Pros build a tower of Babolat

Andy Roddick recalls seeing the distinctive oval rackets with white stripes at European junior tournaments in the late 1990s. But it wasn't until his then-coach, former French tennis pro Tarik Benhabiles, carried the Babolat VS frames back from France that Roddick got one in his hands.

"After about five minutes, I asked him to get me a couple more," says Roddick, who switched and four months later was No. 1 in the world junior rankings.

Roddick, now 25 and the top-ranked American at this week's U.S. Open, was not the only instant Babolat convert. Then known primarily for strings, Babolat (BAH-bow-lah) took a swing at the racket market in 1994 and has become the fastest-growing maker in the world. It is third in world market share.

Babolat carefully orchestrated a U.S. launch seven years ago and now challenges market leaders Wilson Sporting Goods, Prince Sports and Head/Penn Racquet Sports, with 16% of the $110 million in U.S. specialty retail sales through the first half of 2007.

Among demanding pros, Babolat has served aces: About 22% of the top 100 male and female players use its frames, tying Wilson and Prince.

Mark Mason, owner of New York's Mason's Tennis Mart, says, "It is the greatest phenomenon in tennis racket history."

Kevin Kempin, vice president for sales and marketing with Head/Penn, says, "Where it was once Wilson, Head and Prince, Babolat has come along and added a fourth competitor."

Privately held Babolat was founded in 1875 and invented the first natural gut strings for tennis, so it had credibility when it gambled on rackets 13 years ago.

"We were already insiders," says Eric Babolat, 37, the fifth-generation CEO of the Lyon, France-based company. But it caught rivals flat-footed. "They didn't think we were serious about rackets."

Tragedy nearly derailed the push into frames, though. Eric's father, Pierre, died in the Swissair crash off Nova Scotia in 1998. At age 28, with only a few years of marketing experience, Eric became CEO just four years into the racket launch.

"I can say that it was a tough time, but it was clear for everyone to push the racket part of the business," says Eric, a father of two.

"I didn't question whether I wanted to do it. I just tried," adds the CEO, who has gone on to lead four-fold sales growth to about $116 million in 2006.

Babolat's first ace was successfully "seeding" its rackets to a generation of talented juniors by leveraging its top-notch strings. Essentially, it told them that to get free strings, they had to use Babolat rackets.

For its U.S. rollout, the company avoided chains and stuck with tennis-only retailers and pro shops that would better promote the brand. It has aggressively protected sales territories and "minimum advertised pricing," keeping margins and retailer loyalty high.

A simple product line and a focus on improving existing products has won buyers weary of seeing last year's racket supplanted by yet another "upgrade."

But the biggest breakthrough may have been landing Roddick. Babolat was a growing force in Europe (its first big pro win was Carlos Moya's championship in the 1998 French Open using the blue-and-white Pure Drive) when it signed Roddick. The big-serving heartthrob then surged in the rankings, capped by his 2003 U.S. Open win and subsequent ascent to No. 1.

"Their lightning in a bottle was getting Andy Roddick," says Don Hightower, president of online retailer, a unit of Sports Warehouse.

With Roddick and players such as triple French Open winner Rafael Nadal on board, the Pure Drive frame hit No. 1 in pro/specialty sales in September 2002 and held it all but two months through March 2006, reports researcher Sports Marketing Surveys.

Beyond pro visibility, the rackets had to strike a nerve with club players who, when spending $200-plus on frames, try them before buying. Light and maneuverable, with hip looks and features such as a "woofer" system that keeps the ball on the strings longer and vibration filtering, the rackets won both leisure and competitive players. "They sort of invented that 'tweener' category," Hightower says.

But just as Roger Federer has eclipsed Roddick atop men's tennis, Babolat faces a volley of challenges.

While U.S. sales continue to grow, dollar market share growth has flattened after peaking above 18%. Its three main rivals have new racket technologies this year, such as Wilson's K Factor (used by Federer) and Prince's O3 line (Maria Sharapova's choice).

"You keep wondering: Will Pure Drive keep selling?" says John Swetka, owner Swetka's Tennis Shop in Mountain View, Calif.

As Babolat has gone from about 150 to 900 U.S. outlets, distribution has been a challenge, and it has had to reassure retailers about territorial exclusivity.

Meanwhile, Babolat last year partnered with Michelin for its first foray into tennis shoes.

Perhaps most telling, Babolat's small lineup and players' racket reputation have limited headway into the oversized power frames many club players use — a weakness being seized upon by larger rivals. "Right now they are kind of a two-racket company," says Jon Muir, general manager of Wilson Racquet Sports, referring to the Pure Drive and AeroPro Drive lines.

These untapped markets could just as easily fuel Babolat growth. But this time around, the competition won't be caught at love.