All I Want is Spaghetti
It’s not that Michael Fishbach was a major force to bereckoned with during his tenure on the men’s pro tour. But
in the late days of summer in 1977, this 22-year-old Long Islander courted international headlines. And even more
than 30 years later, Fishbach’s 15 minutes of fame still garners occasional attention.
So what did Fishbach do to create his long-lasting legacy?
He delivered a one-two punch to Billy Martin and Stan Smith, respectively, as a qualifier at the 1977 U.S. Open. In the regular world of tennis, those two upsets would’ve been soon forgotten instead of recorded in tennis history. But those were matches that Fishbach won using a homemade spaghetti racket.
Fishbach grew up in tiny Great Neck, the town where F. Scott Fitzgerald spent some time living and for which he modeled West Egg, the fictionalized setting of The Great Gatsby. As soon as Fishbach arrived on the pro circuit after attending UC-Irvine, he quickly became known as a free spirit around the tour. One day when Fishbach was playing on the European swing, he saw 40-year-old Barry Phillips-Moore playing his matches with a curiosity of a racket, the original double-strung racket designed by Werner Fischer, a German horticulturist by trade and tennis junkie by hobby.
Phillips-Moore, an Australian long beyond his heyday, was not swinging this odd racket, but he was knocking down
wins he no longer should be posting.
The racket was just the kind of edgy tool of the trade that would captivate Fishbach’s attention – it looked different, almost like something a novice weaver might produce and hope a veteran craftsman would approve. One thing it definitely accomplished was to cause opponents to want to pull the hair out of their head in frustration. The spaghetti racket made tennis balls do crazy things although it in no way enhanced a player’s power. As Fishbach said in an August 2012 New York Times Magazine article, “Queens Was Burning Too,” written by Michael Steinberger, “I had a lot of wrist and racket control. If players were ranked on the basis of ability to produce severe angles and drop shots, I would have been among the top players in the world.”
Unfortunately, Fishbach’s interest in getting a look at the odd racket was thwarted as Phillips-Moore guarded his secret weapon as if he was James Bond 007, on a grand mission.
One day, however, while Fishbach was browsing in a camera store in Gstaad, Switzerland, he encountered a racket that very similarly resembled Phillips-Moore contraption.
Fishbach’s attempt to purchase the racket fell short – the camera store owner would not part with his possession. But he let Fishbach examine it closely enough to get a feel for how the stringing worked.
When he returned home Michael Fishbach to New York, Fishbach told his older brother, Peter, a former player and coach before joining the business world to eventually become a Senior Vice President at Philadelphia based Advanta, all about the spaghetti racket. The brothers immediately set to work at stringing their own spaghetti racket. It took 30 hours or so to do – there’s no sending out a racket for a quick stringing job when it came to the double-strung hammer – but in the end they combined various materials including nylon strings, plastic tubing an adhesive tape to fashion their version of the racket.
Ranked 200th in the world, Fishbach showed up with the racket to play the U.S. Open qualifying. Three matches won and he was into the 1977 U.S. Open main draw where the men’s matches were best two-out-of-three sets until the quarterfinals. After taking care of Billy Martin 6-1, 7-5 in the first round, Fishbach moved on to face the incomparable Stan Smith, a former Wimbledon and U.S. Open champion, in the second round. He didn’t just beat Smith; he pummeled him 6-0, 6-2, before going out to John Feaver in the third round.
A few weeks later, Ilie Nastase, who had lost to a spaghetti racket-wielding Frenchman Georges Goven at Paris in September 1977, showed up with a spaghetti racket of his own to play Guillermo Vilas. The Argentine, cruising on a 53-match winning streak, was so outraged at the unnatural shot making the racket produced that after playing two sets he forfeited the match as well as the winning streak.
Prior to the appearance of the spaghetti racket, the ITF had no rules set for what is a legal or illegal tennis racket. That all changed with this controversial new stick that took away any of the judgment an opponent normally could make on what type of shot was about to come back at them. It wasn’t long after Fishbach and Nastase’s use of the spaghetti racket that the ITF placed a temporary ban on the use of this newfangled racket in October 1977. By June 1978, the spaghetti racket was forever outlawed in the game and nowadays there
are rules and regulations as to what constitutes a legal racket design.
In today’s world of tennis, while layered strings remains a violation, many players prefer synthetic strings that enhance the spin on a ball and help disguise ball bounces better than old-fashioned gut strings of the past. As Fishbach said to Steinberger in that New York Times article, “They banned the spaghetti racket, but they’ve been chasing it ever since.”
After a decade playing pro tennis and reaching a career high of No. 47 in January 1978, Fishbach hung up his regulation rackets and retired from the game. Fishbach has gone on to have a successful career as a conservationist and is very involved in the preservation of whales.
“The Greatest Jewish Tennis Players of All Time,” the new book by sportswriter Sandra Harwitt that documents the stories of the best-ever Jewish tennis players, is now available for sale by New Chapter Press. You can buy the book at Amazon.com.