The Stringer’s Edge: Tour Stringing for Everyone
Whether you aspire to string for top pro players or enjoy servicing your local customers, you can learn from what tour stringers experience.
By Greg Raven
I recently had the opportunity to join the stringing team at one of the largest and most important tennis tournaments in the world. I knew going in that it would be a learning experience. I just didn’t realize how intense the learning experience would be.
So, in the interest of promoting better tournament stringing at all levels of our sport, I’m passing along some of the nuggets I gleaned.
No matter how hardworking your staff is, it’s likely that the stringing team is going to be working harder, and for longer hours. This means that the workspace for the stringing team has to be roomy, comfortable, and close to amenities such as restrooms, food services, parking, and the players. The power has to be on 24/7, the climate control must be topnotch, cell phones have to be able to connect, and there must be quick and easy Internet connectivity.
If you have strict security, the average stringing credential must admit the holder to just about anywhere on the property outside of the locker rooms, and at least one member of the stringing team must have an all-access credential. Finally, visit the stringing area sometime during qualifying — before the crush of racquets arrives from main-draw players — to ensure that everything is as it should be.
Although the Grand Slam tourneys and some of the top-level events are served by stringing teams provided by a manufacturer, there are still plenty of tournaments where smaller outfits do the stringing. For these events, you need to have your player reps and/or marketing people visit the stringing room, for three good reasons.
First, the stringing crew may be sequestered off somewhere out of sight. Visiting them to say hello makes them feel as if someone cares.
Second, the people who string at tournaments are likely to be influential among the other tennis players and stringers they know. If you can create a connection with the stringing crew, it will pay dividends down the road. To create a really strong impression, give away hats, shirts or string samples. Maybe buy a meal, drinks, or even snacks for the team; they might be working 18-plus hours a day, so that just getting a bite to eat is difficult. For what amounts to petty cash, you can easily endear yourself to the members of the stringing crew. If you really want to make an impression, you could treat them to photo ops with your players, or even a mobile car wash. Anything you do to make their lives easier will earn you big points.
Third, you might learn something. Maybe your racquets are difficult to string. Maybe your string is engendering white-hot hatred among the stringers who have to install it. Maybe your grommets aren’t up to snuff, or your players need additional replacement bumper-guard kits to keep their racquets tuned up. This is a crucible, and what looks good at the typical retail level may turn out to be quite different under tournament stringing pressures. You won’t be just making life a little easier for the tour stringers, you’ll also be improving your relationship with your players.
Your choices for racquets and strings come as the result of a complex decision matrix that includes what works for you, what’s available, and — in some cases — what you can afford. It’s often not easy to work through all the factors to find a combination you like. Even so, you need to consider one additional aspect: How easy is it for a tour stringer to restring your racquet properly?
Tennis is the only major sport where the player must constantly refresh his equipment before play. Restringing can play a huge role in your performance. Hence, the more highly ranked players often travel with personal stringers.
Until you get to that level, you’re at the tender mercies of whoever is handling the stringing duties at the tournaments you enter. The easier you make it for them to prepare your racquets, the better it will be for everyone.
Let’s start with the check-in desk. For goodness sake, have your credential ready! No matter how famous you are (or think you are), the person working the check-in desk may be operating on six hours of sleep or less, and simply blank out when he sees you. If someone else is dropping off your racquets, have them clearly identify you at the check-in desk. At combination events with both ATP and WTA matches, tell the check-in person which association you’re with, as male players may be in a separate book than female players. This becomes really important whenever a male coach is dropping off racquets for his female player, as there is built-in potential for confusion and delay.
Even check-in can be hectic, and you want to make certain that your information is clearly transmitted and received, because this is what the stringer is going to be given later. If the check-in desk doesn’t correctly note who you are and what you want, you have roughly zero chance of getting the stringing job you want and need.
Drop off your racquets well before you need them back — the previous night, if possible. Even if you want your racquets strung the next day, having the racquets physically there allows the stringer to schedule his work. The last thing you want to do is to get into a situation where you need a racquet restrung immediately during the first round of a tournament — the busiest time. Even if they can accommodate you, you’re not making any friends.
After you establish whose racquets you’re dropping off, there are several pieces of information you need to communicate clearly during check-in:
First, you need to establish how you are going to pay. If you are not paying cash or having the stringing fees taken out of your winnings (where possible), you’ll often need to have your credit card information on file. This guarantees that even if you suffer a bad loss and leave immediately afterward, the stringers still get paid.
Second, you’ll need to provide the string(s) you use, and the tension(s) you want. Generally, this means handing over one or more reels of string and perhaps a package or two of string as well. Clearly and indelibly mark your name on your string reels, packages, stencils, and anything else you leave off at the stringing area. As for the tension, make certain that the check-in person notes whether your tension is in pounds or kilos. “Thirty-five” may seem perfect clear to you, but it’s very low if in pounds and very high if in kilos, so be specific and see to it that the check-in person notes it correctly.
If you use a “hybrid,” the crosses will almost certainly be installed from the tip of the racquet down to the throat. This method is demanded by some manufacturers, is better for the integrity of the racquet, and — some say — makes the racquet play better. It will also result in a slightly stiffer stringbed.
If you use one string for both the mains and crosses, even if you use different tensions, there’s a possibility that the crosses will be strung from the throat up to the tip, unless you specifically request otherwise. To determine if this might affect you, count the number of mains in your racquet and divide by two. You’ll wind up with either an even number (such as 8), or an odd number (such as 9). Next, examine the two center mains of the racquet (the ones that run parallel to the handle). There will be a loop between the two mains, and it can be either at the throat or the head.
If the loop is at the head and half your mains is an even number, or if the loop is at the throat and half the number of mains is odd, you don’t have anything to worry about: Your crosses will be strung from the tip to the throat no matter what. If the loop is at the throat and half your mains is an even number, or if the loop is at the head and half the mains is an odd number, you should tell the person at the check-in desk you want “four knots” for consistent string jobs from venue to venue.
You also need to tell the check-in desk what stencil(s) you want (and what color ink), what time you need your racquets back, and any other special instructions. (As a backup, you should travel with your own stencils and inks.)
Keep track of how much string is available. You don’t want the stringer to run out at 11:30 at night when you’ve requested an 8 a.m. pickup.
If you are running the stringing team, your preparation starts by having forms and systems for everything. You want to leave as little to chance as possible. On the check-in side, your forms should make it easy for just about anyone to sit at the check-in desk and get player information quickly and accurately. The person working the check-in desk is sometimes overworked and under-appreciated, so you want your systems to be easily picked up by others who can provide temporary fill-in and/or assistance.
Your prices should be posted prominently, along with any other information needed by the people dropping off racquets. If possible, have a small printed flier available to hand out to players at first check-in that not only gives vital details but also promotes any other services you offer. If there’s room on the flier, you could even do some self-promotion, which never hurts. At tournaments where players are paying cash, you must have enough money on hand to make change.
On the stringing side, ideally, every member of the team will be using a calibrated machine and the same stringing techniques, and each players’ racquets will always be strung on the same machine by the same stringer.
Equipment preparation includes the normal items such as making certain that every piece of equipment is clean, calibrated, and ready to perform, as well as other items such as surge suppressors — preferably with battery back-up — for each stringing machine or piece of electronic equipment (including computers and diagnostic equipment), ink, and stencils. Have tools, lubricants, tape, glue, and extras of everything important, whether it’s a ball-point pen or a stringing machine or someone to fill in should a medical, personal, or family emergency take away any of your main stringers. And don’t forget the anti-fatigue floor mats!
Desk workers: You’ll be dealing with people from around the world with every accent and speech variation you can imagine. Communication issues notwithstanding, you have to record all the information correctly. Some players, coaches, and family members will treat you as an almost intolerable imposition, while others will be happy to stand and chat despite the line of other players waiting. As with other members of the team, though, you must be as accurate and efficient as humanly possible, not only because everything subsequent hinges on what you do, but also because if a player catches you making an error it will make future dealings with that player more difficult.
Stringers: You can only string as fast as you can string. If you go faster, you will make mistakes and you will have to redo the string job, which is much slower than doing it correctly the first time. You also have to find a way to get the food and rest you need to ensure that you’re still standing at the end of the tournament.
Would-Be Tour Stringers
If you think you would like to become a tour stringer, there are three main areas you need to work on: your equipment, your stringing chops and your physical stamina.
You may be the greatest stringer in the world, but without a machine, you’re a spectator. Therefore, your equipment has to be up to the challenge of banging out racquets every 20 to 30 minutes for days on end. If you’re going to be on a team where the equipment is supplied, you need to be familiar with the equipment well before the first player comes through the door. Besides the machine, if you are accustomed to certain tools, make certain that they’re up to the rigors of this level of use.
Among the talents you must have is that of measuring string quickly from reels without looking up the recommended lengths, getting out a measuring tape, or cutting way more than needed. This usually means using the length of the racquet as your reference length, or knowing how much string you pull from hand to outstretched hand across your chest.
Along with knowing the standard ways to restring a racquet correctly, you’ll need to know other methods for restringing a racquet. Two knots or four? It should be all the same to you. Mains at one tension and the crosses at another? Tension changes should be automatic. Install the crosses on a Head racquet from the bottom up? You bet. Do a one-piece around-the-world? No problem. Do a 3 x 3 box pattern on a 93-square-inch head with string that’s like barbed wire? It still has to be done on time.
It’s likely that you don’t string 20 to 40 racquets a day, day in and day out, in your normal life, so it’s simply not possible to practice restringing racquets under extreme pressure while malnourished, dehydrated, and sleep deprived. Even so, you can approach each racquet you string during the year as part of your normal business as if it’s needed on center court in 30 minutes, and it has to be done and done correctly — no ifs, ands, or buts. Try to imagine that a player you’ve admired on TV is standing next to you, shifting anxiously from foot to foot, while you work. It won’t prepare you for the actual pressure you’ll face, but it will get you into the proper mindset.
Another thing that’s difficult to gauge ahead of time is how physically demanding it is to stand at your stringing machine for days on end installing stiff polyester strings into racquets with 18 x 20 string beds. Some may be able to do it in flip-flops, while others may need heavily cushioned soles with custom orthotics. Will your knees give you problems with that much standing? Will your back tolerate bending over a stringing machine? If your fingers wear out — or if you get a cut or other injury — can you continue to string with tape and/or bandages on your hands or fingers? If you wear contact lenses, can you leave them in as long as you’ll need them? If not, do you have a pair of glasses as a back-up?
Considering its importance to the outcomes in high-level tennis, tournament stringing does not always receive the attention it deserves. Part of this is due to the wide variety of disparate entities that must work together to produce the exceptional service that pros can and should be enjoying.
However, if each part in the chain does its best to optimize its own performance while easing interactions with the other entities involved, together we should be able to collaborate to deliver stringing excellence.
See all articles by Greg Raven
About the Author
Greg Raven is an associate editor for RSI magazine and technical writer. He is certified as a Master Racquet Technician by the U.S. Racquet Stringers Association. He can be reached via e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org, or through Facebook, LinkedIn, and Twitter. He plays tennis five days a week, and is turning into an avid cyclist.