Your visions will happen
As the 2012 tennis season arrives in full flower this month with tournaments at Indian Wells and Miami, the game has settled into a new status quo that nobody could have predicted.
All the recent advancements in racket technology are pushing pros to try a trick that's extremely rare, if not unprecedented, in tennis history: They're playing with rackets whose strings are about as taut as a bowl of pad thai.
At tournaments, stringers say an increasing number of daredevil tour players, most of whom have compact, powerful groundstrokes, have started to ask them to shave as many as 20 pounds off their string tensions to take their rackets down to the low 30-pound and high 40-pound range. Those sorts of numbers were oddities a few years back when lively natural gut strings stretched into the high 60s (or occasionally even reached the 70s) reigned supreme on tour.
Bethanie Mattek-Sands, currently the third-highest-ranked American woman, strings her rackets at 38 to 40 pounds; doubles specialist David Martin is at 31 pounds and young American Jack Sock asks for 40.
The lowest request from the U.S. Open this past year: Filippo Volandri's rackets at an astonishingly slack 26 pounds. "A lot of players are going down in tension," says Joel Disbro, Wilson stringing tour manager who runs the on-site stringing operations at the U.S. and Australian Opens.
Racket strings have more punch when they're strung loosely because the ball dwells on the string bed longer, creating a trampoline effect. Years ago, when players used natural gut strings, this kind of slingshot power came at the expense of control—so most players opted for tighter strings and pinpoint placement.
Today, with the new generation of synthetic strings, players are discovering they can control that added power with all the spin the new, slicker strings naturally give them. "Players can actually control the ball better at lower tensions when they use poly strings and have a heavy topspin game," says Roman Prokes, a technician who strings for Andy Roddick and Caroline Wozniacki. "It's exactly the opposite of what we are used to."
For tennis fans, a famously cranky lot, most technological advances are met with dark predictions about what might happen to the game and how people will abandon the sport in droves. But in this case, the lower tensions seem to be helping. More players are figuring out their racket sweet spots, which could be a factor in stiffening competition. And more pros can knock the fuzz off the ball now while keeping it in the court with more topspin and control.
"For sure the poly string allows you to string way lower [in tension] and still get that unique combination of power, spin and control," Justin Gimelstob, a Tennis Channel commentator and former player, wrote in an email. "The most unique part of the new strings is the way players are able to accelerate so violently and bring the ball up and down so severely. It's one of the reasons it's so tough to attack the net because in a way the dimensions of the court have been altered. Angles now exist that didn't years ago."
If there's a model for the era of lower-tension tennis, it's Roger Federer. The meticulous Swiss comes to the court armed with nine rackets strung at three different tensions ranging from 48 to 52 pounds in the vertical main strings (and 3.3 pounds lower for his cross strings)—numbers he picks with his stringer the night before. If it's hot out and he's playing a monster hitter, he'll bring more rackets on the tighter side.
Federer almost never restrings a racket during a match. He usually burns through seven or eight sticks during a five-setter, often switching from tension to tension, and generally going tighter as the match progresses, says his stringer Nate Ferguson, owner of Priority One, the company many top pros hire to handle their stringing.
In 2004, Federer was stringing his rackets at 55 pounds, which was considered ultra-loose for that time. While stringers say he already has the lowest tension of any of the men in the top 10, stringers say he's gone down even more.
Ferguson of Priority One said Federer uses vertical main strings, made of gut, strung at 49 pounds and a synthetic brand called Luxilon Alu Rough in the cross strings at only 46.2 pounds.
Stringers say Serena and Venus Williams along with Kim Clijsters are among the few top players left still playing with a full racket head of gut. Most pros now use at least some of the newer polyester-like monofilament string often called "polyester" or "poly" for at least some of their strings.
It's these high-tech poly strings that allow pros to swing for the fences and have the balls drop in because of the bite and hyper topspin the strings generate. Pros have always varied their string tension a little based on the court surface, weather conditions and their opponent's style of play. But five pounds used to be considered a big step.
Today, Prokes says he recommends that players go down in tension by at least 10% when switching to a polyester string, a move that, he says, puts less stress on the arm. Andy Roddick has lowered his tension gradually from 63 and 64 pounds a few years back to 55 and 56 pounds at the U.S. Open, according to Prokes, his stringer.
"People are used to seeing 60 pounds and then you suggest stringing at 45 pounds and they think it's crazy. But it's easier on everybody's shoulders and just works better," Prokes said.
In 2008, doubles specialist Leander Paes was struggling with his game and watching his ranking slip. His coach, Rick Leach, a former No. 1 doubles player, suggested loosening up when playing with polyester strings. Leach convinced Paes to lower his tension from 61 pounds to an ultra-slack 47.
"It really changed his game and he had a resurgence in his career," says Leach. "He's able to get more pop on his serve and hits a heavier ball so he can hang with the young guys." By early 2009, Paes' ranking had climbed to No. 5 and today the 38-year-old is ranked No. 7.
Jean-Christophe Verbourg, international tour director at Babolat, isn't so sure that poly strings need lower tensions. "There's no rule that you have to decrease the tension," he says.
Some pros and coaches say modern, deadened strings increase the stress on a player's arm if strung too tightly, bringing more shock through the strings, up the racket and into the body.
"The string today doesn't give at all and that is the reason why we're seeing a lot of wrist and shoulder injuries," says Nick Bollettieri, coach of 10 No. 1 players.
Not everyone is obsessed with string tension.
Rafael Nadal walks on court with five or six rackets in his bag all strung at 55 pounds. He typically uses only two or three of them and rarely changes tension. He's thought to be the least picky of the top three players when it comes to racket tension.
Novak Djokovic likes his strings around a more-traditional 60 pounds, while James Blake has his new Luxilon Alu strings pulled to 68 pounds on hard courts and 65 on clay.
But if there's any one general effect of the string-tension question, it's that players are more focused on their strings than perhaps ever before.
Wozniacki strings her Yonnex frames between 55 and 57 pounds, depending on the weather, down from the 63-pound tension she used to use.
She's so picky about getting it right, she never steps foot on court without a string gauge.
In her fourth-round win against Svetlana Kuznetsova at last year's U.S. open, Wozniacki pulled out the gauge several times to check her tension. "The racket I played with felt loose and that's why I changed it," she said at the time. "I always check new rackets."