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Stringing You Along

Ron Waite Photo
Ron Waite, USPTR

Truthfully, I believe my best ideas for this column result from reader e-mail correspondence. Over the last year, I have received a number of communiqués from readers who are confused about racquet strings and tension. Wanting to know more about these topics does not surprise me. After all, why spend lots of time play-testing racquets and putting out hard-earned money on just the right frame, if you don’t have the right string at the right tension? So, in this month’s column, I hope to answer most of the key questions and give you some solid advice regarding string selection and tension setting.

First, I must give proper recognition to those certified racquet professionals that service customer needs around the nation and the world. Within the United States, there exists the United States Racquet Stringers Association (USRSA). This body trains and certifies racquet professionals. The best place to get specific answers to your racquet questions is from one of these certified pros. In addition to stringing racquets, these professionals can rebalance, regrip and fine-tune your frames to your preferences. Chances are that there is a USRSA certified pro near you.

To arrive at a basic understanding of strings, tensions, etc., we need to clarify some terms:

String Gauge: This term refers to the thickness or diameter of the string. Usually, strings come in one of several standard gauges: 15 gauge, 15L (light) gauge, 16 gauge, 17 gauge and even 18 gauge. People are always confused by gauge, but the rule is simple: The smaller the gauge number, the thicker the string. For example, 15 gauge string is thicker than 16 gauge.

Thicker strings have different play characteristics than thinner strings.

Playability: This is a general term used to describe a combination of string characteristics.

Playable strings are usually very elastic. Elasticity refers to the ability of a string to stretch.

Some strings stretch very easily (very elastic). Playable strings usually provide what players call "feel." By this, we mean that the string provides the player with a sense that she or he can actually feel (and thus control) the ball as it makes contact with the string. In actuality, "feel" is another way of saying "string feedback." Playable strings provide the player with the maximum amount of feedback regarding the ball’s impact on the strings. Finally, playable strings are usually strings that seem to provide more power. Given identical tensions and gauge size, playable strings seem to make your racquet more powerful.

Durability: Durable strings are strings that last for a long period of time. These strings are the strings that the frugally minded player seeks. Players who frequently break strings (because they are hard hitters and/or because they impart lots of spin on their shots) often times need durable strings.

Texture: This term refers to the surface of the string. Some strings are very smooth…almost slippery to the touch. Other strings are shaped differently or made with a surface that is rough to the touch. Textured strings (those that are not smooth) are designed to assist the player in creating spin on her/his shots. The rough texture or angular shape of these strings actually helps create spin by "biting" into the ball.

Having defined these four terms, we must now identify the major categories of strings that exist.

In the simplest terms, I see five distinct types of strings:

  1. Simple Nylon Strings: These are the least expensive strings available. They have been around for decades and they generally are very durable. The problem lies in the fact that they do not possess very good playability characteristics. Most brands refer to these strings as "Tournament Nylon."

  2. Synthetic Gut Strings: Really, these strings are high-tech nylon. They are usually processed by the manufacturer to increase the string’s playability. Most junior, high school, college and recreational players select a synthetic gut string. They are moderately priced and usually offer fairly good playability characteristics.

  3. Soft Synthetic Strings: These are relatively new forms of the standard synthetic gut string. Here, the manufacturer goes to considerable lengths to process the string. Each manufacturer has its own method of producing soft synthetic strings. However, the result is about the same. The string’s playability characteristics are greatly enhanced!

  4. Pure Natural Gut: Before nylon, tennis strings were natural gut. These strings are actually made by using the internal tissues of animals. This family of strings offers the maximum level of playability. Usually, they are not as durable as synthetic forms of strings. Some natural gut are coated with a plastic like finish by the manufacturer. This coating is designed to improve the durability of the string.

  5. Hybrid Strings: These are sets of strings that actually contain two different types of strings…one type for the main strings (the vertical or longer strings) and another type of string for the cross strings (the horizontal or shorter strings). There exist myriad combinations of hybrid strings. In these hybrid sets, the main strings are usually designed for durability and the cross strings are usually designed to improve playability.

Tension refers to how tightly you string your racquet. Tension is measured in either pounds (USA) or in Kilograms (most of the world). Usually, each racquet has a range of recommended stringing tensions that are determined by the manufacturer’s testing. If you look at the inside portion of your racquet shaft, you will normally see this range posted.

Regardless of the recommended range, all racquets conform to the same rule regarding tension:

String tighter (more pounds or kilograms) for more ball control…string more loosely (fewer pounds or kilograms) for greater power. Assuming that you do not go to extremes, this rule holds true and can really help you fine-tune your racquet tension to achieve the best results in your game. Extremely loose tensions (way lower than manufacturer’s recommended tensions) and extremely tight tensions (way in excess of manufacturer’s recommended tensions) can actually cause the racquet to play "dead." A dead racquet is one that does provide neither control nor power.

Racquet head size has a major bearing on what tension you should choose. Again, manufacturer’s recommended tensions are the best way to determine a tension for your frame.

