The first tennis racket I ever held in my hand was a worn Jack Kramer Autograph, which my dad had sawed off to fashion into a homemade junior model when I was four years old. I grew to be a fair-to-middling junior player, cycling through the wood frames of the ’70s and early ’80s—Bjorn Borg’s sleek black Donnay; John McEnroe’s Wilson Pro Staff and, later, his Dunlop Maxply Fort; but also the metal Head Professional and the fiberglass Yamaha YFG models. I smacked tennis balls all over my home state of Georgia, occasionally winning a tournament, but not many and never big ones. 

My rackets changed like the times in the mid ’80s, with bigger frames no longer made of wood. By the time I reached college, I was burned out. I put tennis aside for more than a decade. When I started playing again at 30, wooden rackets were a memory—but a memory I relished. I discovered old frames available for next-to-nothing at yard sales and flea markets. I started buying, rarely paying over $20. If someone learned that I collected rackets, they would invite me into their garage and say, “Here, take this.” I raided my parents’ house and found all the frames we’d ever used. A collection was born. Online purchases expanded it. Today, in crates in my basement, there are about 200 rackets dating back to the early 1900s, although most are from the ’50s through the ’70s. The most common frame in my collection? The Jack Kramer Autograph, the most popular tennis racket of its era—and my very first.

When I lived in Houston two decades ago, some of my frames were displayed on the wall of a tennis club where I played. But I’ve long since moved, and that club closed and became the foundation of a high-dollar townhome development. Since then, my rackets have been stored away, the better ones held firm in presses, like ancient relics of a kind of tennis that no longer exists. Watch a recording of Borg or Chris Evert from the ’70s—it looks as though they are patting the ball around the court—and then compare it to a match featuring Roger Federer or Serena Williams. The velocity of the shots is dramatically faster. It’s not the same game. Roscoe Tanner was celebrated in the ’70s for serving at the speed of more than 100 miles per hour. Today, that’s slow—almost every male pro hits serves in the 120s with regularity, and the world record has been clocked at 157 miles per hour. Two years ago, I tried to return serves that rose into the 140 m.p.h. range, struck by a 6'11''-tall 18-year-old whom I was interviewing for an article I wrote for Sports Illustrated’s website. I could barely touch the ball with the enormous frame that I use now. On the other hand, I once lost to a 5'2'' nationally ranked 15-year-old girl and wrote about that experience for Tennis magazine’s website. 

I sometimes have a notion to clean out the crates in my basement and sell some of my old rackets, but I don’t want to let them go. Like memories of tennis on a summer afternoon 40 years ago, I want to hang onto these frames as long as I can. 

Sam Starnes GSN’04, who holds an M.A. in English from Rutgers University–Newark, is the editor of  Rutgers–Camden Magazine. He also is the author of Red Dirt: A Tennis Novel (Breakaway Books, 2015), as well as two other novels. For more information about his writing, visit