Today’s Guest Post is written by Tim Strawn, Executive Director of the International Alliance of Racquet Technicians, and has been reposted with permission from the IART website. To learn more about Tim and IART, visit their website at www.gssalliance.com and listen to my interview with Tim on the ParentingAces YouTube channel (click here).
If there’s one thing I’ve learned over my long career as a racquet technician it’s that the odds are heavily stacked against players when it comes to figuring out equipment. There’s also one segment here that has it especially hard and that’s parents and juniors. Unless the parents are tennis players themselves their knowledge of racquets, strings & tension is non-existent and even if they are a player, that doesn’t automatically mean their knowledge of the aforementioned is adequate. Topping this off, I’ve dealt with countless parents who travel to tournaments and ask everyone for advice who even remotely looks like they might know what they’re talking about. C’mon parents you know you’re as guilty with this one as the day is long! They come back to me with this “new” revelation of a better string & tension for their junior and want me to change a set-up that I’ve already taken the time to work out for their junior player when they first sought my advice. Never mind that their current set-up is fine and doing exactly what they asked for. Now I have a completely new dynamic to deal with and it has to be done in such a way that I don’t offend the parent or the player. What they fail to realize is that this is a scenario that could play itself out indefinitely and until this is explained to them the vicious cycle will never end. The truth of the matter is that for the most part, parents have to depend on other people to make equipment decisions for their junior players–more on that in a minute. When it comes to the juniors themselves the process gets even more complicated. Two of their primary resources are; the Internet and every other junior they practice with or compete against. Of course, everyone knows that if it’s on the Internet it’s got to be true right and if your partner uses a different string then why isn’t it good enough for you? When traveling for tournaments it might be the kid you just played who beat you and maybe it’s worth a chat to see what string he/she is using and hey, maybe event think about a tension or racquet change. As trained racquet technicians we know it really doesn’t have to be this way so the real question is this; how do we change it? If we look a little deeper maybe we can unravel this mystery.
PARENTS SEEKING PROFESSIONAL ADVICE
So parents here’s a straight forward question for you. Who do you go to when you need to figure out equipment for your junior player? Seriously. When you’re asked that question what’s the first answer that comes to mind? Yep I thought so. Your teaching pro right? So now ask yourself another question. Why is that? What makes you think that just because your teaching pro is trained to teach your kid how to hit a tennis ball that they’re also an expert on equipment? This is like going to an eye doctor for a checkup and expecting that same eye doctor to be able to perform open heart surgery. Why not? They’re both in the field of medicine right? (substitute “the sport of tennis”) and both considered to be doctors (substitute “professionals”). Are you beginning to see my point here? Many professions have separate aspects to them and because of this, they have different levels of higher education to obtain the proper training to practice in their chosen profession.
Ok ok don’t get your feathers all ruffled up teaching pros. You do a great job when it comes to teaching and this isn’t a knock on your profession. This is nothing more than a clarification. But how about we do a little reverse role playing. How would the teaching pro feel if, let’s say, every time their best player came to me for racquet service I told them they needed to change their backhand stroke, toss the ball differently on their serve and attack the net more often? Now the kid goes back to the teaching pro, steps onto the court, and does exactly what I told them to do and the pro absolutely freaks out. He then asks “What in the world are you doing? That’s not the way I taught you to hit a backhand and we’ve worked on that for months to correct it and why are you tossing the ball differently on your serve? We just got that all straightened out and for heavens sake, I sure didn’t tell you to attack the net more often. We haven’t even worked on your volleys yet. Where in the world did you come up with this stuff?” Calmly, the player says “Well, I was talking to Tim, the guy who strings my racquet and he’s the one that gave me that advice. It sounded pretty good to me so I thought I’d give it a try”. Now be honest with yourself teaching pros. How’s that really going to go over with you and further more, if this scenario started playing out on a regular basis how, pray tell, are you going to put a stop to it? It’s an entirely different scenario when the shoe’s on the other foot right?
By now everyone should be getting my point loud and clear. Racquet technicians are trained in the art of matching a racquet to a players style of play, the string that best suits that particular racquet and style of play and a tension that enhances the overall performance of the player/racquet/string combination. They’re the ones stringing the racquets every day and dealing with every level and age of player that comes through their door. The teaching pros are the ones spending hours on the court refining ground strokes and teaching every aspect of hitting a ball and all other elements that take place while the player is on the court competing. It’s the job of the trained racquet technician to see to it that once that player steps onto the court with his/her teaching pro that they’re using the proper racquet and string/tension set-up to meet the challenges their pro throws their way. You don’t change strokes and techniques that you’ve spent hours and hundreds of dollars refining just because the racquet set-up is flawed. You match the racquet/string/tension to the player and that’s an involved process. The fact remains that you’re going to have to search long and hard to find a good teaching pro that’s also taken the time to go above and beyond to also become a qualified and properly trained racquet technician and trust me, if you can find that person hang onto them! They’re worth their weight in gold! We see several who meet this criteria every year at the annual IART training symposium and all of them are dedicated to this training every bit as much as they are to learning how to become a better teacher on court. However, as I mentioned, they are a breed apart.
With this in mind let’s look at some basics that will actually help the parent or junior when they start asking questions about equipment.
SEEK ADVICE FROM THE RIGHT PERSON AND STAY WITH THE PLAN
This cannot be emphasized strongly enough and it’s not that difficult to find the right person if you know what you’re looking for. Knowing a few basic questions will go a long way as well..
