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March 2013 Article

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Equipment Primer

Ron Waite Photo
Ron Waite, USPTR

It is definitely that time of year again. You are beginning to seriously think about and prepare for the upcoming outdoor season. Each year, seasonal players dust off their racquets, explore buying a new stick, and generally become equipment oriented. March and April are the two months that I receive the most inquiries from readers about equipment related questions.
 
So this month, I want to present the reader with a primer on the basics of racquet and string technology. I must first give credit to Rod Cross and Crawford Lindsey. I was fortunate to be invited to contribute photographic images to their book, Technical Tennis: Racquets, Strings, Balls, Courts, Spin, and Bounce. This book will clearly and in detail answer virtually any question you may have about racquets and/or strings. In addition, Cross and Lindsey explore the specific physics associated with ball bounces, spin, etc. This compact book is not beyond the limits of understanding for the average player. I strongly recommend purchasing this as a reference tool.
 
I mention the above text because some, if not most, of what I will be presenting in this month's column is taken from Technical Tennis. I always like to provide proper attribution to material that I glean from other's work.
 
So, let's begin this exploration by raising a question: Why do you want to consider a different racquet?
 
Like everything in this world, racquets over time change given the wear and tear they experience from practice and match play. Indeed, it is safe to say that at some point every frame becomes a bit "dead." By this, I mean that the responsive characteristics of the racquet have changed and the racquet no longer performs as it once did. This is why pros carry many racquets and are constantly receiving new racquets throughout the "tours' year."
 
Many, if not most, pros on the tour have each frame customized by a racquet expert to provide absolute consistency among all their frames. This consistency includes factors like total weight, balance, grip size and grip shape. Assuming that the racquet's stiffness is consistent as well, the pro can be relatively certain that each stick will feel and play the same. For pros on either tour, little differences can make the difference between a winning and losing match.
 
In America, the USRSA (United States Racquet Stringers Association) is the organization of professional stringers and master racquet professionals that can provide similar services to we mortal players. By going to their website at http://www.racquettech.com/, you can find a certified stringer near you, and perhaps a master racquet technician. The latter can make all of your frames near if not perfectly identical.
 
If you are looking for a new racquet frame because your older frames are less responsive or significantly showing wear and tear, you probably can find the same frame available. However, manufacturers are always changing each year's models to provide what may or may not be better technological advances. In some instances, only the cosmetics of the frame may be changed. If you are a seasoned player, you probably DO NOT want to change the frame you have been using. If your frames have served you well in the past, there is no guarantee that a new and different frame is going to improve your game.
 
I don't promote manufacturers in my column. But, I will confess that the frame that I use has been in production in one form or another since the early 1990's!!! Some modifications are made each year, but nothing that a master technician can't adapt to your individual preferences.
 
If you are looking for a frame to improve your game, you are probably going to have a relatively long search! As novice players advance, it is likely that they seek to upgrade to more expensive frames, stringing, etc.
 
As a coach and teacher, I have seen myriad players who begin each outdoor season with the new, latest and greatest stick. They swear the new stick will improve anyone's game. There may be some truth in this statement, but truthfully, technique and form are the criteria that improve one's game... not the racquet.
 
If you are in search of a new frame for whatever reason, you will want to demo the potential frames. Demo frames are almost always Level 3 grips (4 and 3 eighths). You can raise the grip size by one level by adding a layer of over grip. If you put two layers of over grip on the handle, you can move the frame to a Level 5 (Four and 5 eighths). Still, you won't really have the same exact "feel" these modified grips as opposed to frames that are actually sized to your precise preference.
 
Most demos are strung with synthetic gut of lower quality and at the middle tension given the racquets recommend tension range.
 
My point? Demo your racquets on more than one occasion. Make certain that you take at least a week off in between demoing the same frame.
 
If possible, try to use a friend's frame that has your preferred grip size. The more frames of any given model you demo, the more likely it is that you will arrive at a realistic assessment. Once you make a decision, buy only a single frame. Tinker with different strings and tensions until you find the ideal combination. It may be that after a month of hitting with the frame, you discover that the frame is indeed NOT what you are seeking.
 
Still, demoing different frames is the only way in which you can "shop" wisely for a new and different frame. Never buy a racquet "blind!!!"
 
Having said all of this let's get down to basics.
 
GRIPS: There is no magic formula or measurement technique that will truly match you with the right size grip. The only way to know what grip size is right for you is to experiment. My only recommendation is that you select the smallest size grip that is viable for you. Why? Well, it is my experience that smaller grips do improve one's first serve power/accuracy and one's volleys.
 
There is another dimension to grips that is frequently overlooked... grip shape.
 
To illustrate what I mean, I will compare a Babolat to a Head racquet frame. The Babolat has clearly a very different grip shape than what is found on Head racquets. Prince grips, however, are very similar in grip shape to Babolat frames. My point is simple... discover what grip shape (elongated vs. wide) you prefer in addition to finding the right grip size.
 
