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1978-2015: Thirty seven years in the tennis industry

The last time Great Britain contested a Davis Cup final, Boney M were No.1 in the music charts while Jimmy Connors and Martina Navratilova were top of the tennis rankings.

In December 1978, led by captain Paul Hutchins, the British team of John Lloyd, Buster Mottram, Mark Cox and David Lloyd travelled to Mission Hills in California to take on 24-time champions USA. Bidding to win the competition for the first time since 1936, the British team (pictured right) lost 4-1. (Image courtesy of tennisgallerywimbledon.com)

Ian Peacock, now TIA UK President, was managing director of Slazenger at the time. The company sponsored all four members of the British team.

“Those were very different days in the world of tennis,” recalls Peacock. “Slazenger and Dunlop dominated the market for racket sales.

“In those days the Dunlop factory was at Waltham Abbey and Slazenger at Horbury in Yorkshire. We had factories all around the world making wooden rackets in Australia, New Zealand, South Africa and Malaysia.”

However, change was afoot. Earlier that year Jimmy Connors had won his fifth Grand Slam title at the US Open with his steel Wilson T2000.  While most players were still playing with wooden rackets, by the early 80s, the advent of carbon fibre opened the door to ski manufacturers like HEAD.

When Arthur Ashe won Wimbledon in 1975 he played with a HEAD Competition – a composite racket made of aluminium and fibreglass. By the mid 1980’s wooden rackets were virtually obsolete.

“Major changes happened at the end of the 70s and in the early 80s when the synthetic frames arrived,” says Peacock. “Jimmy Connors was one of the first players to use a Wilson metal racket and when Arthur Ashe won Wimbledon in 1975 with a HEAD racket, that was the death of wooden rackets.

“It was amazing really. If my memory serves me right in 1978 the Dunlop factory at Waltham Abbey made 750,000 rackets and by 1983 the factory had closed.”

Reflecting on how the tennis industry has changed over the past four decades, Peacock says alongside the changes in racket technology, the arrival of digital communication starting with the internet, revolutionised the tennis industry.

“The other thing that has changed dramatically is distribution,” Peacock explains. “When I was MD at Slazenger we had four thousand accounts in Britain, lots of small traditional sports shops but they have been swallowed up by Sports Direct and by online sales.”

Peacock, who left Dunlop Slazenger in 1983 for the LTA, where he was chief executive for 11 years, will be in Ghent in two weeks’ time for the final.

“I didn’t go to the final at Mission Hills in California – I don’t think they could afford to send me, but I did see the team off at Heathrow,” he recalls. “I remember watching the final on TV and listening on the radio and I particularly remember Buster Mottram winning his singles match [against Brian Gottfried] but David Lloyd and Mark Cox losing the doubles was a killer blow.”

Richard Jones, founder of The Tennis Gallery in Wimbledon, will also be travelling to Ghent for the final. Back in 1978 Jones attended the semi-final at Crystal Palace to see Great Britain defeat Australia.

“Back then I didn’t work in the tennis industry but I was a tennis fan and a club-level player,” says Jones. “My wife and I went to Crystal Palace on the Friday when Great Britain took a 2-0 lead against Australia.

“The great thing about the Davis Cup is that it hasn’t changed much since 1978. It has evolved a little but the fact that the matches are still three days with the doubles on the Saturday, the Davis Cup has not lost its excitement.”

The format of the competition remains largely unchanged, but whatever happens in Ghent on November 27-29, it is a long way from where the industry was the last time Great Britain contested a final.