A veteran stringer joins the Tecnifibre team at Roland Garros
by Albert Lee
I’ve been stringing racquets for more than 20 years here in Potomac, Md. For many years, Tecnifibre USA has run a contest for stringers. Send back empty TF string packs, and you’ll have a chance to join the Tecnifibre Stringing Team at Roland Garros to string for French Open players. The last few years, I knew I was getting close in the annual lottery drawing because I was winning second- and third-place T-shirts and the like.
In late September 2003, I had a huge collection of TF string packs ready to send in for the 2004 drawing. Then I read that Pro-Kennex and Tecnifibre decided to restructure. I e-mailed Paul Zalatoris of Tecnifibre USA and found out the contest for 2004 was cancelled. I was crushed. Stringing at Roland Garros had been my dream.
Early in 2004, on a whim, I e-mailed Jim Fromuth of Fromuth Tennis, the new U.S. distributor for Tecnifibre. Jim was heading to the Supershow and meeting with Tecnifibre President Thierry Maissant and Zalatoris. I proposed to pay my own expenses in exchange for an invitation.
In mid-February, Zalatoris e-mailed me: “Book your flights, you’re going to Paris!” They signed me up for the first four days of Roland Garros! Definitely the toughest part of the tournament for stringers.
Saturday, May 22
I make it to Paris’ Hotel Alpha around 5 p.m. In the lobby I see another stringer, Sam Chan, and his wife, Corrie. I meet Tecnifibre rep Kristel and she hands me my clothing backpack and ID badge. My room is a good size; the view from the window is quite good.
Sam, Corrie, and I walk around the neighborhood for a while, then head to dinner at Le Ty-Coz with the rest of the string team. It’s a cozy restaurant specializing in crepes. We’re back at the hotel by 11 p.m., but I’m so excited that I have a hard time getting to sleep.
Sunday, May 23
The alarm wakes me around 6 a.m. I wash up and dash down to the lobby to meet the other newbie Roland Garros stringers. There’s Virginia from Spain, John the Dutchman, Lucien from Canada, and me. Sam Chan, from England, is here for his third Roland Garros, so he is responsible for getting us to the string room on time. It’s a brisk 15-minute walk to Porte Suzanne Lenglen. Everyone is excited.
It’s a beautiful, quiet morning. We take some photos on our way to the string room for the 7 a.m. start. The space is huge. It is normally an indoor tennis facility and has been converted into entertainment for kids and stringing space for us.
We scrounge through a box of red-handled tools, picking out a starter clamp, string-bed cutter, needle-nose pliers, and awl. I get assigned a machine right in front. Luc Vesseaux, the stringing team leader, does a quick run-through on machine functions: speed, memory, knot tension, pre-stretch, string length meter, etc., then he passes out racquets.
The form that comes with each racquet describes what’s to be done and Luc makes sure we all understand the French descriptions. I don’t recall my first frame or who it belonged to, I just wanted to be careful and get it right. Players generally leave their reels, which are marked with their names and boxed in alphabetical order. As we are issued racquets, we log them out by stringer name and machine number, so when they come back, they can be strung on the same machine.
I string maybe 20 frames on the TF8000. I also spied the new TF7000, which has dual-action clamps. If Tecnifibre USA brings a high-end machine to the U.S., I hope it’s this machine. Looks really sweet.
For this tournament there are 19 machines, and a couple of spares. They are all top-of-the-line TF8000s, and they just about string the frames for you. Mounting is quick and straightforward. The tension head adjusts for short string lengths. There’s knot tension, built in pre-stretch, and length meter, along with pound/kilogram settings. I especially like the keyboard entry for the tension; this is quicker than pressing and holding up-down buttons.
The TF8000 clamps make the machine, and these are really special. When you squeeze the clamp, it literally jumps up to clamp the string. There appears to be some kind of linkage that simultaneously locks the base and clamps the string in one effortless motion.
The day goes fast. At 7 p.m., they cut us loose. Overall, the stringing was a mixed bag, mostly split-tension hybrids with the crosses 1 kg lower than the mains. Probably 75 percent of the frames were polyester, 15 percent conventional synthetics, and 10 percent gut. All the frames I strung were in fair shape, though I did have to repair a few grommets on Carlos Moya’s frames.
Dinner was at Le Relais des Sultans, my first experience with Arabic food. Very good, and I especially like the mint tea.
Monday, May 24
It’s early morning and I’m in the darkened lobby, waiting for the first day of the main draw to begin. Luc is already here when our group arrives. We each grab some coffee, cut off a slice of some breakfast cake, turn on our machines and head over to Luc to get our first frames of the day from the 8 a.m. bins. As racquets are dropped off, they are sorted into bins. Each bin is marked with a pickup time. For new stringers, Luc issues us racquets; the more senior stringers pick their own frames from the bin.
It’s a well-organized operation. The desk staff is especially efficient at stripping out old string from incoming frames and stenciling restrung frames. The staff pays a lot of attention to details, and for hybrid frames, they leave one cross and one main in the frame as a reminder.
We all string crosses bottom up or top down as dictated by the pattern. There is no frame distortion. The frames exit the machines as easily as they mount. The French stringers, who are from stores throughout France, are very professional and quick. They use a loop weave with great efficiency. I’ve got to learn how to do this. I don’t think it’s any quicker than my “snake weave,” just more elegant.
We catch up around noon and have enough time for a quick bite and a chance to run outside to take some pictures. I hear American voices. It’s Jim Fromuth. I also run into Paul Zalatoris and Paul Kid, the Nos. 1 and 2 people running Tecnifibre USA. I take a quick snapshot and thank them for inviting me.
Most of the frames being collected this afternoon are for Tuesday pickup, and it looks like tomorrow will be a busy day. In fact, the 10 a.m. bin overflows into a second bin. Each bin is about 48 inches wide. Around 5:30 p.m., Luc gets a little nervous and let’s us start on the 8, 9 and 10 a.m. bins for the next day. He hands out only synthetic and poly string jobs; anything with gut will be strung on Tuesday morning. By 7 p.m., we’ve taken quite a bite out of the morning backlog.
We’re all sent home. After dinner at La Belle Epoque restaurant, we’re told to be on the machines at 6 a.m. Tomorrow will be quite busy.
Tuesday, May 25
After two days, we newbie stringers feel like part of the team. We stow our backpacks, grab a quick coffee and walk over to Luc, who hands out the sticks.
Time passes quickly. After winding through 20 or so frames, it’s now 12:15 p.m. I glance behind me and half the machines are vacant. That can only mean one thing-lunch. The lunches are a variety of sandwiches, a large chef salad, and large yogurt. It’s more than I can eat in one sitting.
My legs are sore, and when I get back on the machine, I find out how to raise the machine to a more comfortable height. Things are quiet this afternoon, so Luc holds the ceremony for the guest stringers. There are snacks, champagne, kind words, and a framed diploma. After the champagne, I feel the fatigue coming on. I’ve been running on adrenaline for the past three days and the grueling nature of tournament stringing is finally catching up with me. I have surgical tape on one hand and a bandage on the other where I jammed some poly under my fingernail.
O.K., back downstairs, we clean up and get ready to leave, but then a few “rush” frames come in and I take a moment to watch Laurent speed-string a few sticks. Luc chases us off and we walk back to the hotel for a quick shower, then meet in the lobby to walk to the neighborhood Chinese restaurant. Luc and Laurent show up after 9 p.m. Luc says we need to be on the machines at 6:30 a.m.
Wednesday, May 26
I enter Espace d’Animation, the entrance to the string room, for the last time. Again, we have a lot of sticks to clear out, but we all work hard and get caught up around noon. It’s been a whirlwind four days of stringing, with racquets coming in and out so fast that it barely registers who you’ve strung for. In addition to stringing Moya’s racquet, I recall doing frames for Rainer Schuettler, Ai Sugiyama, Francesca Schiavone and Tathiana Garbin, who later upset Justine Henin-Hardenne. It’s a funny thing about stringers — we always cheer for the frames we’ve strung.
The day goes quickly, and after lunch I say my good-byes. I go back to the hotel to repack and get some rest before dinner and the long trip home.
This has been a great trip. I’ve learned a lot, seen different stringing styles, met new people. I have to thank Paul Zalatoris, Jim Fromuth, Thierry Maissant, and Manuelle Felloni for allowing me to be a member of the Tecnifibre Stringing Team at Roland Garros. I can now say I’ve just strung the toughest clay court tournament in the world. It is one of the highlights of my career.