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96 posts categorized "Racquets"


Gear Guy's Q&A 02/25/2010 - 4:03 PM

TENNIS.com gear editor Bill Gray and his technical advisors will answer your equipment questions every Friday. Click here to send one of your own.

B0399a286417f98343b05d97f733257f-getty-96079816mb153_2010_australi Hey Bill, in my racquet research, I've learned that a smaller head and tighter stringing tensions offer more control. But would a more tightly strung oversize racquet compare more favorably to a mid- or mid-plus size? Could you get the same control, but with the advantage of the oversize’s larger sweet spot?
—Brian Highland

Tight stringing will make that big sweet spot on the oversize go sour at first hit. There would be nothing “sweet” about it; in fact, it would be almost as dead as playing with a wooden paddle, says TENNIS.com racquet advisor Bruce Levine. More bad news: balls hit off center would cause the handle to twist like a top, especially if you’re using a smaller grip. Oversize frames should be strung at a low- or mid-range tension level.

Should I choose a racquet that complements my strong point, a decent forehand, or one that elevates my less refined area of putting too much topsin on the ball than I would like on my backhand and hitting short?
—Felix Vereker

Racquet guru Levine says it’s best to go with the kind of frame that accentuates your strengths. Assuming you play with a racquet with an open-string pattern that helps provide you the spin, you should stay with it and work on the stroke mechanics of your backhand by lessening your arm rotation. Hitting a slightly flatter ball should drive it deeper into the court.  

After being transfixed by Justine Henin’s topspin backhand during the Aussie Open, I can’t imagine this diminutive Belgian weights up her racquet for power like the big two-handers on the tour. True?
—Jodie, Boulder, Colo.

Justine’s Wilson Tour racquet is, in fact, only a speck heavier than the off-the-shelf, store-bought version11 ounces versus 10.8 ouncessays Ron Rocchi, who is Wilson’s global tour equipment manager and works on her racquets. But it doesn’t take two hands or Serena’s biceps to unleash the power of Justine’s frame because of its head-heavy balance and half-inch of extra length.

I switch from playing on clay to hardcourts on a pretty regular basis, often in the same week. Should I designate a racquet for each surface and string them up a little differently? Like, looser for more power on hardcourt, because the faster court means less time for a full-length swing?
—Tom Boyd

It isn’t worth the trouble, and you won’t notice the difference, says Nate Ferguson, who strings and customizes racquets for a lot of Tour players. His clients are so picky they’ll change strings and adjust tensions if the weather changes slightly and even everytime a fresh set of balls is put into play during a match. But they don’t even string differently for clay and hardcourts, he says. The only exception he can recall is Steffi Graf. “If pros don’t adjust their strings to a specific surface, I don’t see much benefit for the recreational player,” he says.

I live in the Northeast where winter indoor court time is ridiculously expensive. So my tennis buddies and I found a nearby high school court where they keep the nets up in winter. We figure as long as the court’s dry and it’s a little above freezing, why not put on some gloves and hit? We can take it, but can our racquets and the strings?
—Joe P.

We feel your pain, Joe, because here in New York City an hour of court time can cost $100. Unfortunately, the money you’d be saving on the high school courts would be washed away by equipment repairs. At below-freezing temperatures, both racquets and strings turn brittle, and the ball becomes rock-like in the cold. But, if you must, at least use an old racquet from the back of the closest and string it up with a low-end thick 15-gauge nylon at the at the bottom of the tension range. 

I'm starting to play tennis again on a regular basis. In the past, I've played with an old 1986 Wilson Pro Staff 85. Unfortunately, I don't know how to compare it against the new racquets. Would you recommend any of the newer racquets that might be similar to the Pro Staff? Although I've played with Wilson, I heard that that the Babolat Pure Drive might be a good choice.
—Eric Lee

There are a lot of Pro Staff purists out there who regularly scour eBay for the old 85, believing that they just don’t make ’em like they used to. The fact is they make them better, with slightly larger and more forgiving head sizes, and using new technologies that expand prime hitting areas and add comfort without sacrificing feel and touch. Because you’re a Pro Staff fan, we suggest you playtest all the racquets in the new Wilson Six.One BLX line, from Roger Federer’s 90-square-inch Six.One to more forgiving frames like the Six.One 95 BLX, the Six.One Team BLX and the Six-One Light BLX. Try the Pure Drive, but you’ll probably find it to be a totally different hitting experience and harder for you to control with your Pro Staff background. The Drive has larger 100-square-inch head size and a thicker power-oriented beam.

