Musical instrument string maker Pierre Babolat made the world’s first tennis strings in 1875. Pierre’s great-grandson, Eric Babolat, who has run the brand since 1998, says the oldest world’s tennis brand continues to grow, 147 years later.
As the pandemic drove the sport forward in 2020, tennis growth showed no signs of slowing down for the French manufacturer of strings, rackets, shoes and apparel. “It’s really new,” says Eric Babolat. “It was flat more for us and flat less for the market (before the pandemic) and there was this unexpected boom. Covid made a lot of people realize how important sport is and people wanted to be together for having fun, exercising and racketeering sports seems to be a good solution There has been a boom.
Babolat, which first made racquets in 1994 and within 10 years was the world’s leading racquet manufacturer, is still at the top of the racquet game in the specialty tennis market. For Babolat, the United States is the first market and the second is the constantly growing Japanese market. “Japan loves the game,” says Eric Babolat. “They love it.”
Eric Babolat sees reintroducing the sport to many people as a powerful way to attract a new generation to tennis. And the cultural popularity of tennis – non-tennis focused brands have increased their interest in tennis, whether through apparel collections or advertising campaigns – has only served to help brands already focused on tennis.
“At some point it will come back,” Eric Babolat says of the boom. For now, however, “the demand is still there”.
During the sport’s period of popularity, Babolat took the opportunity to connect with younger audiences. The summer launch of the new Pure Aero racquet featured three young stars as the faces of the franchise, with Carlos Alcaraz, Felix Auger-Aliassime and Leylah Fernandez. “Let’s talk to young audiences”, says Eric Babolat. “We love (Rafael) Nadal, but the next generation of the sport is Auger-Aliassime and Alcaraz, that’s the generation. That’s their generation.”
Alcaraz has already given Babolat a major win by winning the 2022 US Open title in September with the updated frame.
Bryan Ogle, National Sales Manager for Babolat in the United States, explains that the brand emphasizes connecting with the expert player and the tennis fan. “It’s in our blood, it’s who we are,” he says. Instead of looking to a mass market for racquets, Babolat focused on the specialty area, prioritizing high-level tennis executives. “We live in this space,” Ogle says. “A tennis lover will visit a specialty tennis store or a well-heeled online warehouse. We’re talking about where the tennis lover shops, where they play and where they live, and we’re a brand that is in the ecosystem of where he lives every day.”
“We take care of people who love sport,” says Eric Babolat. And while Babolat focuses on high-end racquets used on pro tours, they also create frames that trickle down to price and technology to meet people so they can find something “right”.
Ogle says the recently released Pure Aero highlights this, with the Pure Aero at the top of the pyramid, then two lowered frames in the line designed for different levels of players to maximize their enjoyment of the game. “Yes, for the first time you pick up and swing a Pure Aero 98, it might not be a great experience,” he says. “But a Boost Aero, you can say, ‘Hey, I like that, I get some pop out of it’ and it’s a good experience.” At $109, Babolat also sells a lot of these frames.
As Babolat continues to focus on high-end racquets, they have begun to differentiate playstyles even more. The Pure Aero, known as the brand’s spin line, now has frames in the line focused on different styles of spin players, which Eric Babolat says addresses the specific performance needs of a variety of spin-oriented players and generational shifts.
“I think a one-size-fits-all approach would be completely wrong for this level of player,” Ogle says of the expansion of the Pure Aero line.
This focus on frames never strays too far from the strings for Babolat, with the company quick to point out that around 50% of a racquet’s performance comes from the strings. In 1875, Babolat invented the natural gut tennis string. Around WWII the brand evolved adding nylon, synthetics, a big change. Then came electronic stringing machines. The evolution accelerated under Eric Babolat with the phased introduction of frames in several markets from 1994, the addition of balls in 2000 and shoes in 2002, aided by a partnership with Michelin on technology and star American tennis player Andy Roddick to give the brand increased visibility. .
Babolat continues to build on this visibility, equipping its share of top players with racquets, but also keeping the sport’s young players and clubs equipped. Eric Babolat says they’re not interested in battling it out with general sports brands to spend money on head-to-toe apparel and footwear deals for top players (Babolat team Auger-Aliassime since 12, but as his marketing value increased, he signed more lucrative apparel sponsorship deals and Babolat focused on his racquet deal), choosing instead to direct attention to his gear base and its marketing to tennis fans.
As a new generation of tennis fans matures, Eric Babolat says Babolat remains focused on those who love the sport, just as Babolat has done since 1875.