Another variable with grip is whether you use over grip and what kind you prefer. Personally, I do not like to use any over grip. I find that the more noticeable "cut" of the bevels when the no over grip is used allows me to "find my grips" more quickly and surely. One must remember that even a slight variance in how you grip your frame as you execute a shot can make a major difference in the ball's trajectory.
 
If you do prefer over grip, there are tacky and non-tacky varieties. Some over grips are a bit thinner than others. Here again, you need to experiment with various over grips to discover which brand and type are right for you.
 
FRAMES: There are a few variables to consider when selecting a frame apart from its grip characteristics.
 
First, there is racquet length. Some years back, manufacturers were making frames that were 29 inches long (2 inches longer than the standard 27 inch frame). Today, you really have only two choices: 27 inches (the traditional length) or 27 and a half inches.
 
I have seen some strange frames in my day. I can recall the days of 'widebody" frames, frames with unusual stringing patterns, etc. Most of these were nothing more than fads and gimmicks.
 
In truth, the only two lengths that make sense are the two commonly manufactured today. Recently, I conducted an experiment with some collegiate players. I gave them "unmarked" frames. The players could not tell by the racquet information which was 27 inches and which was 27 and a half inches. Not surprisingly, some of the players guessed which was which incorrectly. Most hit equally well with either length. To prove my point, I had them hit with a junior sized racquet of 26 inches. Guess what? After several minutes, they were all hitting well with this much smaller frame.
 
My point is simple. Racquet length is not as important as many players seem to think!
 
Head size is a critically different variable in selecting a frame. Oversized racquets (e.g. 110 square inches) are generally on the decline. Mid-plus racquet heads (95 to 98 square inches) seem to be the most popular among intermediate and advanced players. I, however, prefer the older midsized head of 93 inches.
 
Generally, beginners benefit from larger head frames. These provide a larger "sweet spot" and thus, the player can hit a little off center so to speak and still have solid ball contact. The problem is that larger heads increase the trampoline effect of the racquet. This up and down motion diminishes control a bit.
 
My preferred midsized frame is great for serves and I love the "feedback" I get from the strings. I don't mishit often. So the smaller hitting area is really not a problem for me. Still, most players find the mid-plus head to be the right blend of power, control and forgiveness.
 
Like a pair of shoes, you need to try on the different head sizes to know with certainty which is best for you. Andre Agassi used an oversized head. Pete Sampras used a very small 85 square inch head. Both were outstanding pros!
 
In deciding on the right head size, my advice is to hit on a wall or a backboard with all three sizes. I assure the reader that in a half hour (10 minutes for each size) you will come to learn which is best for you. I am not certain why this works, but I have yet to see it fail.
 
Racquet weight is another variable to consider. Lighter frames are more maneuverable and may be better at the net. However, lighter frames are generally requiring more muscle to impart power to groundstrokes and serves. It has been my experience that senior players and many female recreational players prefer lighter frames.
 
I prefer somewhat heavier frames. It is all a matter of personal preference based on experience.
 
There is one advantage to having a lighter frame... you can always add weight to it using lead tape, if you discover that it is too light. Making a heavy racquet light is really not viable.
 
Each racquet also has a balance. Some are more head light (meaning less weight in the head of the racquet frame) than others. Even when buying two identical frames, the balance is usually not the same in each, while the overall weight probably is. Using lead tape, a master racquet technician can most of the time make every racquet frame have the same weight and balance characteristics.
 
Racquet stiffness is an inherent part of the frame design. Stiffer frames tend to provide more power because they do not bend as easily when hitting the ball. The down side to stiffer frames can be that they impart more "shock" to the arm. Over time, a stiff racquet can lead to arm problems.
 
Generally, racquet manufacturers assign a stiffness number to each model. A number of 5 for example usually means the racquet is stiffer than one given a rating of 7. Stiffness numbers can be very confusing. Suffice it to say that there are three different types of racquet stiffness: stiff, medium and flexible.
 
Stiff frames impart more power and require shorter backswings. Flexible frames are usually less powerful but require a longer backswing. Most pros use frames that are either medium or flexible. Most recreational players prefer stiff and medium frames. Still, you need to discover what stiffness is best for you!
 
Given the above variables, you can easily see why a racquet choice is no easy decision. I have a friend who plays the national USTA age tournaments. He rarely if ever changes what frame he uses. He has used the same specific frame model for about 8 years now. However when making his selection from his previous model, he spent an entire summer demoing numerous frames.
 
I don't expect the recreational player to be as extensive in the demo process, but it is wise to be patient and truly "discover" the right frame for you.
 
STRINGS: Given the many different brands and types of string available today, I would probably need an entire column to fully cover this topic. However, we are sticking to basics in this month's effort. So, I will try to give you a rudimentary understanding of stringing considerations.
 
There are in my mind these categories of string: Natural Gut, Polyester, Better Synthetic Gut, Basic Synthetic Gut, Kevlar and Nylon.
 
Nylon is rarely used. It is cheap, but has very few desirable play characteristics. However, nylon rarely snaps or breaks. It lasts for a very long time. However, it is constantly losing tension as time goes on. (Actually, all stings lose tension over time.)
 
