Originally written on Tennis Panorama  |  Last updated 11/10/14

The New York Times Magazine:

Who Made That Tennis-Ball Hopper?

A frustrated gym teacher’s new use for a trash can.

Link: http://www.nytimes.com/2012/08/26/magazine/who-made-that-tennis-ball-hopper.html?ref=magazine

By PAGAN KENNEDY

In the 1960s, Jake Stap ran two Wisconsin tennis camps, where he spent way too much time gathering the tennis balls scattered around the courts. “That was the bugaboo — getting the kids to pick up the balls,” said his daughter, Sue Kust.

One day, driving to his job as a gym teacher in Highland Park, Ill., Stap pinched the ball that was rolling on the seat beside him. The rubber yielded under his fingertips. “That’s when I woke up,” Stap said. He rigged a wastepaper basket with a rigid wire handle and bars across its bottom: pressing down on a ball would cause it to squeeze through the bars and stay in the basket. He called his device a “ball hopper.”

That summer, at camp, “it was a mad dash for the ball hoppers,” Kust said. Stap noticed a few men drawing on sketch pads on the sidelines of the courts. “I walked over and asked them what they were doing, and they said, ‘We’re thinking about marketing this.’ ”

On the advice of a lawyer, Stap applied for a patent and founded a company in 1968. He ran Ball Hopper Inc. out of his garage; his daughters assembled the ball hoppers, twisting on wing nuts. They sold just 87 the first year.

And then came the tennis mania of the ’70s: Billie Jean King, Bjorn Borg and white short shorts. Suddenly everyone wanted one. “We sold them to pro stores, and the big chain stores picked it up,” Stap said. “I quit teaching.” Kust said: “When people saw how it worked and how simple it was, they would always say, ‘I could have thought of that.’ But they didn’t think of it.”

MONKS’ RULES

Dr. Heiner Gillmeister, a historian at Bonn University in Germany, has studied the origin of tennis.

The game of tennis began in medieval monasteries. How was it played? The ball could be hit or kicked on the volley or on the rebound. The rectangular halves of the cloisters became our tennis courts.Balls had to be served on the roof of the gallery.

You once wrote that a 12th-century monk believed devils played tennis in hell. Was that the first mention of the game in recorded history? Yes, the first mention of tennis comes from Caesarius of Heisterbach, a German monk. Looking for a suitable image to describe the pains awaiting a sinner in hell, he could not think of worse torturers than tennis-playing devils.

Who invented the tennis lesson? The first tennis lessons were administered to princes and young noblemen who received their education in the medieval monastery. Their teachers were those members of the religious community who mastered the ball better than the Bible.

Excerpt used wiht permission of the New York Times magazine

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