Recently, I received an e-mail from one of my readers. In his correspondence, he posed a very simple question. Do racquets lose their "punch" over time? In his case, he had several favorite frames that were beginning to seem a bit "dead" to him.
Well, at this time of year, many of you may be dusting off the frames, and getting ready for some fun on the courts in sunny weather. At least, I hope that is the case for many of you.
Around this time of year, I always receive numerous e-mails asking me about frames, string tension, string types, etc. Many readers ask me to recommend a frame for them, given their style of play or goals with respect to style of play. I never give specific recommendations. I deliberately do not allow myself to be sponsored by any tennis related company. I avoid pictures of myself in my column, in that; I dont want readers to come to the conclusion that I endorse any specific line of products.
For me, remaining free of this type of pro support enables me to be objective in answering reader questions that address the general area of tennis products.
This month, I will dedicate my column to answering basic questions, separating fact from myth, and hopefully, giving you a clear path and direction with respect to your own equipment needs this season.
First, I must say that the single best resource for anything related to tennis frames and stringing is the United States Racquet Stringers Association (USRSA). They have a website which can be reached by going to www.usrsa.com. This site provides a wealth of knowledge and is a place where you can find a certified USRSA stringer near you.
In my area, Chris Gauidreau, owner of the Racquet Koop, is a Master USRSA certified stringer. His advice to customers is always well founded and helpful. I never take my racquets (or those of my team members) to any other facility. He is that good. Compare his knowledge, service and advice to those who are the typical sales person at a major retail outlet, and you will immediately know why I go nowhere else.
Lets begin with frames. The first question is, "Do I need a new frame or model?" Well, this is a question that is difficult to answer. Favorite frames have a special attraction many players. We become used to the frame and can predict its characteristics with respect to play qualities. Still, frames do change over time. Depending on the amount of play that they have had, and their age, the frame may actually have lost its preferred playing characteristics.
So, how does one know when a frame is somewhat spent? Again, seeking the advice of a professional is helpful in answering this question. However, if you notice that your frame is no longer "lively," it is probably an indication that it is time to replace that particular frame. You can lower tension by a few pounds when a frame becomes a bit "dead," and it will add a little snap to its playing qualities. But, sooner or later, this frame is going to be no longer providing the attributes that were at one time so attractive.
Even if your frames have not gone "dead," they need to be refurbished. Restringing is essential, but replacing the grip is another essential maintenance item to be completed. Most of us remember to replace the strings, but since we use over grips, we dont think about replacing the actual grip itself.
When we replace over grips, we usually take a little of the racquet grips surface off. It literally sticks to the underside of the over grip. Over time, this can add up to a significant difference in the grips size and shape. Since having the proper grip for each stroke is so essential, a serious player cannot overlook this aspect of getting her/his sticks ready for play.
If you decide that you do need a new frame, chances are that your old frame is no longer in production. Lets be honest. Racquet companies come out with "new" frames every year in the hope of getting players to replace their existing frames. Hey, its a business. You cant blame them for wanting to increase sales.
The real question is, what frame do you want? The only way to discover this is through racquet demo programs. You cant judge a racquet until you have actually played with it. USRSA affiliate shops normally have such programs. Having a discussion with one of their racquet technicians can save you lots of time testing different frames, and bring you to the right choice more quickly.
Even if you have tried a frame through a demo program and like it, I would recommend that you buy only a single frame at first. Why? Well, demo frames normally have L3 or 4 3/8 grips. You may build it up with over grip, but this is never the same as a grip of exact size. In addition, demo frames are normally strung at a medium recommended tension. This may not be the right tension for you.
Buying a single frame, tinkering with its tension, and playing with it for a significant period of time will assure that you have made the right choice. Then, if you are a competitive player who needs several frames, you can purchase more.
Stringing is another consideration. There are so many different strings available that it is impossible to comment on each. Suffice it to say that there are four principle families of strings: Natural gut, superior synthetic gut, synthetic gut and tournament nylon.
Natural gut has the best playing characteristics. This is why the pros almost always prefer to use this type of string. However, it is very expensive and can wear more quickly
especially if it is exposed to moisture.
Superior synthetic gut strings are a good choice for many serious players. They have good playing characteristics and usually wear a bit better than natural gut. They are not inexpensive, however.
Most players are fine with synthetic gut. It plays well, wears well and is usually very affordable. If you break strings frequently, this is probably the only choice that makes financial sense.
Tournament nylon I would avoid at all costs. It is durable, but its playing characteristics are, at best, lackluster. It is, however, the most affordable and usually doesnt snap quickly.
String gauge is another area of confusion for players. The higher the string gauge number, the thinner it is. Thus, 15 gauge string is significantly thicker than 17 gauge. Usually, thinner gauge strings provide a bit more "feel" to the racquet frame. However, thicker gauge strings are more durable. As often is the case in life, there are tradeoffs.
Regarding tension, it is important to note that two strings at the same tension do not behave exactly the same way in terms of play characteristics. The quality of the string is one factor. However, string tension plays a role play characteristics too.
Lets say you have a 15 gauge string in your frame at 60 pounds of tension. If you used the same type of string at 17 gauge and string it at the same tension
the latter will be "tighter" in terms of its play characteristics.
Tensions can vary greatly from machine to machine, if they are not calibrated frequently. Again, having a professionally certified technician stringing your frames makes clear sense with respect to consistency.
The last item on your checklist of things to do in getting ready for the season concerns footwear. Most players never really consider this factor at the beginning of a season.
Truthfully, different shoes are needed for different surfaces. The most obvious example involves playing on grass. The dimple-soled shoe is an absolute requisite for this surface. Without it, you will slide all over the court and fall frequently. Everyone at Wimbledon dons this type of shoe.
Clay court shoes are generally the type of shoe that has a moderate pattern to its soles ridges. On clay, one needs to slide into the shot. If the tread is too severe, the sliding becomes more difficult.
Hard court shoes are those that have clear and well-defined treads. The ability to stop without sliding is critical on this surface.
New shoes generally provide a problem for players. Literally, they need to be broken in. I recommend walking around in a pair of shoes wearing two pairs of socks. This will break in the shoe without giving you blisters.
I like to have two pairs of shoes broken in at any given time. Actually, I have four pairs, because I play on clay and on hard courts. I alternate pairs (given the surface) to provide even wear.
If you are competing in tennis, you always want to have a spare pair of shoes in your tennis bag. This is especially true if you play exclusively on hard court surfaces. Why? Well, hard courts can actually become so hot that the sole of the shoe begins to melt. Having an extra pair in your bag will afford you the opportunity to always be playing with shoes that are least likely to succumb to this phenomenon.
Lastly, it is always possible that your shoes become damaged during play. This is especially likely if you are a player who drags his/her toe as he/she serves. I can relate many stories about collegiate players discovering that their shoes had "broken" and had no substitutes to replace them. Moving in this game is tough enough. A flapping toe on your shoe is a problem that no player needs.
Well, these are the basics that every player needs to consider as she/he prepares for the outdoor season. For some, there has been a hiatus from the game during the winter months. For others, they have been competing throughout the cold months. Either way, it is imperative to take inventory of these matters as you get ready for outdoor play.
I assure you that, if you tend to these matters, you will become a tennis overdog!