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All the Bang, But No Bucks 12/08/2009 - 4:29 PM

Most of us don’t actually “buy” the notion that paid-to-play celebrity endorsers really love or even use the products they hawk, but that’s not stopping marketing folks from shelling out more than $1 billion a year to their hired shills.

The practice of spokespeople paying mere lip service for payment has gotten so out of control that the Federal Trade Commission last month issued new truth-in-advertising guidelines for celebrity endorsements. Basically, the FTC is sending a message to the likes of Britney Spears that she should be able to prove she really does shop at Kohl’s, and to Lee Majors that he had better be a true believer in the $14.95 hearing aid he touts on those late-night TV infomercials.   

Some of us noticed a minor transgression by an A-list endorser Thanksgiving weekend when it turned out the car veteran Buick pitchman Tiger Woods cracked up was a Cadillac SUV, showing that in real life he wouldn’t be caught dead—or injured—in a Buick Enclave.

In fairness to Woods, the Buick deal—which was supposed to extend through 2009—was prematurely ended late last year when the recession put a stranglehold on the car business.

That also happened to be about the time that another athlete, Nikolay Davydenko, was told by Prince Sports that his racquet endorsement contract wouldn’t be renewed for 2009. 

The difference was that after he got the boot, Davydenko retained his loyalty to the Prince Ozone Pro Tour by continuing to sing the praises of his magic racquet. He has repeatedly credited the Ozone as a major reason for his Top-5 finishes from 2005-08, the years of his Prince contract. Davydenko is particularly fond of the racquet’s O-Technology—big holes (instead of traditional grommets) around the frame which reduce wind resistance and hence increase racquet-head speed, according to the TENNIS.com review.

While Woods was plowing his Caddy through a neighbor’s tree, the Russian was plowing through the field at the Barclay ATP Finals in London. The little guy’s boffo run—he defeated all of this year’s Grand Slam event champions—ended when he played the biblical David to 6-foot-5 Juan Martin del Potro’s Goliath in the finale, thumping the Tandil tree topper in straight sets.

Afterward, the media asked the still sponsorless and Ozone-toting Nikolay if he thought his London success would finally get him a racquet deal, any deal with any brand. He said sure, that would be easy, but he can’t give up his magic racquet. As he put it in the post-match news conference: “Doesn't matter, [about] other racquets… for me it's important how I play first, not about money, how much another company pay for me. Then I [risk] losing everything, out of Top 10.”

Which prompted the obvious follow-up question: “How come Prince does not sponsor you any more?” He answered, “Prince give everything to [Prince endorser Maria] Sharapova, and no money anymore.”

The interview transcript noted that he was smiling when he said that. He was exaggerating, of course. Sharapova is probably Prince’s highest-paid endorser, but there are 104 other ATP and WTA pros who have “Team Prince” endorsement deals these days, and the highest ranked of its 64 male pros is No. 13 Gael Monfils, who has never even made the cut for the eight-player ATP year-end finale.

But all racquet companies guard their money relationships with players closely, so when I asked Prince what the deal (or no deal) was, I got a predictable response in the form of a statement, part of which read:

“We don’t discuss our player endorsement discussions, and any speculation regarding a more formal endorsement with Davydenko is just that.” It was followed by the equally predictable, “Yes, we are delighted that Nikolay has continued to find success with Prince racquets and O-Technology, and wish him continued success.”
 
My best guess is Prince dumped Davydenko for the same corporate belt-tightening reason Buick released Tiger Woods, and I suspect all the tennis brands these recessionary days might be reevaluating their pro-player spending as well.

A Prince spokesman did note that the company’s online traffic doubled on the Monday after the London event from the same day the week prior, but the brand couldn’t tell how much of the spike could be attributed to Davydenko’s performance, or to the London doubles win by Team Prince’s Bryan brothers that weekend, or to the overall holiday gift rush.

But for Prince the Davydenko performance must have been a marketer’s dream—it got the bang for no bucks. And more importantly, it came from the only kind of sincere celebrity endorser there is—the so-rare unpaid pitchman, and it kind of makes you wonder if you should have what he’s having.   

I won’t be test-driving a Buick this week, but I’m pretty sure I know what racquet I’ll be playtesting.   

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The Life Expectancy of Your Racquet 11/12/2009 - 10:15 AM

The only sure things in the life of your tennis racquet are death and the taxes you paid when you bought it. All of today’s premium racquets are built to stay as tough as an F-150 pick-up, but the graphite, titanium and/or carbon fibers in the frame weaken after thousands of whacks. How do you know when it’s time to bury Ol’ Faithful? We asked Bruce Levine, chief racquet advisor for TENNIS.com and TENNIS magazine, for some tips to stave off the Grim Racquet Reaper:

92909790 Q. When will I know that my racquet is dead?
Bruce:
The big uh-oh moment comes when you hit right after a new string job and you can’t tell the difference. It plays soft or mushy like a wet noodle, and you’re not getting any sense of where the balls are landing on the stringbed.

Q. When can I expect it to go belly-up?
Bruce:
Depends on how often you play, how hard you hit and the climate where you play. It could be as little as two years for an aggressive five-times-a-week player who strings at the top of the tension range and refuses to come in from the 35-degree cold of winter; to six years if you only play once a week, hit soft bullets, string loose, and live in cold-and-humidity-free Tucson, Arizona. Of course, the quickest way to kill a racquet is the Dr. Kevorkian assisted-suicide method of smashing it on the net post after you blow an easy overhead.  

Q. Are there other factors?
Bruce:
Restringing takes a toll on the frame, particularly on the grommets, so if you have it done often that will also shorten the racquet’s life expectancy. The string machine stretches the hoop and the materials in the frame stretch with it. Insist that your stringer pre-stretch the string by hand before putting it on the machine. Also make sure your stringer uses a “six point” machine, which holds the frame securely in place and minimizes distortion of the head of the racquet. 
 
Q. Are you saying it’s better to restring only when the string breaks?
Bruce:
No, you should restring often because the synthetic or polyester—and especially gut—will go dead long before the racquet’s demise.
   
Q. Is there anything I can do to extend the racquet’s lifespan?
Bruce:
Have the grommet strip replaced when you restring—not just the top edge that a lot of people call the bumper guard, but the whole strip. It should only cost you between $5 and $8 extra. You should also keep your frame in a racquet bag with a thermal lining to protect it from heat, humidity and the cold. Never, never keep it in the trunk or the garage. And if you have to be like Marat Safin, then beat the racquet against the soft back curtain of the court, if it has one, instead of the ground. Or, even better, learn to curse in French.

Q. What about taking it with me on a plane?
Bruce:
It’s always better to carry on your racquet, but some airlines have deemed them potential weapons. They can be safe from the baggage (mis)handlers in a well padded suitcase.

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The Persnickety Pros 10/01/2009 - 11:30 AM

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Think you’re fussy about your gear?

Look at Ivo Karlovic. (Actually, he’s really hard to miss at 6-10 and with hands so big he could wrap them around the trunk of a birch tree and probably uproot it with a single tug if he wanted.) The Croatian ace king insists that his grip be a jolly-giant size 5 3/8 inches around, which probably makes it the thickest handle in tennis since the late Jack Kramer swung a 5¼-incher back in the 1940s, and it’s well over the current ATP tour average of 4 3/8 to 4½.

Then there’s Robin Soderling, who long ago nixed using the conventional eight-sided plastic buttcap, opting instead to wrap 13 layers of tape on his handle to form a knob at its end like on a baseball bat.

And then there’s Roger Federer, Andy Murray, Novak Djokovic, Gael Monfils and Fernando Gonzalez. They’re so persnickety about everything from the shape, weight and the feel of their racquet handles to the amount of lead tape in the hoop that they pay as much as $50,000 a year to take Nate Ferguson and his customization crew on the road with them to all Grand Slam and Masters Series tournaments and Davis Cup matches.

Ferguson, 46, is the founder of the Priority One racquet customization shop based in Tampa and he’s pulled a lot of strings and raised a lot of racquets over the years to get where he is today. And today he happens to be making a brief pit stop at his shop to send out invoices to his who’s-who list of pro tennis clients before jumping the next series of planes that will take him to the Shanghai tournament on October 12 and then all the European indoor season stops.

“When one of our clients plays in a major tournament, at least one of us is there, sometimes two,” says Ferguson about a schedule that keeps himself and the three other members of the Priority One team—Ron Yu, Glynn Roberts and Michael Ludwig—on the road about 30 weeks a year. Ferguson also makes house calls. Last week he was in California to present the Bryan brothers with 16 new fully customized racquets to try out. Which makes those of us who live and breathe tennis gear ask: How does one get a gig like that?

You can become a certified racquet technician or even get your Bachelor of Science degree from Michigan’s Ferris State University in Professional Tennis Management, but that will probably only land you a job at a club or a parks and recreation facility. Earning the privilege of servicing the stars’ gear is as tough as graduating from the Challenger circuit to the pro tour. Client expectations are as high as Ivo’s eye, with players demand that their gear be as fine-tuned as Perlman’s fiddle. “It drives players crazy when they get a batch of racquets that play a little different, or have string tensions that vary a pound from the day before,” Ferguson explains. Catering to this clientele requires an artisan’s creativity—and good problem-solving abilities.

Take, for instance, the time when Ferguson got a call from Karlovic, who was looking to build his now-legendary monster grip. The easy part was getting it up to size. Ferguson injected 1.2 ounces of polyurethane foam into a standard handle to balloon it to 5 3/8 inches, and then strategically put lead tape from the 10 o’clock to 2 o’clock position on the hoop to maintain the racquet’s headlight balance and swing weight.

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Adding the buttcap was the hard part, simply because nothing that big existed. So he took a racquet with a 4 5/8-inch grip, cut the buttcap into quarters and placed them on the corners of the handle, and filled the middle with a liquid epoxy. He then made a permanent mold out of his Frankenstein creation. (See the photo to the right of a regular 4½- inch grip next to Ivo’s.)  

It’s that kind of creativity that turns top racquet customizers into industry legends like Warren Bosworth, who started with Ken Rosewall in 1972; Jay Schweid, who was discovered by Martina Navratilova; and Roman Prokes, who has worked with Andy Roddick and Maria Sharapova.

Ferguson is the newest member of the elite racquet-geek fraternity. He paid his dues as a stringer at Bosworth’s shop in 1986, and got his big break four years later when Bosworth client Pete Sampras came around looking for a private customizer because he felt slight inconsistencies in the frames of the half-dozen Wilson Pro Staff 6.0 racquets he carried on court. For Sampras, that was like starting a term paper on a Mac and finishing it on a PC.

“He had two specific needs,” Ferguson recalls. “He wanted to make sure his racquets were always strung tight on the road and he wanted the same person to custom build his racquets for across-the-board consistency.”

Ferguson got the job and became—literally—Pistol Pete’s right-hand man. A few years later Sampras referred Ferguson to a good friend, Tim Henman, and then Ferguson became chummy with Lleyton Hewitt’s agent. Then came Michael Chang.

By 2001, there were too many clients and not enough Ferguson go around, so he hired Yu, who had been Andre Agassi’s private stringer. As old clients retired, he picked up a whole new batch.   

Today, Priority One ranks up there with Bosworth. Ferguson and his staff travel with 10 players and customize racquets for dozens of others including Soderling, Sam Querrey, John Isner and Andy Murray’s brother, Jamie. Occasionally, Priority One also works with recreational players, but Ferguson says, “I’d much rather expand our presence with the pros because that’s what we’re set up to do.”
 
And even though business is booming, he’s not claiming his services can take any pro to the Wimbledon final. “I like to think I’m an important guy, but I can’t make vast improvements in a pro player’s game by tweaking their racquets and strings,” he says. “I can build Karlovic a grip that fits his hand like a glove to help him on his serve, but I can’t do anything to help him with the rest of his game. He just doesn’t move that fast.”

The racquet customization business may have its legends, but there are no miracle workers.

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Racquets, Strings for Sore Wings 09/21/2009 - 2:57 PM

Most of us have the luxury of experimenting with the full gamut of racquets and strings, ranging from extra-long wide bodies strung with gut at the low end of the recommended tension range for more power to standard-length sticks with narrow beams and polyester strings weaved tightly for more control.

But if you’re recovering from a hitting-arm injury (as many of you apparently are, based on the feedback we’re getting), comfort is the all-encompassing concern. As TENNIS.com racquet advisor Bruce Levine puts it: “If you’ve got arm issues and you’re not playing with gear that softens the blow when the racquet collides with the ball, you won’t be playing for long.”

Maria Sharapova knows that – she’s recovering from rotator cuff surgery. So does Katy Koch, a 4.5 recreational player in rural Ontario – she’s getting over a bout with tennis elbow.

They may be worlds apart in ability, but neither wants a return engagement of their respective hitting-arm-invading injuries.

“After Maria’s injury, we took at look at everything – her technique, her racquet and especially her strings,” says Michael Joyce, Sharapova’s coach. The three-time major champion worked with Joyce on technique modifications, most noticeably her new and celebrated “abbreviated” serve.

But she also tried various racquet and string combinations in conjunction with Joyce, personal stringer Roman Prokes and the technical folks at her racquet sponsor, Prince. She ultimately switched to a different racquet within the Prince 03 Speedport family, exchanging the “White” model she’d been using for a slightly more flexible and forgiving version of the “Black” Speedport that also has Prince’s new string-hole grommet inserts for added cushioning. Sharapova’s new racquet is also a half-inch shorter than the 27½-inch-long Speedport White, which lightens the swingweight load and should help her prevent late hits that cause additional stress on the shoulder and arm. The stationary weight is also about 2/5 of an ounce lower.

Sharapova also softened her main strings a little as a concession to her shoulder without compromising or throwing off her highly fine-tuned game. She went from Babolat Hurricane, a harsh polyester, to Luxilon M2, a slightly softer co-polyester blend in the main strings, while maintaining easiest-on-the-arm natural gut in the cross strings.

The majority of tour pros opt for polyester or co-polyester string either as a full set or mixed with gut because polyester has a dead-like-a-board feel that lets them swing their hardest and impart incredible spins and still keep ball in the court. They also generally string their racquets tight at the very top of the recommended range, which usually runs from the mid 50s to the mid 60s (in pounds) for optimum control. Sharapova strings hers at 63 pounds.

Recreational players recovering from arm injuries can take a racquet cue from Sharapova by considering a more flexible racquet. Katy Koch, for example, currently uses a 27½-inch long and head-heavy Wilson Hyper Hammer 5.3, named by TENNIS as the playtesters’ choice for power when it was introduced in 1999. Koch also uses a nylon monofilament string at the top of the tension range.

Katy wants to remain within the Wilson family, so Levine suggests she playtest the brands’ K Factor K Surge and K Factor K Pro Team. Both have narrower and more flexible beams along with the creature-comfort qualities of lower swingweights, a result of their head-light balances and shorter (27-inch) lengths.   

But Levine points out that she needs to have her racquet strung at the lower part of the tension range and switch to a natural gut (best) or at least a multifilament nylon synthetic that create more stringbed deflection and a softer landing area. (The new string combination will also increase the power, but the more flexible, head-light frame should largely offset it.)

Gut offers the best protection for the arm, but it’s expensive and breaks easily. Multifilament synthetics (such as Babolat XL Premium, Wilson NXT, Prince Premier, Head FXP and Gamma Livewire) are more cost effective and generally last longer. Gauge thicknesses range from a scale of 15 to 18; the higher the gauge number, the thinner, more comfortable (and more breakable) the string. 

And unless recreational players have the almost impeccable stroke mechanics of a Maria Sharapova, they should run – not walk – from polyester, especially if they’re recovering from a hitting-arm injury.  

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The Racquet That Changed My Life 08/26/2009 - 3:08 PM

Welcome, blog-gears to our little corner of TENNIS.com. We're here to help guide you through the myriad of mind-numbing racquets, shoes, strings and accessories choices out there and keep you on top of the latest equipment news and trends.

Email me your questions and comments by using the "Contact" tab at the top of this blog, and TENNIS.com's equipment experts and I will try to hone in on the gear candidates that best suit your playing level, style and aspirations, whether that means getting to the finals of the parks & rec or club tournament, or just keeping pace with Bob and Bonnie in the regular Saturday morning match. Also, feel free to comment on my posts themselves.

Here’s a question for you to get things started: Have you ever have a racquet that boosted your game overnight? A Profile, Sledgehammer, Radical, Graphite, MaxPly, T-2000?   

I’ll go first. There was this one special stick that changed both my game and my life.

Let me explain.

I was a baseball player in high school and college who was drafted a few years later into tennis by a spouse who kind of liked the outfits and insisted we needed a mutual hobby to help us “grow” the relationship, a very popular notion that shaped the social consciousness of the late 1970s and spawned a zillion self-improvement books. 

She signed us up for the next mixer and bought a pair of his-and-her Wilson Chris Evert racquets (since I knew nothing about this game, I just assumed Chris was a guy). The Everts had the standard 68-square-inch head that seemed awesomely bulbous compared to the sweetspot on my Louisville Slugger. So I figured it would be easy for me to transfer my batting skills to swatting a tennis ball. 

But that wouldn’t be the case. Our first opponents bagled us in a pro set. Muffy, 13, and Buffy, 11, were a couple of country-club sisters raised on tennis and crumpets. They certainly had plenty of game, but the worst part of the ordeal was I bounced more balls off the frame than on the stringbed and sprayed them all over the adjacent courts.   

I was finished with this game.

But something caught my eye as I hurled the Chris Evert in the donate-a-racquet-for-kids bin -- a couple of beginners on a distant court were effortlessly trading dozens of back-and-forth moonballs using racquets the size of Bigfoot’s snowshoes.   

They each had the new Prince, the ugliest piece of sporting goods equipment I had ever seen -- its head was ridiculously too large for its body like those hideous bobblehead dolls. I was told this Prince was invented by an aeronautical engineering genius and horrible recreational tennis player by the name of Howard Head, who solved his own miss-hit misery by figuring out a way to legally expand the conventional 68-square-inch string bed to a whopping – count ‘em – 110 square inches! 

It looked like any fool capable of hitting the broadside of a barn could make string contact with this monster, so I picked up a loaner and, sure enough, I was rallying! Most, not just some of the balls indeed hit the stringbed. By the end of the session I was hooked on the Prince and tennis. The racquet carried me to the head of the novice class and eventually to a respectable 4.0 NTRP within a few years. I even got a job in the tennis business. 

But more important, the Prince was the catalyst for my spouse and me to a new and expansive social circle. We met all these like-minded people with a mutual passion for the game and they quickly went from strangers to tennis friends to best friends. They became the folks we regularly invite to go to “hit some balls” and then take in a movie. 

We’ve been to their cottages and on their sailboats. We’ve celebrated milestone birthdays together, and once – it was last year -- we all attended the funeral of the nicest guy I ever met, which took place on a tennis court 25 years ago. And when we moved from the Midwest to the East Coast where we didn’t know anybody, all it took was one call to the local tennis club to clone our friends back home.    

So yeah, finding the right racquet made a big difference for me.

What about you?

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Question of the Day: Leather Grips
Question of the Day: Blistering Hands
Question of the Day: Two Sticks for Net Rushers
Tennis Radar: App., Zap, and Co.
Question of the Day: Performance-Enhancing Grip Sizes
Question of the Day: Power Pads
Question of the Day: Oversized Sticks for Sore Elbows
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