However, to give some ballpark guidelines I offer the following:

    85 to 90 Square Inch Racquets: Tensions should fall between 48 and 58 pounds

    90 to 95 Square Inch Racquets: Tensions should fall between 53 and 63 pounds

    95 to 100 Square Inch Racquets: Tensions should fall between 55 and 68 pounds

    100 to 110 Square Inch Racquets: Tensions should fall between 65 and 72 pounds

    110 to 115 Square Inch Racquets: Tensions should fall between 68 and 78 pounds

Some pros deviate from these ranges significantly (e.g. Sampras uses an 85 square inch head racquet strung at around 78 pounds), but I do not recommend this practice!

The only way that any player can, with certainty, arrive at a string type/tension combination is through a trial and error process. In determining what type of string you should use, some factors come to play:

Cost: By far the most expensive string is natural gut. In the US, the average stringing using natural gut is about $50 to $60 (string and labor). If you are one who breaks string easily, natural gut may be beyond your budget. Soft synthetics and hybrids are the next most expensive. In the US, you should expect to spend around $25 to $35 (string and labor). Synthetic gut stringings usually cost around $20.00 (string and labor) in the US. This cost advantage is one of the principle reasons that most players elect to string their racquets with synthetic gut. By far, the least expensive way to have your racquet strung is to select simple tournament nylon string types.

Surface: Soft synthetics, synthetic gut and nylon strings endure well on all surfaces. However, natural gut is a very environmentally sensitive string. Humidity wreaks havoc on natural gut… forcing it to break prematurely. Clay courts are usually problematic for natural gut strings. First, the clay particles cause excessive wear on these strings. These particles actually imbed themselves in between the strings resulting in increased friction. This forces the string to snap prematurely. In addition, most well kept clay courts are treated with calcium to help the courts retain moisture and avoid the formation of clay dust. Calcium actually "eats" natural gut and causes weak spots in an otherwise healthy string. Playing regularly on clay courts with natural gut strings can be a very expensive proposition.

Spin: If you are looking to increase the amount of spin that you impart upon the ball, selecting the right string can be helpful. Either use a textured string designed for this purpose, or use thinner strings (17 gauge) which will "bite" the ball better. A 15 gauge tournament nylon is not the best choice, if increased spin is your goal.

Control: If you seek to enhance the amount of control you exercise on your shots, choosing the right string can help a bit. Usually, soft synthetics and natural gut offer the best blend of "feel" and "power." These two factors can contribute to how much control you have on your shots. Don’t misunderstand me -- control is really a product of other, more important influences…stroke mechanics, timing, etc. Yet, strings do play a role and every little bit helps. I know of players who string their racquets with natural gut for tournaments…electing to use less expensive synthetics for practice and recreational play. However, if you seek to gain more control as a result of racquet stringing, increasing your string tension (2 to 5 pounds) is the easiest method.

Power: Natural gut and soft synthetics tend to provide the greatest amount of power given the various string types from which to choose. However, here again, string tension is the most important factor. If you seek a bit more power from your racquet, try lowering your string tension (2 to 5 pounds).

Comfort: If you suffer from arm, elbow, wrist and/or shoulder problems, string set up can be helpful. First, choose natural gut or soft synthetics. These strings usually play with less shock and vibration. Additionally, you should use the lowest possible string tension with which you can control the ball. Even a 3 or 4 pound reduction in tension can provide some relief. By all means, avoid all hybrid strings that contain Kevlar main strings. These strings are so rigid that they can actually increase your discomfort!!!

Durability: Many players look for the longest lasting strings that they can find.

Cost and the inconvenience of having your racquet strung are usually the underlying reason for an emphasis upon durability. If you fall into this group, tournament nylon, synthetics and hybrids that contain Kevlar main strings are your best bet.

When switching from one gauge string to another, it is important to make some tension adjustments. Thinner strings (17 gauge) play "tighter" than thicker strings (16 and 15L) even if the racquets are strung at identical tensions. To get the same feel and power, I offer the following table of reference.

Ideal racquet tension (as determined by play testing) results from:

  • using identical tensions, if using the same gauge string when restringing (e.g. from 16 gauge to 16 gauge)
  • add two pounds of tension if you are restringing with a thicker gauge (e.g. from 17 gauge to 16 gauge)
  • lower the tension two pounds when restringing with a thinner gauge (e.g. from 16 gauge to 17 gauge)

In addition, I recommend that you keep a written record of when you last strung your racquets, what string type and gauge you used, and who strung the racquet. Keeping this record will help you determine the type of string and tension that works for you best. You may discover that you prefer different string/tension combinations for different surfaces and/or for different times of the year (temperature can affect the tension). You may actually carry several frames strung at slightly different tensions to allow you to adjust to different surfaces and conditions.

Finally, have your racquets restrung regularly. Every racquet needs to be restrung at least twice a year. However, if you play frequently, you will probably need to restring more often. I string my own frames and make certain that I restring before any strings actually break. Whenever I notice that my strings need to be straightened more frequently than is normally the case, I restring the frame.

Discovering what string type and tension combination(s) work best for you can provide real benefits for your game. Keeping your strings in shape can help you 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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