Whether stringing for the pros or for recreational players, you need to establish standard operating procedures.
By Ron Rocchi
This is the second article in a series by Ron Rocchi, RSI’s 2009 Stringer of the Year and the Global Tour Equipment Manager at Wilson Sporting Goods, and the person behind the Wilson/Luxilon tournament stringing team. Rocchi’s, and RSI’s, goal is to share what he’s learned in a way that will help you improve your stringing business.
The Wilson stringing team has refined many aspects of tournament stringing, and there are some practices that can be applied to any type of home or retail stringing.
Our constant focus while stringing at tournaments is to deliver the highest quality, most consistent and repeatable installation possible, for the most demanding players, in the shortest time. We treat each string job as the most important thing that day, and understand completely the needs of our customers. To do this, we have developed a comprehensive system and standard practices that when executed by the team, put us in a great position to succeed.
The system we use is not proclaimed as the “right way” — rather, it’s one specific way to string. Keep in mind that although many things can be learned from tournament stringing, some ideas simply do not translate well for the average player, or the average stringer.
LEARN FROM THE PROS: ‘Clean the Machine’
A great lesson for any stringer is to know your equipment, and know it well. This means to understand how your machine works, how to maintain it properly, and how to clean and adjust all the parts. This is not dependent on the type of machine you are using, or how much it costs. It is the responsibility of the stringer to take care of the machine. Tournament stringers are fanatical about cleaning their machines, and they know that a well-functioning machine will allow them to provide the best string installation possible.
Stringing machines have various moving parts, each of which needs to be cleaned regularly. We use basic isopropyl alcohol (rubbing alcohol) for daily cleaning, and all the moving parts need to be cleaned. A great tip is to purchase cotton-tipped applicators from any laboratory supply company. They usually come in a bag of 50 or 100, and are inexpensive. These are fantastic to clean small areas as well as hidden parts and grooves.
Lubrication is another issue. When there is any direct contact on two moving parts, we prefer to use lubricant that contains Teflon. We have found silicone-based lubricants dissipate quickly and don’t provide the ease of movement required. We like to use a product called Tri-Flow, although there are many other gun cleaners and lubricants that work well, and build up over time to provide really good frictionless surfaces. For tight areas that need lubrication, use a clean cotton-tipped applicator.
It is also important to pay close attention to the clamps. Lubricate the post and lower moving parts, while constantly cleaning the teeth. Never apply lubricant to the friction area where the clamp base meets the turntable or the teeth of a clamp! If the clamp teeth are not clean, the string will slip and the coating will be ruined. In a tournament setting, we clean our clamps four to five times per day. That translates to about every five racquets strung. This allows us to maintain the correct clamp pressure and avoid over tightening, which damages the string. How clean are your clamps?
LEARN FROM THE PROS: ‘Which Way is Up?’
This simple idea serves as a launching pad for the entire system we use at tournaments. We begin each string job by mounting the racquet to the machine with the end cap facing “up” based on the manufacturer’s logo. As a result, this determines the “right” and “left” sides for stringing. This allows us to determine the short and long side automatically, and ensures we will tie off in the exact same location every time. This is extremely important when stringing a “series” (multiple) racquets for the same player, as they will see the same knot location on all racquets we’ve strung for them.
But even more importantly, as we see this player many days and sometimes weeks in a row, they receive the exact same patterns and knot locations, which also adds to our overall consistency. The stringer does not have to remember or write down where he tied off a particular string; it has been pre-determined within our system.
As with any good rule, there are always exceptions. There are some Prince racquets that require a specific short-side orientation, which means that the end cap may have to be upside down. However, we still mount the frame so that the short side is on the same side of the machine as all the other racquets we service.
Whether you string alone at home, or with other stringers in a shop, this “right side up” mounting idea is a great first step to improve the overall consistency of your stringing service.
CRITICAL DECISION: ‘Top-Down vs. Bottom-Up?’
In the world of stringing, this debate has existed for decades, and there are many valid arguments to both sides. Top-downers usually cite less frame distortion, and bottom-uppers talk about the natural flow of a superior one-piece string job. To be honest, this is not a case of right and wrong, rather a debate of preference. I think there are additional factors to be considered, such as the type of mounting system being used. If your machine has only two-point mounting, then a bottom-up approach may cause the frame to distort in the hoop. With a six-point mounting system, much less frame distortion would occur.
But I also believe that even more critical factors are the frequency of stringing and tension. From a purely scientific standpoint, the stringing process imparts massive amounts of force and load displacement that most stringers don’t even consider. In today’s carbon-fiber racquets, this stress is so great in fact that some manufacturers must plan and design lay-ups with this in mind. So our approach at tournaments is to string “top-down” whenever possible. This is due in great part to the simple fact that these racquets are being re-strung almost every day, and the stringing force moving in the direction of the shafts of the racquet will help the integrity over a longer period of time. Remember, these are pro player racquets at a professional event, not consumer racquets that may be returned for warranty consideration. You should never do anything that would void a warranty on a racquet for your customer.
CRITICAL DECISION: ‘One-Piece or Two-Piece?’
Two-piece stringing is a by-product of the recent hybrid popularity. But again, a strong debate exists. If you are installing a hybrid (different strings for mains and crosses) then two-piece (four knots) stringing is necessary. And there are some advantages: Separate pieces allow for different tensions to stay different, and with four knots all outside strings will result in a slightly lower tension due to tie-offs. This lower tension should be more forgiving on off-center hits, which is a plus for average players.
