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How to Properly "Demo" a Racquet

Ron Waite Photo
Ron Waite, USPTR

Normally, I am not a person who deviates from a planned course of action. But, during the last few weeks, I have received so much e-mail from readers regarding the purchasing of a new racquet, that it seems prudent for me to make such a deviation.

Those of you who read my column regularly know that for the past several editions, I have focused on what I call Integrated Tennis. We are in the process of looking at each stroke to determine what ingredients need to be in place to create a reliable, consistent and integrated stroke. I assure you that, next month, we will continue our series with a focus on the Eastern Forehand. This column will be particularly well-timed because the Eastern Forehand is, perhaps, the best forehand stroke for grass and very fast surfaces. Obviously, with Wimbledon being the June Grand Slam event, we may see more of this forehand than is normally the case. This is the grip used by Pete Sampras, and I need say no more about his success at "The Championships."

However in this month’s column, I want to focus on why and how to purchase a new racquet. Given the abundance of new frames available, the high profile endorsements given by pros on the tour, and the simple fact that anything new can spark interest…this article seems well timed. Most of us who are living north of the equator will probably do any racquet changes early in the outdoor season. Here in the U.S., most new frames reach stores in March and April.

So, with these thoughts in mind, let’s begin to look at purchasing a new racquet.

It should be noted that frames do age with usage. Not only do bumpers and grommets split or break (these are easily replaced on many frames)…frames actually become a bit dead over time. Like everything, racquets lose some of their natural flexibility factors over extensive use and time. Thus, sooner or later, we actually need to replace our frames. Pros are provided with frames for free by the racquet manufacturers. They normally are moving to newer and livelier frames on a regular and predetermined schedule. Unfortunately, most of us cannot afford such advantages.

Even if you are satisfied with your present frame model but wish to simply replace your existing frame(s) with the same model…it may be an impossibility. Why? Your frame may actually be discontinued and no longer available. Given my cursory and unscientific assessment of model longevity, most frames seem to be discontinued from active production within the first two years of introduction!!! Granted, some "close outs" may be available, here and there. But often times, finding a replacement frame is an exercise in futility.

Most players on the recreational level will choose to move to a new model entirely…whether it is needed or not. Racquet marketing is designed to teach us that newer is better. We are led to believe that newer technology provides overwhelming advantages in newer models. Sometimes, we simply see a player whom we admire using a new model and want to keep pace with our idol. It is in the best interest of the racquet manufacturers to have us buy new frames every year or so. It is part of their marketing strategy…and it works!!!

The "right" reasons to choose a new model include:

  • My existing frame is no longer available.
  • I have changed my playing style and my racquet is no longer suited to my new style of play.
  • I am looking to reduce the amount of arm strain or injury that I am experiencing with my existing model.
  • I am looking to increase the overall power, control or spin associated with my game.

These reasons are viable reasons for seeking to purchase a new racquet model. There is an old adage: "If it ain’t broken, don’t fix it." Well to me, this is particularly true of racquets. If you have a favorite frame or model, why change it? In time, the choice may not be viable option as the frame ages. But until then, I recommend that you stick with your stick…so to speak.

If you are new to tennis, or are moving up from an occasional player to a more competitive player, you may need to change from the inexpensive, retail outlet frame you purchased as your first racquet.

Whether you are looking for a new racquet for the right or the wrong reasons, there is a process that I recommend in arriving at the right frame for you.

First, I strongly recommend that you work closely with a USRSA certified racquet technician!!! These folks are true experts in racquet performance. They will work with you to discover the frame that works best for you. Unfortunately, the large retail sports outlets do not usually hire certified technicians.

Almost all of the pros on both tours have their frames customized to an "ideal" by technicians like Jay and Warren Bosworth. Some will actually send their frames thousands of miles to have them strung and gripped by their "personal" technicians. When your livelihood depends upon precision hitting, such "extremes" are really not that extreme.

Most private racquet retail outlets have demonstration programs. For a small fee, or in some cases no fee, these retailers will allow you to try a racquet for a day or two. This gives you the opportunity to really test the frame before you make a decision on which to purchase. I would strongly recommend that you "demo" at least five or six different frames. Again, a certified racquet technician can help you decide which frame to try. Reputable technicians (and I have never met one who was not) are not interested in selling you a frame based on manufacturer or on price. They simply want to help you find the right racquet.

