Armed with a two-handled racket that resembles a pair of hedge clippers, Brian Battistone headed to the US Open to play mixed doubles this week.
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Never mind that he and partner Nicole Melichar lost Friday to Nuria Llagostera Vives and David Marrero of Spain in the first round. It was Battistone who caught the attention around Court 14 — a nonconformist with a strange racket and a strange jump serve, sporting the most unorthodox look at Flushing Meadows.
”People say it looks like hedge clippers, a divining rod — `Are you trying to find water with that thing?”’ Battistone said. ”They say it looks like jumper cables on a tennis racket.”
Melichar calls it ”The Alien.”
Battistone has heard it all.
”I’m the guy everyone knows about, probably kind of laughs about,” said the 33-year-old doubles specialist.
But, he says, he’s simply doing what works.
On a half-decade hiatus after a career as a high-level junior, Battistone was messing around at some courts by the beach one day six years ago, ”tossing the racket back and forth from one hand to another, just hitting two forehands.”
Up walked Lionel Burt, the man who invented the two-handled racket.
Figuring two heads are better than one, Burt struck up a conversation with Battistone. Not long after, they came up with a new design and went into business together. Before the racket, Battistone had never risen above 800 in the doubles rankings. After the racket, he got as high as 88th.
Not surprisingly, tennis players aren’t really prying these rackets off the shelves. But the two-handled models do make Battistone one of the most popular players anytime he walks into a locker room. Rafael Nadal, a true right-hander who plays tennis lefty, tried it once before a match two years ago.
Liked it. Just not that much.
”Anytime you do something that’s so unbelievably different, you expect a lot of the questions, comments, the snickering and those kind of things,” Battistone said.
After battling their way through the US Tennis Association’s playoff system to earn an unlikely spot in the US Open, Melichar wouldn’t trade Battistone as a doubles partner for anything.
His racket? ”Ummmmmm,” she said. ”It works for him.”
By switching from one grip to the other, Battistone says he gets full reach on each side and creates better angles on his groundstrokes and volleys.
”It gives me some advantage on different shots,” he said. ”The whole premise of it from the inventor’s perspective is, it’s more healthy to use each side of the body equally.”
With Battistone fluidly switching grips, switching hands, it’s sometimes hard to tell he’s using a radically different racket.
That crazy jump serve is a different story: Battistone lines up about two feet behind the baseline, jumps and tosses the ball with his right hand, switches the racket over to that hand, then explodes into the ball and lands a couple of feet in the court.
”It’s like a spike in volleyball,” he said. ”Works for me a lot of the time. But not today.”
Indeed, Marrero is no stranger to the two-headed monster of Battistone and his racket. In the 7-6 (3), 6-3 win Friday, he wasn’t fazed by all the nonconforming action coming at him from the other side of the net.
”Lots of strange angles,” Marrero said. ”You just really have to make sure you stay very focused when his shots are coming at you.”