Lionel Burt: Mister “Natural”
Adam Burt warms up with the Natural during the Mammoth Open. Is he actually right-handed, though? Good question! (Photo: Geisel)
The roots of tennis date back as early as 12th century France, though the modern version played today didn’t emerge until the 19th century. In all that time, surprisingly little has changed about the game. The scoring, rules … even the surfaces (clay and grass) are much the same today as they were then.
The biggest advance has been in racquet technology, though until Santa Monica resident Lionel Burt came along, nothing had been done to address one of the game’s major faults (pun intended): the physiological imbalance inherent in playing it. Burt, now 77, came up with the idea for the racquet he first called “The Natural” 22 years ago, when he first picked up a tennis racquet. (Today, he likes to refer to it as “The Healthy Racquet.”)
“I was a ski instructor and race coach in Lake Tahoe, Canada, and June Lake, and I also taught a lot of golf. After hitting what must have been 10 million golf balls, I had numbness in my leg and I got the message.”
Golf’s one-sidedness had resulted in a curvature to his spine and the resultant problems associated with it. “I took up tennis, tossing the racquet from hand to hand, basically playing forehand to both sides for a more balanced workout. That changed everything.”
As he improved and the ball was coming at him faster, he got the idea to fabricate a racquet that would allow him to do the same thing without having to change grips. “A welder attached two handles on an aluminum frame for me. It looked a little odd, but it worked. I did it for health reasons, but I soon ended up being able to beat the pants off my opponents.”
After testing some of the racquet’s early healthy design incarnations, Lionel came up with a working prototype. “Brian Battistone became the first pro player to pick up and use it. That’s when I think we found the right combination of racquet and player,” Lionel recalled. Brian’s brother Dann soon followed, since then it’s been a steady, though slow, trip from the workshop to the court.
The secret to the Natural is its novel double-grip design, which corrects what Burt calls the “lopsidedness” of sports such as tennis. “Tennis players continually use only one side of the body, which leaves them vulnerable to injury,” Burt explained. Hip and back problems, he said, are mainly due to using one dominant arm, and perhaps less obvious, a dominant leg. “The Power-Grip design provides balance and lets a player hit a shot from either side of the body.”
Of course, strategy plays its part, too. The ability to disguise one’s shots is an undeniable added feature of the racquet. As Lionel points out, successful two-handed pro players, such as Monica Seles and Fabrice Santoro, have been able to place shots well away from their opponents. “Watch my son, Adam, who’s a pro, or any of his students play … you can’t tell if they’re left- or right-handed,” he said. “The ‘serve to the backhand’ countermeasure won’t work!”
Burt is convinced that the two-grip position allows contact with the ball in such a way that it creates new and improved spins and angles. Is he onto something? The proof could well be in his considerable success on the court.
“I often play with guys half my age and I don’t have any trouble hanging with them,” he said. “What you’re mostly doing is eliminating the driving topspin backhand. With a one-handed backhand, even Roger Federer who’s one of the world’s best will tell you it’s a tough shot to play.”
Sheet: What if Federer used the Healthy Racquet?
Burt: “If Federer had a forehand on each side, he could stay home and just phone it in. They’d just send him a check and the trophy UPS!”
Burt is the first to admit that getting the Healthy Racquet to catch on in the market hasn’t been without its challenges. “We had some unrealistic expectations 20 years ago that it would be gobbled up by the big frame makers.”
Sheet: Why is that? Is the game of tennis reluctant to change?
Burt: “Sure it is. We’re still counting the score as 15-30-40. Why not a simple 1-2-3 game? Other things in tennis make no sense whatsoever. For instance, you have two serves! Imagine what would happen in golf if you had two drives off the tee and you could use the best one!”
It may have taken more than 20 years to get to this point, but the racquet’s day may be coming soon. With the amount of exposure it’s getting, tennis is going to have a harder and harder time ignoring the upstart racquet.
Now ATP touring pros, the Battistones’ doubles team has already notched a current world doubles ranking in the 100s after only one year on the tour. Jim Martineau won the 45+ nationals last year, and Trent Aaron got his first ATP point winning a challenger event in Germany earlier in the summer, all with the Natural. And as if that weren’t enough, Brian recently earned a wildcard entry in the singles’ draw at this year’s U.S. Open. “Win or lose, the exposure is going to be phenomenal,” Burt enthused.
Numerous coaches, trainers and everyday players have given their “thumbs up” to the Natural. Burt’s son, Adam, could be seen using it recently at Snowcreek Athletic Club during this year’s Mammoth Open Tourney.
His racquet’s also been the subject of 49 feature stories (this one makes an even 50!) in top publications such as Tennis magazine, Inside Tennis, and Deuce, the pro tour’s official publication. CBS also did a story on the racquet for its evening newscast.
Burt also invented the STRUT, a precursor to the short “back support” for the feet now found on today’s snowboards. “Many of the old-timers will remember having seen it on local TV.” He also created the Mammoth Follies comedy ski revues, which were done without elaborate staging, but married music to slide projection and visuals long before the advent of MTV music videos.
So, devising what could prove to be one of the biggest advances in tennis since its inception while in his mid-50s doesn’t seem the least bit odd to Burt. Thomas Edison invented the light bulb when he was 32. For him, there’s no optimum time to create something.
“It’s about having a practical mindset. You look at something, take it apart in your head and say, ‘How do we make it better?’ Inventors aren’t really any more genius than anyone else,” he maintains. “The equation’s simple: interest plus work equals success.”
The 110 square inch Natural conforms to official International Tennis Federation rules. It only comes in a 4 1/4” grip, but is made in different lengths. For more info, visit www.naturaltennis.com.