BRADENTON — Brian Battistone may be one of the more unusual tennis players on the planet, yet even the sport's rebel admits that when he was introduced to the strange looking two-handled racket he wasn't sure what to think.
"I thought it was kind of a strange concept," admitted the player whose really strange serve is as unusual as the racket he uses to hit the tennis ball. "I wasn't sure if I could use it but it eventually made a lot of sense to me."
Now Brian Battistone, and his brother, Dann, are hoping to make more than a few cents off a racket that isn't your everyday garden variety.
The racket currently making a lot of noise around the lower levels of the tennis circuit is a two-handled contraption known as "The Natural." It sort of resembles a pair of garden shears, with two handles spreading out from the bottom of the throat of the racket. The idea is that it provides more power and allows players to be better balanced when hitting a tennis ball.
Though touted as a natural power-grip racket, it has yet to grab a hold in the tennis world but the Battistone brothers believe there is a future for the stick. So much so that they have become partners with the man who invented the bizarre-looking racket, and are exploring ways to market it now that it has been sanctioned as legal.
The top marketing strategy would be to produce results on the court and the Battistone boys are doing their best on that end by winning matches. This past week the brothers got to the semifinals of the Challenger tournament in Tunica, Miss. That means more ranking points, a little money and some recognition.
This week they won their first round in the $50,000 Hurricane Tennis Open, but lost Thursday to Carsten Bell and Lester Cook, a team they beat a week ago. The loss is but a small bump on a long journey on the back roads of professional tennis and the Battistone brothers don't discourage easily.
It's easy to find the Battistone doubles team during the tournament. There always seems to be a crowd at their matches, and it's not only because of the strange looking racket.
One glance at Brian Battistone hitting his serve almost always grabs the attention of spectators. He is hard to miss when he leaps into the air like a volleyball player to hit a serve that has a lot of punch.
The motion of the serve is almost mesmerizing. Holding the racket in his left hand, Battistone tosses the ball in the air with his right hand. He then leaps after it as if he is executing a volleyball jump serve. While in mid-flight, he switches the racket to his right hand and pounds the serve at a steep angle.
"The first couple serves you find yourself watching him," said Vamsee Chippidi, who along with Pedro Davisson experienced the serve firsthand in a first-round doubles matchup. "After a while you learn to just watch the ball and ignore all the other stuff. Still, it's coming at you at about 130 mph."
The Battistone brothers, who each spent a couple of years away from tennis while doing Morman missionary work in Rio de Janeiro, have currently reached a career-high doubles ranking. Dann, the left-hander, who played and coached at BYU, is ranked No. 374. Brian, the right-hander, and taller of the two, is at No. 375. They moved up 67 spots this past week and with each win they hear fewer jokes from skeptics.
Now their mission is to build on that success and take their act to a bigger stage.
Though the rackets are relatively new, Brian Battistone is an old hand at non-conformity on the tennis court. He was hitting that attention-grabbing jump serve back several years ago when he attended, then taught, at the Nick Bollettieri Tennis Academy at IMG Academy. He insists there was a method to his madness.
"I grew up playing basketball and jumping a lot," said Brian, who spent many years in California. "With the traditional serve I just couldn't get the elevation I wanted so I incorporated the volleyball motion."
Brian Battistone was introduced to the two-handled racket just over two years ago when he was playing at some local courts in Hermosa Beach. Adam Burt taught at the courts. Burt's father, Lionel Burt, had developed the racket. Watching Battistone switch the racket from hand-to-hand, Adam Burt suggested that Battistone check out the two-handled racket.
Six months later the Battistone brothers decided to go into business with the Burts.