Tennis Industry magazine

 

Building the Team

With little time to pull together the first Wilson stringing team, the goal was to create a comprehensive training program that would yield ultra consistency.

Ron Rocchi

This is the third 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.

I am often asked, “How did the Wilson stringing team get its start?” My answer usually begins with a smile as I am reminded of all the talented individuals who helped make this happen. The stringing team has had great success, we have accomplished so much, and we continue to set the standard for tournament stringing. Looking back, many individuals have made significant contributions to the team. So let’s go back to the beginning…

It was November 2005, and I had been with Wilson for about 10 years. Most people don’t know that the global headquarters for Wilson Sporting Goods is in Chicago. At the time we had several floors in a typical office building, with one major difference from any other office — we always have tons of products lying around the office! Hundreds of racquets, string everywhere, more tennis balls than you could ever use, and every other tennis gear you can imagine. That office had four big conference rooms, all named after the Grand Slams.

One day, I got called into a meeting in the US Open conference room. The topic was ways we could enhance and strengthen our longstanding partnership with the USTA. Former Global Tour Director Michael Wallace walked into the room and said, “I just got off the phone with the USTA and they wanted to know if we were interested in putting together a stringing team for the US Open.”

I’ll never forget what happened next: Everyone in the room looked at me, and almost what seemed to be in unison asked, “So, what do you think?” My mind was flooded with thoughts, mostly of things we would need to do and things we did not have in place. “And there’s more,” Wallace added. “They want us to be stringing there in August.” That was only eight months away, and all I could think was, how in the world can we pull that off?

We were presented with a tremendous opportunity, and at the same time a tremendous challenge. Over the next few minutes, we had committed money, resources, personnel and support to make this happen. Now all I needed to do was put together a team. Essentially I broke the whole project down into three main areas: equipment (stringing machines and computers), personnel (the stringers themselves), and to create a comprehensive training program that would yield ultra consistency.

Building the Software

I spent many weeks evaluating various stringing software programs, hoping to find something that we could use at tournaments, but for the level of sophistication required, it became obvious that no existing program would be sufficient. I then started to map out some basic programming ideas and listed all of the facets I wanted to incorporate. The main idea was to use the power of computers to speed up the check-in process so that the players could move through our space easily and quickly.

I met with a software architect, and we decided to build a custom program to fit our needs. Our system scans the player’s badge to bring up specific player records. At the 2011 Australian Open, the average amount of time needed for a player to drop off racquets for stringing was less than 120 seconds.

Our highly trained desk staff used the system to log in the racquets, collect the tension information, enter the time required for pick up, and note any special stringing instructions. Typically, special instructions could be to string the racquet in the morning, to follow a specific pattern, and in some cases, variable tensions on different strings.

A player’s schedule can be very hectic. They have to wait in line for transportation, for getting a practice court, and even to get food, so they appreciate never having to wait in a line for their racquets. One of our main objectives was to streamline our service as much as possible.

I can tell you that the players really appreciate our “hassle free” drop-off and pick-up procedures. When they want to pick up their racquets, they simply scan their badge again, and our computer system tells us which racquets to pull from the completed rack and hand back to the player. This part of the process takes less than 30 seconds!

Building the team was much like putting together any professional sports franchise, just pick any sport and look at which teams are considered the best. The methodology and philosophy in which they build their team contain many of the same elements I used to create the Wilson stringing team.

My role was that of head coach and general manager, so I needed to start recruiting stringers, and build an infrastructure. From the inception, our goal was to break new ground and form a team like no other in the world. Our team would be ultra consistent, extremely professional, and always focus on player service. This meant I needed stringers who could execute specific roles on the team, and put the best team together for each tournament.

In the world of stringing, Grand Slams are the most difficult, just below that are 1000 Masters Series events such as Miami or Indian Wells, followed by the 500 and 250 Series. The quantity of racquets and number of stringers needed decreases accordingly, as does the level of difficulty. So, the challenge was to go from nothing to the US Open in eight months. To the best of my knowledge, this had never been done before by any stringing team.

Rigorous Training Course

The way Wilson strings at a tournament centers on the idea of standardization, and requires that all stringers adhere to the system while at the tournament. Each stringer must complete a training course that can last from one to three days based on skill and previous tournament experience. During this training course, every aspect of stringing is standardized. We have a specific way we mount the racquets, standard methods for using starting clamps, and specific stringing patterns for different types of racquets. We also mandate the knot over-pull (+20%), clamp position, knots and many other details.

Our version of stringing “boot camp” culminates in a final test to string eight very difficult racquets in three hours, including stencils, tubing, pads and bagging. Even the smallest mistake such as a crossover will cause the stringer to fail and repeat the test. The Wilson stringing team currently has a 60% failure rate for new potential stringers.

Although it is difficult to concisely describe all of the attributes that we are looking for in a stringer, there are common traits that all of our team members possess:

The life of a tournament stringer is not glamorous. The days are extremely long, most days we string for 18 to 20 hours. The working conditions are not ideal; we never seem to have enough lighting, space or temperature control. The pressure is high; players always want their racquets strung quickly. There never seems to be time to eat or rest, and the concept of “time off” does not exist. To be a good tournament stringer, you must have a personality that thrives on the challenge and feeds off of the stress. And you need to string mistake-free for long periods of time under stressful conditions.

The individuals who currently are members of the Wilson/Luxilon stringing team exemplify these traits, and are some of the finest tournament stringers in the world today.

The 2011 Team Members

The 2011 Wilson stringing team is comprised of 16 stringers from many different countries. Often, more than seven languages are spoken in the stringing room. Within the team, there is a core group of stringers who have been together from the beginning, and comprise the heart and soul of the team. These stringers arrive early, stay late, and have no issues with stringing 35 racquets each day, perfectly. As an added bonus, they also provide much of the humor during the long hours, which is absolutely necessary for the team. I want to thank them for their years of hard work and contributions to our success over the years.

In the past couple of years, we have added some new stringers to the team, all of whom are recognized for their ability. They are some of the best stringers in the world and they all have added a dimension of depth and stability to the team. Most of them have previous Grand Slam experience, Davis Cup, and/or Masters Series tournaments on their resume, and are well respected by the players. These stringers make our lives easy at tournaments by stringing error-free for hours on end, and always contribute to our success.

Most recently, two stringers have successfully completed training and will be joining the team in New York for the 2011 US Open. Since this will be their first Grand Slam, they have the opportunity to string during the qualification rounds and early days of the tournament. Both these guys are great additions to the team and their tournament skills have improved greatly this year. I look forward to them becoming permanent team members, and stringing at many tournaments for years to come.

I would be remiss if I did not recognize another critical part of the team, the individuals who interface with the players every day and make it possible for the stringers to get the jobs done. Wilson has always strived to enhance player service, and the player reception area led by Joel Disbro is simply the best in the business. Our staff is knowledgeable, professional, accurately collects the stringing instructions, and prepares the racquets for the stringers to string. When a player walks into our place of operation, they are considered our customer, and they know that we will work tirelessly to provide the best service possible.

Coming Up:

A look at common “red flags” we experience in the stringing room at tournaments, and our strategy and fixes for them.

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