In assessing frames, there are lots of variables to consider:

  1. Grip size and shape. You may already know what frame size is right for you (e.g., a level 4…this grip is four and one half inches in circumference). If you do not know what grip size is right for you, a certified technician can help you discover what is best for your hand size and given what ways you "grip" the frame. Apart from size is shape. A level 4 Head frame has a more "elongated" or elliptical shape than a Prince, which is more "round." The Wilson frame is somewhat in between these two. It is important to discover what shape feels best for you. Grip comfort and confidence is critical in the game of tennis. We are constantly changing grips and "finding" the right grip quickly can make all the difference in a given point in a match.
  2. Head size and shape. Generally, there are three "families" of racquet head sizes: oversized, midplus and midsized. The oversized is the largest head size and is the one preferred by Andre Agassi. However, Pete Sampras uses a frame that has a much smaller midsized head. Oversized heads are "somewhat" more forgiving with mishits in that they offer larger "sweet spots." However, they usually are a little less likely to be as effective when looking to serve with both pace and accuracy. Midsized heads are great for groundstroke and serves, but may be a little less effective when your volleys are not quite what they should be. Midplus heads seem to be most popular because they seemingly offer the best of both worlds…I am not so convinced that this is true. My advice is to use the smallest sized head that is comfortable and confident for you. In my mind, the less string (and associated "trampoline" effect) the better. But, this is just my opinion.
  3. Racquet length. A few years back, longer frames were the fad. The traditional racquet frame for adults is 27 inches in length. I can recall some racquet frames that were 29 and 30 inches in length!!! The marketing pitches associated with these longer frames proved not to be as compelling when one actually played with these longer frames. Most frames marketed today are either 27 inches or 27.5 inches in length. This half inch difference is not as significant as you might imagine. So, I do not think that this factor should be a major consideration in choosing a frame.
  4. Racquet stiffness. What a racquet frame is made of and its thickness determine how stiff (or inflexible) the frame may is. Stiffer racquets are usually more powerful. However, weight plays an important factor in this area, as well. Heavier racquets provide more power than comparable lighter frames. Most of the really stiff frames are very light to provide for maneuverability. However, these light but stiff frames often times seem to lead to arm and shoulder problems among players. My advice is to choose the frames that are not excessively stiff. Senior doubles players who are looking to regain the "punch" in their strokes may want to look into these "power sticks."
  5. Racquet weight. Lighter racquets are usually more maneuverable and are usually preferred by doubles players and those who play serve/volley. Groundstroke oriented players usually prefer the heavier frames, especially if they hit a two handed backhand.
  6. Racquet balance. Some racquets are head light (meaning they have less weight in the head of the frame)…some are evenly balanced…and some are head heavy (weight is added to the head as is the case with the Wilson Hammer series). There are no hard and fast rules on balance. Truly, balance is a matter of individual preference. Trial and error are the only guideposts here.
  7. String tension. The tighter you string your racquet the less power and more control you have. Stringing at lower tensions increases power but amplifies the "trampoline" effect. The result may be a loss of control on shots hit with power or shots hit when off balance.

These seven factors make racquet selection a very complicated process. Again, discussions with a USRSA certified technician about your style of play, what you like or dislike about your existing frame, and what you hope to gain from a new frame will make the selection process much more efficient.

Most demos are given with a standard level 3 grip (four and three eighths of an inch in circumference). You may have to build up the grip with over wrap to get a size that is closer to what you prefer. Also, these demos are usually strung at the middle range of the recommended manufacturer tension. If they have seen lots of use, the tension may actually have decreased due to lots of playing time. You cannot control these factors, but you need to keep them in mind as you try the frame out.

When you do demo a frame, there is a process that I recommend. First, I like to just hit with the frame…casually hitting groundstroke with a hitting partner. I, then, like to move to the net and take some practice volleys. I follow this with some practice overheads. I will, next, move to the service line and take some serves…both first and second serves to both the deuce and ad courts. Finally, I like to play some tiebreakers to get a sense of how the frame performs in actual competitive play. When I am done, I take a small notebook and write down my impressions…pro and con.

I like to demo more than one frame at a time. I will do each of the above steps with each frame before moving onto the next frame. This gives me a more realistic comparative framework with which to judge the frame. Again, I always take notes on what I like or dislike about each frame.

I never demo a frame on only one day. I usually repeat the entire process on the following day. Again, I make fresh notes on my impressions. If possible, I try to hit with a different hitting partner. Why? Well, each player hits differently and I want to test each frame against all styles, if I can.

When I return the frame, I have a dialogue with the racquet technician based on my playing notes. Usually, these are very productive discussions. Most technicians are pleased that you have taken the time to note your specific impressions. From here, I try other frames based on the recommendations of the racquet technician. Again, I repeat the entire test process over a two day period.

Sooner or later, I end up arriving at what I believe is the best of the bunch. At that point I will purchase one frame and string it at what tension is recommend by the technician given my testing notes. Now, most competitive players like to have at least two frames. I never would buy a second frame until I had played with the first frame for at least a full week. By then, I am relatively certain that I have made the right selection. I also may want to adjust string tension.

If possible, I ask the technician to setup the second frame identically to the first one purchase. Many technicians have invested in the equipment necessary to fine tune the balance, overall weight, specific grip shape, etc. If these services are not available, you are probably not going to notice too many differences between the two frames. Manufacturers are not completely consistent in production but they try.

So, there you have it. You can now decide whether you need or want a new frame, understand some of the variables and lexicon associated with racquet construction, and have a logical and consistent process in place to test the frames that interest you.

Given the extra-ordinary price tags associated with modern racquets, the effort is well worth it. With the right stick and good practice habits, I am sure that in no time you will become a tennis overdog!

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Turbo Tennis Archives:
1996 - 2002 | 2003 - Present

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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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