquet, which is a good frame
and a good string bed is very important,
so we always design a racquet
in the idea that the combination with
the string bed is important as we
design our stringing machines in order to
make this combination the best.
50 percent of the performance of a racquet
is the string and 50 percent is the frame.
[Antoine] Clearly when they came out with a new
racquet in ’94 it was with the Pure Drive,
that’s when everything started to make a
huge revolution.
[Eric] So four years after the Babolat racquet launch
in tennis Carlos Moya won the French and it was a
great moment for us, the sign of the bet we did
to go to tennis racquet in addition to string accessory
it was a good way.
[Stephanie] After the victory of Carlos Moya
in Roland Garros
and the company starting to really take off
because lots of people were wondering
what was this blue racquet, and so it was
very exciting we receive requests from
people from everywhere.
[Antoine] And why because
for the very first time they came up
with a racquet that was working for pro players
as well as intermediate, recreational-level players.
[Eric] There was already control racquets, there was already power racquets,
and there was not this kind
of racquet and we were the one associated to that
and we created some way a new
type of racquet which was for all kind of players.
[Bertrand] And that was the beginning of
the story with the first racquet,
and that was really the start of this crazy story.
[Stephanie] And then another great time was when we discovered
a young kid called Rafael Nadal.
And this kid was just amazing and the
guy here at the R&D discovered that
he played a different way the racquet was
doing this, and so we created the
Pure Aero — it was called AeroPro Drive at
the time — and it was another another level.
[Bertrand] All the innovation is coming from the
players and I would say that this is the
way we master innovation today: observation. Observation of the player.
Not only to define the way he play, but mostly
to define the way he is interacting with his racquet.
[Guillaume] Why we’re based in Annecy is because we
wanted with Babolat to shake things up
in the sub goods industry and on
bags, apparel, and shoes.
Annecy is the capital of the outdoor (industry)
we could say worldwide.
Many of the big companies today have their headquarters
or subsidiary here and there’s a big culture of product and product development.
I think that we can take the best of
what’s happening in the running world
or the outdoor world and
try to see how we could mix it with the
tennis knowledge and the tennis world
and bring new things that has never been seen before.
[Eric] The footwork of players in tennis, what
we offer through shoes on the market today
is still limited compared to what
we will bring tomorrow, so a lot of
innovation are going to go in that
way to ease the footwork with the rebound
to go faster on the ball which is key
for all players.
Ball impact and footwork are the key to
the game and that’s why we invest the most
to bring performance, to bring
innovation, to bring something that makes a difference.
Nowadays sometimes not so much an easy sport,
but that’s also our duty as a
major tennis brand to give reasons to
younger audience to be a tennis lover
in the future, that’s important.

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