Babolat: World's oldest tennis firm still got its swing

Eugenie Bouchard Image copyright AP
Image caption Canada's Eugenie Bouchard uses and endorses Babolat racquets

Wimbledon may be one of the oldest names associated with tennis, but it is not the longest established.

Babolat, the French racquet manufacturer, began making strings for players in 1875, two years before the covers first came off at the All England Club in south-west London.

And now, 139 years later, no fewer than 170 entrants to this year's Wimbledon use at least one Babolat product.

Grand Slam winner

Founded by Pierre Babolat in Lyon, Babolat originally made strings for musical instruments and sausage cases from animal intestines.

Its move into tennis came after one of the pioneers of the modern game, Walter Clopton Wingfield, approached Babolat to make natural gut strings for a new sport he called "sphairistrike" (Greek for ball game).

As tennis grew in popularity in the late 19th Century, and the rules were standardised, Babolat saw sales of its strings steadily increase.

In 1925 Rene Lacoste won the French Open using a racquet strung with Babolat strings. Since then Babolat strings have won at least one Grand Slam title every year.

Image copyright Getty Images
Image caption Frenchman Rene Lacoste won the French Open and Wimbledon in 1925 with Babolat strings

Family tragedy

Today Babolat remains a family-run business, and is led by 44-year-old Eric Babolat, the great-great-grandson of founder Pierre.

Under Eric's leadership, Babolat has been transformed from a company which until 1994 only made strings, to one of the biggest names in tennis racquets, clothing and footwear.

The decision to diversify the business away from just making strings was taken by Eric's father Pierre, who introduced the company's first tennis racquet in 1994.

But tragedy struck in 1998 when Pierre was killed when Swissair Flight 111 crashed off the coast of Canada while flying from New York to Geneva.

Eric, who was 28 at the time, was thrown abruptly into running the family business.

Image copyright Babolat
Image caption Eric Babolat took on the top job at the company when he was 28

He had been working for the company for four years by then, and while he admits that he did not feel ready, he had no hesitations about taking up the top job.

"I had no pressure except from myself," he says. "I had people around me to help me, and I wanted to continue the story."

With the main aim being to increase sales of Babolat racquets, yet with little or no money to sign up established players to start using them, Eric instead decided to continue his father's policy of giving the racquets to players on the junior circuit.

And so unknown names such as Rafael Nadal, Andy Roddick and Kim Clijsters were given free Babolat racquets.

As those "unknowns" went on to win Grand Slam after Grand Slam using Babolat racquets, the company's sales skyrocketed.

Babolat timeline

Image copyright Getty Images
  • 1875: Starts making tennis strings from animal intestines. It still sells these natural gut strings to this day
  • 1925: Rene Lacoste wins the French Open, becoming the first player to do so using a racquet strung with Babolat strings
  • 1955: Introduces its first synthetic string
  • 1994: Launches its first tennis racquet. Today's users include Rafael Nadal (pictured), Li Na and Eugenie Bouchard
  • 2003: Starts selling tennis clothing, footwear and accessories

Eric used the increased revenues to further diversify the business into making clothing, shoes and accessories.

This has been so successful that last year Babolat's turnover totalled 147m euros ($201m; £117m), compared with 23m euros when Eric took over at the helm of the company.

Despite the big growth in sales, Babolat remains 100% family-owned, and still even makes use of the original premises in Lyon where it was founded in 1875.

Image copyright AP
Image caption Babolat is providing the shoes for all the ballboys and girls at this year's Wimbledon

Eric indicates that not having to report to shareholders or worry about a share price greatly helps the firm's research and development.

"As a family-owned company we have the luxury of time," he says. "We don't say, 'OK if it's not a success in three months we'll just forget about it.' It takes time to make things better."

'Good pressure'

Now with 350 employees, Eric adds that he considers that Babolat remains a "human-sized business", where staff are considered to be one big family.

Image copyright ROLEX/GianniCiaccia
Image caption Kim Clijsters, a four-time Grand Slam winner, used Babolat racquets from when she was a junior

And to maintain close ties with the professional players that use Babolat products, they are all individually invited to its headquarters in Lyon, where Eric gives them a guided tour, and introduces them to all the workers.

It is not just players who will be using Babolat products at this year's Wimbledon, though - all the ballboys and girls have been kitted out with Babolat shoes.

Eric says it is "fantastic" to attend the Grand Slam events and watch all the players using his company's products, adding that the faith they have in Babolat "is pressure, but it is a good pressure".

On whether his young children will ultimately take over the running of the company, he simply says that he wants them "to do what they love".

He certainly loves doing what he does. "My wife knows my mistress - it is the company. I think I have got the best job I could have.

"Motivation is the key to everything, so loving what you do makes the difference."

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