- Ask about training….. This is without a doubt the most important question to ask. If your guy/gal has no real substantive answer you should just politely say thank you and keep looking. People train to be qualified racquet technicians just like they train to be qualified teaching professionals and as mentioned, there’s a difference between the two. This is typically not the case. The IART offers the mostcomprehensive training found anywhere in the world for racquet technicians. If your guy/gal has attended one or more IART symposiums you can rest assured that these people have had some top notch training and you’re working with a qualified professional.
- Ask about certifications….. The USRSA offers two levels of certification; CRT (Certified Racquet Technician) and MRT (Master Racquet Technician). The MRT is the highest level and requires the applicant to study and pass a comprehensive written test as well as perform hands-on tasks for stringing and customizing a racquet.
- Be loyal to your guy/gal once you find them…..once you’ve found a properly trained technician be loyal to them and if you have questions, seek their advice first. These trained technicians take a lot of pride in knowing their craft and taking care of their clients. They actually look forward to any challenge you may throw their way. If you’re patient and willing to work through the process, that technician can be a wealth of information that can literally save you thousands of dollars over the long haul. Be loyal and you’ll find yourself in a worry-free situation when it comes to finding the right racquet, string & tension for your player, no matter what age or level of play.
What follows is some basic information offered as a primer for the average person. Arm yourself with a little knowledge so you’ll know how to recognize a competent person when seeking advice on equipment.
CHOOSING A RACQUET
Racquets are specifically designed with several factors in mind. Not all players are alike and neither are racquets – PERIOD. There are junior racquets for little kids just like there are junior racquets for bigger kids etc. The same is true for adult recreational players all the way up to touring pros and everything in between. A standard length racquet is 27 inches long so when you’re referring to a junior racquet it’s going to be shorter than 27 inches and the grip is going to be much smaller. As a young player begins that transformational phase from a small junior to a teen they’re going to transition to an adult frame and this is typically the stage where the parent is going to need some expert guidance from a trained and experienced racquet technician. Remember that every manufacturer is going to have similar racquets when it comes to overall weight, balance and swing weight. Most variances are going to occur in the composite makeup of the frame or perhaps different technologies that enhance things like comfort or make the sweet spot larger but first things first. The three numbers you need to know are:
- Overall weight
- Swing weight
These numbers can be numerically determined by a trained technician who has the properly calibrated equipment to do the job and everyone should know these 3 numbers as it pertains to them. The “big 3” are what figure into the stroke production of the player. For instance, if your player hugs the baseline and likes to pound the ball from the backcourt they will be much more effective with a heavier overall weight that’s more evenly balanced as opposed to a light racquet that’s also balanced at what we would classify as “head light”. This is just one example but again, remember this. Whatever racquet they’re using has a set of numbers. Again, this is the “big 3” that covers specific overall weight, swing weight and balance and these are the basic numbers you need to know. If the players style of play changes then yes, you’re likely to see a change in these numbers and that’s where a trained technician with the proper equipment can help you identify those numbers. But remember that the important thing here is to know what those numbers are. That way, if you’re playing with one brand and decide to switch to another, you can take those numbers and use them as a baseline reference point when play testing a new racquet.
CHOOSING A STRING
Strings are even more confusing than racquets for the simple fact that there is a plethora of choices out there. To compound the problem even further, consider the fact that there is also something called a hybrid string job where the main (vertical) and cross (horizontal) strings are different so the easiest way to tackle this part of the equation is to start with the basics when it comes to string types and there are 4 + 1
- Nylon – often referred to as synthetic gut
- Natural Gut
- Co-polymer – more commonly referred to as polyester
- Kevlar – yeah that’s right. They use this stuff in bullet proof vests!
- Zyex – the +1 I mentioned above and is one of the newer kids on the block that deserves a mention
Kevlar and Natural gut are pretty straight forward. If you want maximum playability then natural gut is certainly a top choice. If you’re looking for maximum durability then without a doubt, Kevlar can meet the challenge. However, there are tradeoffs for both of these strings. A top junior will love the way natural gut plays but the parent will hate the fact that it’s so expensive and doesn’t last very long. Likewise, Kevlar may very well solve the problem of frequent string breaks but the harshness of the string might leave the player complaining on a number of levels. When it comes to co-polymers and nylon there are a ton of variations. Nylon ranges from single core extrusions ( Prince Tournament nylon) or single cores with multiple wraps around the core (Gosen Micro series) and then there’s also multifibre nylons which can get absolutely crazy in their design and make-up (Gosen Multi CX or Tecnifibre X-One Bi-Phase). The Zyex I mentioned is a nice combination of a string with great elongation (think comfort and energy return to the ball) and great snap-back (think characteristic that many touring pros like about polyester). Zyex has limitations on maximum tension though so keep this in mind if you decide to give it a try. The manufacturer sets a limit of 60 lbs for overall reference tension when stringing the racquet. Each and every one of these types of strings are very different and as you can clearly see, this is why you need a trained racquet technician to walk you through the mine filed.
Here’s where one of the most major breakdowns occurs in a player/racquet technician relationship. When choosing you should have specifics in mind. For instance, start by (1) narrowing your choice down to what is more important to you; playability or durability and then (2) give yourself some parameters with regards to longevity. Technicians need to know what you’re willing to tolerate because if they don’t, you’re leaving the entire process wide open with no limits. Is it 4 months before the string breaks or is it 4 days. What are you willing to live with? There’s a big difference and if you and your technician can agree on what works and what you’re willing to tolerate then the entire process will go much smoother for the two of you. If a technician knows that you’re ok with a string that lasts 4 weeks then they can easily come to a decision as to what to recommend and then they can monitor what you’re progress is over a period of time and adjust accordingly from there.
Hopefully this information will be helpful when you’re thinking about equipment and will give you an advantage the next time you decide to wade through this mine field!