For top pros and recreational players alike, racquet customizer Roman Prokes is the unseen champion.
By Kent Oswald
Roman Prokes, the Czech-born “stringer to the stars,” is famed for his racquet sorcery. Bold-faced tennis names trusting him with their sticks (and thus careers) have included Andre Agassi, Jennifer Capriati, Lindsay Davenport, Guga Kuerten, John McEnroe, Andy Roddick, Gabriela Sabatini, Maria Sharapova, and Caroline Wozniacki.
Still, the most amazing aspect of his résumé is that, for much less than the greats will pay, he provides the same craftsmanship and eye for detail in figuring out how to select, string and customize a racquet for anyone who walks in off the street into one of his three metropolitan New York RPNY stores or wherever else an average or extraordinary player may catch up with him.
The nuts and bolts of Prokes’ approach is a holistic vision of an individual’s needs and a racquet’s adaptability to game improvement. No two players have the same strokes and no racquet plays the same in different hands.
“You learn what to look for,” Prokes says about his consultations for top pros, rank amateurs and players in between. Asking someone to describe their game or reading manufacturing specs is only a first step to selecting a racquet, string and tension or making refinements to weight, balance and grip size that will increase what a player receives back from his or her game.
For the Love of Tennis
“When you love tennis you like everything about it,” says Prokes about how he got his start in the game, “and stringing is one part.”
Prokes emigrated from Czechoslovakia in 1981 in reaction to the continuing oppression by the ruling communist National Front Party. “Eventually I worked my way to [Tennisport], where I started working with a gentleman who used to string there. I’m good with my hands,” he says. “I find [stringing] very detail-oriented [and] very important. You can spend a couple hundred dollars [on a frame], but you string it incorrectly and you’ve wasted your money.”
A one-time player himself — now often working seven days and 70 hours a week he struggles to fit in a few quick 45-minute squash sessions for exercise — Prokes was “inquisitive and curious about technologies and styles of play,” finding himself “getting deeper and deeper” into what makes players and their racquets click. Discounting his years consulting with top players, manufacturers and the experience gained by stringing and customizing thousands of different racquets for different situations, Prokes — who is usually thought to sit at the top of the stringer’s pyramid with Jay Bosworth and Nate Ferguson — boils down his expertise to one ingredient: “An open mind is the most important thing for a stringer.”
From a player’s perspective, however, it is all about the trust created through listening, observing and responding. As Andre Agassi wrote in his autobiography, Open:
“So vital is Roman to my game that I take him on the road. He’s officially a resident of New York, but when I’m playing in Wimbledon, he lives in London, and when I’m playing in the French Open, he’s a Parisian. Occasionally, feeling lost and lonely in some foreign city, I’ll sit with Roman and watch him string a few racquets. It’s not that I don’t trust him. Just the opposite: I’m calmed, grounded, inspired by watching a craftsman. It reminds me of the singular importance in this world of a job well done.”
Prokes also has the trust of manufacturers. Wilson, in addition to asking Prokes’ advice on strings and stringing machines, contracted with RPNY for the last eight years to lead the stringing team they put together for the Australian Open, Sony Ericsson Open and US Open. (Prokes would be there in any case supporting the dozen or so top pros with whom he has contracts.) According to Ron Rocchi, Wilson’s global tour equipment manager, “The Wilson Stringing Team was created to highlight our expertise in tour service [as well as the string line and Baiardo stringing machine] … Roman has been a big part of our success from the beginning, his knowledge and expertise are well known in the industry.”
To complement the RPNY staff, Prokes contracts with accomplished stringers willing to put their own preferences aside as part of a team that top pros can rely on for complete consistency from tournament to tournament. “You can get a great cup of coffee in all places around the world,” he says, “but it is hard to find the same great cup of coffee everywhere. That’s what we are trying to build”
In addition to everyone calibrating on the same machines to the exact same tensions, tying off knots at the same length, crisscrossing strings in the same pattern, stenciling with the same amount of ink, etc. for a few thousand racquets a tournament, the team also prides itself on consistent player interactions. The front desk to the stringer’s lair is digitally enabled, carrying institutional memory in a database from event to event. Again, the key is trust. Players’ likes, dislikes, demands and even seeming whimsies will be honored the same way each time they entrust the team with their racquet.
As for Prokes, even after all he has seen and the stringing / customizing / retailing empire he has created, there seems no end in sight to his desire to keep putting in the hours. “To this day I don’t think it is boring. There is always something new to learn,” he insists.
He can fascinate, lecturing like a college’s most popular professor, about how the racquet and string technology runs parallel to players’ physical development; and how, paradoxically, while the new poly strings with their softer feels and bite on the ball allow for play that would have been impossible 30 years ago, on the racquets and with the players of even the recent past the same strings would have been considered “dead,” unplayable.
He can excite, as when explaining that while there hasn’t been anything revolutionary in racquet technology since graphite took over, there is incredible promise with the solid bodies.
And, poetlike, he can wax rhapsodic on how stringing machines are much better — “night and day” — compared to those of even the recent past … although, of course, “You have to know what to do with them to really take advantage of the technology.”
The RPNY “franchise” is expanding to other clubs in the New York metropolitan area. And the work from manufacturers keeps arriving in a steady stream. Most of all, players who want to better their game keep coming through the doors.
“What we do for the pros, we can do for anyone as well,” Prokes says. “We can help pretty much everybody to love the game of tennis, and then you do with it what you want to do with it.”
See all articles by Kent Oswald
About the Author
Kent Oswald is a contributor to TennisNow.com, producer at the JockBookReview.com and a former editor of Tennis Week magazine.