‘How hard can this be?’
By Ron Rocchi
Before I started working with the Wilson/Luxilon Stringing Team, it seemed a simple thing: Have some stringers show up at the tournament so they can string racquets for the players. How difficult could it really be? Over the last few years, my perspective has changed greatly.
The Wilson/Luxilon Stringing Team got its start in 2006 at the Tennis Channel Open in Las Vegas. This was a unique event—the small draw of top players, casual atmosphere, and circus-like environment contributed to this special tournament. We knew all the players by name, and they felt comfortable in the stringing area, even though there was room for only three stringers. Players would chat with the stringers for a few minutes, and then go about their day.
The service we provided was casual, similar to most tennis specialty shops where a friendly relationship exists between the staff and its customers. Despite this relaxed environment, there was nothing relaxed about the actual stringing, which as always had to be flawless in both execution and delivery.
We soon found that the key to providing an excellent experience for the players is to identify and understand all the moving parts, and then innovate to provide the best possible service. Top-level, world-class tournament stringing means that when a player picks up his racquets, they are exactly the way he wants them.
The Wilson/Luxilon Stringing Team is now the official stringing service of the Australian Open, US Open and Sony Ericsson Open, as well as some smaller tournaments. At majors, we use 10 to 12 stringers, each of whom has completed a rigorous training program and proven himself during previous qualification rounds. (We’ll talk about specifics of our training methods and stringing techniques in future articles.)
The biggest difference in our approach to stringing at these events is that we’ve formed a true “team,” and that team concept is part of our identity. Every stringer is working toward the common goal of providing the best player service possible. Everyone cuts strings, helps each other stencil, picks string up off the floor, and takes ownership of what the team is doing.
This is not easy to set up. Racquet stringers by nature tend to work alone, doing things “their way.” The Wilson system is so comprehensive and detailed that every stringer uses the same knots and duplicates the same techniques, right down to “bagging” completed racquets.
With this team concept, we’ve accomplished some amazing things, such as stringing 378 racquets in one day—100 percent accurately and mistake-free. Our team members come from around the globe and are some of the best stringers in the world today.
World-class service and innovation starts at the front desk where players check in their racquets. No matter how good the stringers, if you do not have a great check-in process, bad things will happen. For example, when a player drops off racquets for stringing, he may want different tensions on the mains and crosses, two racquets at one tension and one racquet at another tension, or one racquet right away and the rest for pick up as close to match time as possible. The person who is taking in these racquets must get all that information correct and communicate it accurately to the stringer—and do this for hundreds of individual racquets each day.
Our approach is to minimize the time it takes for players to drop off and pick up racquets, while still getting all the information we need. To do this, we created proprietary computer software and integrated many facets of the operation. We have detailed records and a knowledgeable staff, and we encourage players to interact with the stringers directly. This small yet critical touch is reassuring to players.
Preparing for the Big Events
In contrast to the small size of the Tennis Channel Open, Wilson/Luxilon recently completed its third year as the official stringer for the Australian Open. In my opinion, the size, location, infrastructure, costs and timing of the Australian Open make it the most difficult tournament for stringing on the ATP/WTA calendar.
This year, the Australian Open started on Jan. 17 with the finals on Jan. 30. Those of us involved with stringing boarded airplanes on Jan. 2 for Melbourne. Qualies start the week before and we have players practicing on the grounds as early as Jan. 6. What most fans don’t know is that a significant number of players fly to Australia in mid-December to acclimate to the conditions and begin preparation for the lead-up events.
We shipped our stringing equipment to Australia in early December, which meant that all critical decisions about equipment, supplies and incidentals had to be made well in advance. In total, three months of work is needed to string for this two-week tournament.
But well before we ship equipment to an event, a contract is negotiated between Wilson and the tournament. In this contract, hundreds of points and issues are clearly defined, right down to the time allotted for “on court” racquet stringing. (A racquet is called “on court” if it is being strung for a player who is currently in a match. It is the highest priority for the stringer. For the Australian Open in 2011, the average “on court” racquet was strung in just under 18 minutes.)
Customizing the ‘Stringing Hut’
One aspect that the tournament must provide is the space the Aussies call the “stringing hut.” This is the area where we will string and live in for almost a month. At the Australian Open, it has to be built each year, and is removed from the site at the end of the tournament. We have to monitor the construction to ensure it will meet our needs. Our list is long and includes: secure lockable area; air conditioning with temperature control; electrical supply for all the computers and stringing machines; internet access; solid, stable floor with individual electrical outlets for machines; plenty of lighting; a roof that does not leak; windows; private access for the players; wheelchair access; manpower to install all desks and racks for racquets; and so on. Typically, the tournament has plenty of other things to do in setting up an event, so making certain it spends enough time correctly completing our list, from halfway around the world, is no easy task.
At a major such as the Australian Open, players drop off their racquets in what seems like tidal waves, sometimes up to 350 per day. We cut out about 25 miles of string during the event, and then install another 25 miles of string to exacting tensions. Our days start early and finish late, and the challenge is to string each racquet exactly as requested and on time.
The biggest challenge is to string utterly consistently. Even a veteran stringer has to focus intently to pull this off, as he knows the player will check his work. In a typical busy day at a major, each stringer will have 30 or more racquets to complete, on top of finding time to eat and rest. All of the work is performed in a crowded space, and the pressure builds in a manner that is almost palpable. This type of environment is the pinnacle of tournament stringing, and a rare experience for even the best of stringers. And yes, there have been cases where stringers were overwhelmed and crumbled under the pressure. This is not a pretty sight.
But for the Wilson/Luxilon crew, that’s where the “team” comes in—as we’re able to support each other through the roughest patches.
See all articles by Ron Rocchi