NEW YORK, Sept 2 (Reuters) - There are many ways to get noticed at the U.S. Open.
Some players have tattoos, some throw temper tantrums others wear outlandish clothing but only Brian Battistone has a two-handled racket.
Battistone once spent two years in Brazil preaching Christian values as part of a Mormon mission but whatever else the 33-year-old American does in his life, chances are he will be known for a phenomenal contraption, a racket with two handles that looks more like garden shears than a piece of sporting equipment.
“I call it the alien,” said Nicole Mellichar, his partner in the mixed doubles at the U.S. Open.
”The common nicknames are “hedge clippers” or a “divining rod”, said Battistone, who has become something of a celebrity on the tennis circuit ever since he first hit the Tour in 2007.
“‘Are you trying to find water with that thing?’ is another”.
“It’s called The Natural. The new version we’re coming out with is actually called ‘The Freestyle’.”
Watching Battistone play is a bizarre experience in itself; the ball may go from one end of the court to the other yet your eyes are transfixed on his racket.
The theory behind the two handles is that Battistone is able to hold each one with a forehand grip and hit two forehands, which should be stronger.
“I‘m just able to hit any shot with either hand, so I have full reach on both sides,” Battistone said. “I feel like the angles give me some advantages on different shots and the whole premise of it, from the inventor’s perspective, is that it’s more healthy for the body to use each side equally.”
Players are used to seeing Battistone and his racket now but when he first came along, more than a few eyebrows were raised. When he played with his brother, Dann, on the ATP Tour and at Challenger Tour level, they were sworn at, called clowns and freaks and generally dismissed as a circus act.
Others, though, are more intrigued and even Rafa Nadal, during the 2010 U.S. Open picked it up to have a swing.
“He was about to go on for his match and he was asking me questions about it and swinging it around a little bit,” Battistone said.
”I said, ‘Hey you’re a natural righty, you could play with two forehands’ and he just laughed. What was funny was that he then went out and he went down a break in the first set and it was not looking good at all.
“I was like, ‘oh no, it’s thrown off his timing’. But of course he came back and won the tournament, so it was OK.”
British doubles specialist Colin Fleming, who is ranked in the world’s top 30, has played against Battistone and described it as a “unique experience”.
”I’ve looked at the racket and there’s just no way I could play with it,“ Fleming said. ”He can hit one-handed with it as well which I don’t understand because obviously the beam (gets in the way).
“I don’t think I’ll ever be using it but it’s amazing. Everyone’s interested to see him play, definitely. He always attracts a crowd.”
Battistone is a partner in the company that owns the racket with its inventor, Lionel Burt, and after selling out the first set of 1,500 rackets, they are about to roll out another order.
“It’s obviously not big numbers, by any means,” he said. “It’s just people who have been curious. We’ve done no marketing, it’s just been me on the Tour playing and for a while with me and my brother as well.”
Battistone only got into the U.S. Open mixed doubles after winning a wild-card playoff and his ranking has dropped in recent years as he focused more on coaching.
But having only begun to use the racket when he was 27, he believes it has made him a better player.
The double-grip gizmo, however, has certainly not made Battistone invincible, the American and his partner losing their first-round match at Flushing Meadows.
”I played Futures and Challengers for a while and I never got above about 800,“ he said. ”Once I actually committed myself and started playing with this racket I made it as high as 88 in doubles.
“It obviously takes someone who is thinking outside the box, not in the traditional way of tennis teaching. But I think for what I‘m trying to do, with my game style, it fits.”
Battistone’s volleyball-style serve is also unorthodox. He throws the ball up with his right hand, switches the racket from left to right and then leaps up before striking the ball.
“I was just on the tennis court one day and thought, ‘Wow, if I could just toss it up, more like a spike serve in volleyball, I’d feel like I could get into the net quicker and it would help me create more angle.’ It works for me a lot of the time.” (Editing by Steve Keating)