Natural Gut is the most expensive string. It is literally made from the intestines of bovines. Natural Gut was the mainstay for pros for the last 100 years. It is extremely comfortable with which to hit, and its play characteristics (feel, power, spin) are outstanding.
 
Synthetic Gut encompasses a wide spectrum of materials, patterns and cost. Most recreational and intermediate players use some form of Better or Basic Synthetic Gut. Usually, this type of sting provides a nice balance of cost, durability and desirable play characteristics.
 
Polyester string has revolutionized the game of tennis. It has a play characteristic that is very desirable... it really can provide more spin on the ball than virtually any other string. It is a bit on the expensive side, but it wears pretty well.
 
Kevlar is rarely used by anyone today. This is the same material used in making bullet proof vests! It is very stiff, hard on the arm and provides little if any feel or feedback. It was always used as main strings with some form of Synthetic Gut for the crosses to help offset its very undesirable play characteristics. Its only advantage is that it rare, if ever, snaps. I have seen the synthetic gut cross stings snap before Kevlar main strings in a frame. This mixture of Kevlar main strings with Synthetic Gut cross strings was one of the first hybrid forms of stringing.
 
Today, there are many common hybrid string combinations. Some pros prefer Polyester main strings and use Natural Gut for the crosses. Indeed, there are hybrid blends that combine Polyester and Synthetic Gut.
 
Personally, I use Polyester for my main strings and Natural Gut for my crosses. I don't endorse string manufacturers, but I will confess that it took me quite a while to find the right combination of sting brands for my hybrid stringing.
 
Of course, tension is a critical variable in stringing. The higher the tension, the more control one has. The lower the tension the more power the racquet will provide... if one applies the same backswing and forward movement "pressure."
 
Tension and string gauge are interconnected. 17 gauge string is thinner than 15 gauge string. If one strings a racquet with 17 gauge string at let's say 57 pounds, and does an identical frame using 15 gauge string at 57 pounds; the effective tension will be tighter in the 17 gauge frame. More simply put, the thinner the gauge the more effective tension is produced.
 
I read once that Pete Sampras would string his racquets using 18 gauge, Natural Gut string at a tension of 80 pounds! This is shockingly tight and the effective tension must have been very, very high. Of course, he was increasing his overall control with this effective tension. Clearly, he didn't need any help in the power department.
 
My friend whom I mention earlier stings his 16 gauge Natural Gut at 45 pounds. Yes, this is not a typo. 45 pounds!!! He is using effective tension to increase his power significantly. Frankly, I don't know how he is able to control the ball at all... but I assure you his national ranking gives support to the fact that he does control the ball well.
 
So as you can see, there are many factors that go into a racquet/string combination. I admit that all of this can be a bit daunting and confusing. Thus, I strongly recommend Technical Tennis. It not only explains the basics, it also provides you with the science behind why racquets and strings behave the way they do.
 
Everyone is excited when she/he adopts a new racquet model. The hope is that there will be instantaneous improvement in her/his game.
 
The reality given my experience over these many years is that eventually everyone returns to the same strokes. For a while the new frame seems to be making a world of difference. But over time, our mind and muscle memory make adjustments. Almost without fail, the player returns to strokes that are no better than they were with the previous model.
 
Yes, experimenting with new frames, strings, tensions, etc. can yield some lasting results. However, this can be a very expensive journey.
 
If you are truly ready for something new... go for it. Be patient and don't commit to a racquet model rashly. Narrow your search down to perhaps two or three different models. Using the same string (probably a Basic Synthetic Gut which is affordable), and using the same tension arrive at your final decision.
 
Once you make the commitment to a frame (remember... only buy one), you want to experiment with different strings and different tensions. Here dialogs with a USRSA certified stringer will go a long way toward helping you fine tune your racquet/string/tension combination.
 
When you reach this point, you are ready to buy more frames. Take them to a USRSA master technician and have each frame weighted and balanced for consistency. Now, you can be assured that each time you pick up any of your two or three frames that you will truly using the "same stick."
 
Racquet/string/tension combination is very important. But if you truly want to improve, you need to work on form and execution. However when you have the right stick and the right strokes working together, you will soon become a tennis overdog!
 

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This column is copyrighted by Ron Waite, all rights reserved. Questions and comments about these columns can be directed to Ron by using this form.

Ron Waite is a certified USPTR tennis instructor who took up the game of tennis at the age of 39. Frustrated with conventional tennis methods of instruction and the confusing data available on how to learn the game, Ron has sought to sift fact from fiction. In his seven years of tennis, Ron has received USTA sectional ranking four years, has successfully coached several NCAA Division III men's and women's tennis teams to post season competition, and has competed in USTA National singles tournaments. Ron has trained at a number of tennis academies and with many of the game's leading instructors.

In addition to his full-time work as a professor at Albertus Magnus College, Ron photographs ATP tour events for a variety of organizations and publications. The name of his column, TurboTennis, stems from his methods to decrease the amount of time it takes to learn and master the game of tennis.


 

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