Eric Babolat on Nadal, Alcaraz and how to string a racquet: “I’m sure I’m the only head of a company who is able to do that”
PARIS – When your name is Babolat, your future is written. Or no, maybe it doesn’t have to be, says Eric Babolat, CEO of the world’s oldest tennis equipment company and proud partner of two of tennis’ biggest stars, Rafael Nadal and Carlos Alcaraz.
Both Spaniards play with Babolat. Nadal has done so since he was nine years old, Alcaraz since he was ten. They are the continuity of a story that began in 1875 in Lyon. Pierre Babolat was making natural gut strings for musical instruments, but then Walter Wingfield, who created the rules of tennis (a sport he called “spharistike”, Greek for “ball game”), crossed his path, and Wingfield and the British company Bussey, which needed strings for tennis rackets, gave Babolat the impetus. And the story goes on to 2022.
“We joke with Wimbledon people that we are older than them. They started in 1877, we started in 1875”, says Babolat during an interview with CLAY days before the start of Wimbledon. The fifth generation of the saga started by Pierre at the end of the 19th century. Babolat is no ordinary CEO: he knows how to string racquets.
– For many tennis fans, Babolat is a relatively new company. To what extent is that true?
– We are relatively new because we make products that people can see, the racquets, but we are the oldest brand in the tennis industry, we started producing strings in 1875. People know the racquets, they don’t care that much about the strings, and we have been making racquets since 1994. The first heroes of tennis, the Musketeers, were French and they travelled the world, playing with our products, same with Bjorn Borg.
– Why did you come with racquets, did you want to be known much better in the tennis industry?
– Tennis’ business golden years were the Bjorn Borg time, when tennis was growing a lot and was fashionable for many things. After that, it went down a little bit. We, as an accessory manufacturer, were talking to the clubs, and they said nice, but I have to talk to this guy for the balls, to this other one for the strings, the other for the racquets… Why don’t you bring us a more complete offer? My father at the time made the decision to enter the racquets market, while the market was going down because racquets were composite and they were not breaking anymore. People would keep the racquets for a long time. But we came in with an innovative racquet, the Pure Drive, still the most sold racquet in the market. It was designed for ladies for beginners, very light and easy to play, not like the standard, like the Pro Staff, very stiff racquets. They were played by the pros because it was easy to move them in the air, the first player to win a Grand Slam with it was Carlos Moya, a big guy, just four years after our racquet launch, which is quite quick. Within ten years we became number one in the world in tennis racquets. The shop owners knew our brand for years, so when we came in with racquets they were quite open to them. And you know that in tennis the racquets used by the pros are very similar to the ones sold in the market, they change weight and balance, but not much more. People want to play like Rafa but not everybody does, but if you want to, with his racquet you can get spin.
– No one can play tennis like Nadal… And after the racquets came the shoes, Again: why?
– In 2002 we launched the shoes, because we consider that it is a very important issue. In tennis you move 80 per cent of the time side to side, so we were a bit frustrated because there were no really dedicated tennis shoes, they were more running shoes adapted with more material, heavy and not flexible. When you run you need to keep the right direction and absorb the shock, so we innovated and worked in a partnership with Michelin, which we are very proud of. All Babolat shoes are equipped with a sole done by Michelin, for specific grip on the clay, the grass and so on.
– So, you choose the right guy to design the racquet and the right company for the shoes. This is luck or what?
– Of course, it was new for us, but working in tennis since 1875, doing strings, working with the stringing machines on the tour, we had the knowledge about the players, about the racquets, it was not so typical for us to design a racquet, but we like innovation. The impact we look for is the one in the club, where we find the future champions. Nadal has played with Babolat since he was nine years old, and Alcaraz since he was ten. In the beginning, he was just a good player for his club.
– You have Nadal and Alcaraz, the present and the future…
– Yeah, it is also in the DNA of our brand to have champions. The musketeers, Suzamnne Lenglen and Bjorn Borg were playing with Babolat. We also look for the ones coming up, we have about 300 players in the international team under contract, juniors, seniors, ambassadors… In Roland Garros this year you had four players that were 19 years old in the quarterfinals, and we had three of them, Alcaraz, Leylah Fernández and Holger Rune. This is because we are in the clubs and the academies every day.
– You can say that you have a good eye…
– (Laughs) Players also come to us. And we detect some who are better than others and we raise them to the international level.
– Drop shots are a trend in tennis right now. Is Babolat helping with that?
– We are close to the players. The game became more powerful, and drop shots are a way to break the system, to change the pace. You break the rhythm. It’s kind of an attack too, and nice for the spectators. On the other hand, we adjust the material for the players to adapt to how they want to play. Our engineers provide them with solutions.
– You are an official partner of Wimbledon, what does this mean for you?
– We are equipping players, we are doing the players a service, stringing and customisations of racquets. We became this year the official stringer of Wimbledon, but we are also the official shoe and racquet of the tournament, the ball boys are running with our shoes, since 2015 we do that, we are proud, we are partnering with one of the biggest brands in sports. And we joke with Wimbledon people that we are older than them. They started in 1877, we started in 1875. What I like about Wimbledon is that people there love traditions and innovation, it is a small balance which makes something very exciting to be part of.
– Do you play tennis?
– I like to play tennis when I can. As a family player, I was lucky enough to have a court at my grandparent’s house, so I played with my cousins, I played with my family. I played very few official competitions, and the first time I played with someone who was not from my family it felt strange. In my company there are people who play very well, we have former professional players, I love to watch them play, I’m very far away from their level. I like to play paddle too.
– Is Paddle a recent thing for you and Babolat?
– In Babolat we have had Paddle for 20 years. I started 10 or 15 years ago. I’ve got my kids in Barcelona, so when we go there, I play paddle. It’s easier than playing tennis. For the kids, it is difficult to understand that you have to learn something before you start playing. I want to play, they say. Ok, you have to learn first. No, I want to play (laughs).
– Being a Babolat, did you have the chance to do something different than running Babolat?
– I could, but the story says that I work in the company and I took the leadership of the company years ago because my father passed away quite young. There is some genetics in the family business, but I was not raised with the goal of running the company, although I was proud of what the company was doing. I started working in Germany for a company that had nothing to do with tennis, then in Austria for Babolat. And as a kid I had the chance of doing summer jobs stringing the racquets, it was a way to earn some money and learn English. Stringing a racquet is not that difficult, but you realize how important it is for them.
– So, you know how to string a racquet perfectly?
– I’m sure I’m the only boss of a tennis company who is able to do that! What can I say…? I’m very proud. We are number one in racquets, and it came a bit faster than we expected!
– There is a Babolat-Nadal racquet, do you plan also an Alcaraz one?
– We never had a racquet with the name of a player, but Rafa is so strong that we decided to do one. Maybe one day we will do one for Alcaraz, why not. What we want is that players in the club, watching a match, say I want to play this kind of game, therefore I have to choose this kind of racquet. We hope Alcaraz will be as strong as Nadal, the potential is there, the characters are there. And he has values, he loves the game, that is important for us. And Nadal is from another planet, but he is so humble on the other side… In Rome, we had the convention this year with all our countries, and we had Toni Nadal as a speaker. He was giving examples of when he was coaching Nadal, and followed the same philosophy: we are good, but we want to improve to be better.
Main Picture: Eric Babolat, in Paris after the interview with CLAY / SEBASTIÁN FEST
Clay’s managing editor has covered more than 60 Grand Slam tournaments since 1996. Author of “Sin Red”, a journey around the world following Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal.