Make Any Racquet Play Better -- Guaranteed!
Use this guide to help you modify an existing frame to play at its best.
Yes, you can make any racquet play better — guaranteed! Sounds like a pretty bold statement, but in actuality, it is an everyday quest in many shops and specialty stores throughout the world. Which racquet should I recommend? Which string and tension? What would be the proper weight and balance for this particular customer? Deriving the answer is not as complicated as you might believe. Performing the work professionally is another matter.
In this article, we’re going to help you identify the key areas of concern in modifying an existing frame to make it play at its maximum potential. Once the process is completed, only a qualified racquet technician with the proper equipment should be employed to match additional frames to the “ideal” frame of a particular customer.
Let’s start by examining the three key areas of a tennis racquet — frame, string, and grip. Please note that an “ideal” frame modification may require one, two, or all three of these key areas. However, you should never modify more than one area at a time. Otherwise, you may not know which modification is really working.
A player’s frame has four areas of concern: flex, weight, balance, and swing weight.
A stiff frame has a weak deflection when the string face is impacted by a ball. This weak deflection allows the stringbed to now interact more with the ball. Because strings are more resilient than the frame, they work harder when supported by a stiff hoop than with a flexible hoop. Because they are working harder, they also will experience a shorter string life (both durability and playability), but yield more power and, in many cases, more accuracy. However, they are not as forgiving on the arm, as the initial shock from an off-center hit is not absorbed in the frame as well as with a flexible model. Think of yourself in an egg-catching contest. You have been assigned to stand perfectly still and not move your hand backward with the impact of the egg in your hand while your opponent is allowed to move his hand with the impact of the egg to gradually slow it down. Which one of you wins this contest?
This brings us to the next point …
The more mass an object has, the more energy it can absorb. Imagine yourself driving a light compact car into an embankment at 30 mph, and then doing the same collision with a Sherman tank. Which vehicle folds up more? If you refer to Rod Cross’s article “Racquet Power and the Ideal Racquet Weight” in the February 2004 issue of RSI, you will note how he calculates the ideal racquet weight by examining the weight of the player’s hitting arm. It is well known that you don’t need to work as hard with a heavier racquet to obtain ball speed, provided you can maneuver the frame into position for the ideal point of contact. In essence, you should use the heaviest racquet you can “comfortably” swing. Not only will it yield more power, it will also absorb more energy on impact.
However, you can’t just wield a heavier racquet without regard to …
Static balance, or “pick-up weight,” allows you to either handle added weight or not. Three racquets all have 300 grams of weight. The first has 150 grams toward the handle, 75 grams in the throat area and 75 grams in the head. The second has 100 grams in the handle, 100 grams in the throat area and 100 grams in the head. The third has 75 grams in the handle, 75 grams in the throat area and 150 grams in the head. To put it simply, the first is headlight, the second is evenly balanced and the third is headheavy. The most powerful of these frames is the headheavy model and the least powerful is the headlight model. Think of the weighting of a hammer. The handle is light, the head is heavy and it packs a pretty good punch. Turn the hammer around, putting the head of the hammer in your hand, and try nailing with the handle. Tennis frames react in a similar fashion when weight (lead tape) is added.
The positioning of any added weight is critical to the performance of the racquet because it may severely affect the …
Swingweight, in simple terms, is what the racquet feels like in motion. A combination of too much overall weight and too much of the total weight concentrated toward the head of a racquet will yield a non-maneuverable frame. Baseline players tend to prefer higher swingweights, while serve-and-volleyers enjoy lower swingweights. Players with elbow problems are more comfortable with lower swingweights. Weight positioned at 6 and 12 o’clock will yield more power, but less stability, than weight at 3 and 9 o’clock. Racquets with too high a swingweight, although they will yield a powerful punch upon impact with the ball, take too much energy to maneuver into position, causing late contact and possible arm discomfort. Swingweights that are too low find the player consistently early on contact and prone to mis-hits, which may cause arm discomfort as well.
Know your player!
Ask questions like, do you suffer from any kind of tendinitis or bursitis? Do you like to hit excessive topspin or underspin? Do you consider yourself a “touch” player or do you just like to hit the ball hard? Do you play on mostly hard or soft courts? Do you break strings in your current racquet, and if so, where?
Your No. 1 concern for your customer should be comfort. Without getting into a whole article on string selection, suffice it to say that:
- For players with elbow, wrist, or shoulder concerns, recommend natural gut, hybrids of coreless multifilaments and gut, or just a coreless multifilament — in that order.
- For serve-and-volley players, start with natural gut, certain hybrids, coreless multifilaments or some center-core strings.
- For hard-hitters, but normal string breakers, recommend natural gut (only in dense string patterns), certain hybrids or center core strings.
- For players with excessive spin, suggest certain hybrids, polyester or some textured strings.
- For hard-hitters who break strings frequently, recommend certain hybrids or polyester. String tension should depend on the following criteria: Type of frame, open or dense string pattern, frame flex, physical concerns of the player, type of string, gauge and style of play.
For stringing frequency, use the following guidelines:
- Polyester after 15 to 25 hours of play.
- Nylon 30 to 40 hours.
- Hybrid combinations 30 to 45 hours (dependent on mixture).
- Gut 40 to 60 hours.
The type of grip your customer chooses for his or her racquet can have an impact on how the racquet feels and performs in their hand.
You need to have a variety of types and styles from which to choose.
The size of the grip is also very important. It is not recommended that you reduce grip sizes on the newer frames, but technicians with the right tools can perform some minor reduction surgery on grips. Grip build-up is most common, with heat sleeves being the method of choice, and your customer should play with the largest grip they can “comfortably” hold.
If your customer has arm problems do not go down in size. Try the following: Make a fist. Feel your forearm muscles tighten? Now relax your grip. Your muscles relax as well. If your grip is too small, you unconsciously grip tightly when you see a fast-moving ball coming toward you. Hit your shot out of center and the racquet will try to torque in your hand. This jarring sensation is very hard on your muscles and can lead to discomfort. When your hand is displaced over a greater surface area, the vibrations are dissipated more rapidly throughout the body with little or no discomfort.
Remember, building up a grip a half size (1/16 of an inch) adds 9 grams of weight; a full grip size (1/8 of an inch) adds 18 grams. This is significant and shouldn’t be done haphazardly.
The shape of the grip also can have an influence on how the racquet feels and performs. Different manufacturers have different shapes to their molded grips. Altering the shape of the bevels can have drastic effects on how the racquet feels and performs. If your customer insists on a particular shape and you don’t have remolding capabilities, contact your dealer. If your dealer can’t perform the work, he can put you in touch with some private contractors who can.
Puttng it together
Okay, so how do I know what would be best for my customer?
Start with the basic premise that in most cases the frame is too light for them. Look at the wear pattern on the strings (string discoloration, ball fuzz, fraying). Are they hitting the majority of their balls in the center, low or high on the face of the racquet? Look at the design (shape) of their frame. Where is the center of percussion or “sweet spot” supposed to be? Just because they bought the latest model doesn’t mean they bought the “right” racquet for their style of play and physical needs.
Count the number of cross strings where the “majority” of the wear is situated. Find the center of “their” sweet spot. Start with 6 grams of lead tape and put 3 grams on each side of the string face adjacent to “their” center of percussion. Remember, the sweet spot moves toward the mass of the frame. Have the player test this modification. If they feel they can handle it with no problem and see an improvement, add 3 grams more (not 6 grams).
Gradually build up the gram weight until they no longer like the way it is performing. Go back to the last “good” test. If they like the way their frame is playing, but feel their serve and volley have suffered a little, remove their grip and place 8 to 10 grams of lead tape just above the butt cap. Put their grip back on and have them retest. Modify the amount of lead tape accordingly. You need to listen to your customer. Everything they tell you about how the racquet is playing is important and can be modified to some degree by what you do in the placement of weight. Once the “ideal” frame has been identified, all specs should be recorded (weight, static balance and swingweight).
Do not try to duplicate their other frames by simply applying the same amount of lead tape in the same places. It is rare that two frames of the same make, model and grip size ever have the same weight, static balance, and swing weight coming from the factory. Let a Master Racquet Technician or Certified Stringer with the proper equipment custom-match their frames so that they are all equal. If your customer wants to experiment with different strings and tension or grips and shapes, do them after you have determined the ideal frame setup.
Remember, don’t try and alter more than one area of concern at a time. A fine-tuned racquet is like having a precision instrument in your hand.
You can make any racquet play better — guaranteed!
See all articles by Drew Sunderlin
About the Author
Drew Sunderlin is a USRSA Master Racquet Technician, a USPTA Master Pro and the racquet technician for the U.S. Fed Cup Team. He is also the owner of the Fort Washington Swim & Tennis Club, the Strings 'n Things Pro Shop and the Strings 'n Things Competition Stringing Service in Ambler, Pa.