In a tournament setting, we string one-piece whenever possible. To be more specific, we string one-piece top-down whenever possible. Our philosophy is simply that at the professional level, we want to minimize things that can go wrong, and with four knots, more can go wrong. Also, pro players tend to hit the vast majority of their shots in the center of the strings, so lower tension outside strings do not matter as much. Furthermore, top-down one-piece stringing provides a clean look with only two knots, and contributes to the longevity of the frame.
LEARN FROM THE PROS: ‘All Are Knot Created Equal’
The vast majority of stringers use the double half hitch and/or some version of a starting knot. Yet other stringers revel in the ability to execute various exotic knots from faraway lands. Let us not forget what the purpose of a knot is: To tie off one string to another. And, if it is a good knot, it will not damage either string. But, if it is a superior knot, it will also look clean and perform just as well. In our opinion, the double half-hitch looks bulky, and the second hitch never seems to “close up” against the other.
As for the starting knot, accomplished tournament stringers simply do not use this because it is big, looks different from the finishing knot, and at higher tensions tends to add unwanted stress to the string and grommet. It is my personal opinion that the greater your skills as a stringer, the less likely you are to use a starting knot. To avoid using a starting knot, we utilize a starting clamp to secure the string, then come back and tie off using our standard finishing knot.
So we consider both aspects of a knot, first the function and then the aesthetics. I have had the privilege of working with and seeing the best tournament stringers in the world, and have been in the stringing rooms at all the major tournaments. The single most common aspect of all tournament stringing is the knot, and it represents the biggest difference between shop stringing and tournament stringing. Sure, there are variations and a few different types of knots being used, but nowhere is the old double half-hitch considered the best knot for tournament players. On the other hand, if you are stringing in a shop for the general public, the double half-hitch and any starting knot are completely acceptable and will serve you well. But in the world of tournament stringing, other knots are preferred.
Most professional tournament stringers use similar knots that hold well and “cinch up” close to the frame. The Wilson team uses our own version of the tournament knot, but it is similar to tournament knots you can look up online. For us, the most important thing is that we each use the same knot. In case you’re wondering, this knot has served us well over the years: In more than 60,000 racquets we’ve strung at tournaments, not a single knot has failed, ever.
‘Pulling’ it All Together …
The stringing system used by the Wilson team centers around standardization and repeatability. Some of the key ideas described here can be implemented at the consumer level and can improve the overall quality of your stringing in the shop.
- Clean your machine every day, like the pros.
- Mount the racquet right side up.
- Consider “top-down” vs. “bottom-up” stringing.
- Make the right choice — one-piece and two-piece stringing.
- All knots are not created equal.
- Understand the difference between tournament stringing and stringing in your shop for recreational players.
Understanding the ‘Tournament’ Difference …
There is a huge difference between what we do at a tournament and what most stringers experience every day. The biggest difference is quantity per day. In a shop setting, a stringer may complete 10 or even 15 racquets on a busy day. Most of the tournament stringers have completed that before lunch, and are looking at an additional stack of up to 20 more! Note that in most cases we are not talking about synthetic gut in racquets with 16 mains and 18 crosses, but rather stiff poly in racquets with an 18 x 20 string bed.
Another major difference is what tournament stringers call a “series.” This is where you have multiple racquets that are exactly the same frame, with identical stringing requested in all the racquets. This takes a great amount of skill and time management, and requires that the stringer duplicate every aspect of the stringing from the first racquet to the last. If you have six racquets to string, and the goal is for them to end at exactly the same tension, you had better have a good system for how to handle the installation process.
As part of the Wilson stringing system, we always string a series in its entirety from start to finish without stopping in between racquets. This does take some delicate planning and time management, especially with other players’ racquets to string as well as Mother Nature calling.
To illustrate the process of stringing multiple racquets for the same player, I have a few examples from the Sony Ericsson Open this year:
- ATP World No. 1 Rafael Nadal usually drops off four racquets on match days for stringing. As his tension of 25.5 kg remains the same for the entire tournament, it is our challenge to duplicate this each time. From a stringing standpoint, it does not matter which order we string the racquets, because each is at the same tension.
- Young upstart Alexandr Dolgopolov also drops off four racquets on match days. However, he wanted three racquets at 27/26 kg and one at 26.5/25.5 kg. The order in which we string these racquets becomes very important. Because four racquets will take about two hours to string, we cannot string the lowest tension last, as in that time the tension on the first racquet will be slightly looser, making it seem the same tension as the last racquet — the one strung at the lower tension. Therefore, we must string the loosest tension first, so that subsequent racquets strung at higher tensions will always be tighter.
- WTA World No. 1 Caroline Wozniacki also drops off multiple racquets for stringing, and her tension is 26 kg. Since she uses a hybrid of Babolat Revenge and natural gut, we always use four knots.
Imagine a customer dropping off six of the same racquets, asking that they all be strung at the same tension, and then they check the work of the stringer upon pick-up. And then they do that every day for two weeks! In most shops and clubs, a customer will drop one racquet for stringing, and then you will not see them again for months or even a whole year. At a tournament, we see that player every day, and in many cases more than once per day.
The responsibility of a tournament stringer to reproduce the same installation each day is paramount to the player. Constant adjustments to tension, sometimes by a half pound, are critical to maximize racquet performance. You see, the players are balancing many factors to find the exact right tension, none of which is taken into consideration for the average player. These factors are temperature, humidity, speed of the court surface, and ball characteristics.
Once the player has found the magic combination, it becomes the responsibility of the stringer to reproduce that stringing each and every day, and the final tension cannot vary, period. On the other hand, if a shop stringer is off by 2 or 3 pounds for a recreational player they see only once a year, this may not be even noticed by the customer.
Coming Up: A closer look at the Wilson/Luxilon stringing team members, and some of the skills required of a world-class tournament stringer.
See all articles by Ron Rocchi