Can you imagine Eric Clapton driving off to Walmart to buy a six-string guitar off the rack to use in his next concert? Or, perhaps, the Mets’ rookie slugger, Pete Alonso, logging on to Amazon to buy his hardwood bats? It’s just not going to happen.
For people who perform and rely on a single item for success in their chosen profession, especially when they’re on a big stage, you can be assured that not just any run-of-the-mill knockoff will suffice.
It’s not different in the world of professional tennis. Without a racket in one’s hand, there is no game of tennis. It means everything. And at the U.S. Open, which concludes Sunday, each professional has his or her nuanced preferences — and superstitions — when it comes to the tool of choice.
Asked how many rackets she uses in a typical season on the Women’s Tennis Association tour, Mandy Minella of Luxembourg, at present ranked 142nd in the world, said following her first-round loss to Belinda Bencic of Switzerland that she probably goes through a dozen per season — “not that many compared to others, I think. I don’t break my rackets in frustration,” she added with a laugh.
Frames can be 100-percent graphite, or made of a composite, mixing graphite and materials such as Kevlar, fiberglass, copper, titanium, and tungsten. Pure graphite frames tend to have a stiffer feel, making them more suitable for advanced players who hit with power. Composite graphite frames tend to be more flexible and thus transmit fewer vibrations.
As for strings, pros change them frequently in order to assure standardized tension throughout matches. The majority of the pros today use polyester strings for their finely tuned and engineered instruments. Until about 15 years ago, there were still a number who used natural gut (cow intestine), but today polyester rules.
There are a number of professionals who mix polyester, nylon, or gut in the string bed, however. Roger Federer, a winner of 20 Grand Slams, is one of them. Federer, who employs his own racket-stringers, uses gut for the 16 vertical strings and polyester for the 19 horizontal strings, at 58 pounds of tension. He, like Minella, reaches for a fresh racket every time new balls are put in play — after the first seven games and thereafter after every nine.
Like gut, polyester has a very short performance life, and, while polyester strings rarely break, players tend to change them often.
Anastasija Sevastova of Latvia, the 12th-ranked female player in the world, usually brings about six rackets to the court. Using polyester strings at 50 pounds of tension, she generally changes rackets with every new set of balls. She had three at her second-round match with Iga Swiatek, a Polish player, last Thursday — a match that she won, though during the second set she destroyed one of her rackets in frustration, pounding it on the unforgiving hard-court surface, earning a warning from the umpire.
“Maybe I needed to keep a few more in my bag today,” she said afterward, with a sheepish smile.
“I get my rackets restrung after matches and practices,” added Sevastova, who made it to the U.S. Open’s semifinals last year before losing to Serena Williams. “I just want to make sure there is a constant consistency in my rackets.”
As for club players, Steve Annacone, whose brother, Paul (with Steve as his coach) played 14 years on the world pro tour, reaching career-high rankings of 12 in singles and 2 in doubles, said, “The last thing a person should do is purchase a racket just because their favorite player uses it.”
Beginners, he said, could find a good racket for $100 or less, and he suggested that they try a demo first and take some lessons with a pro to better determine which racket suits their needs. He did advise that club players stay away from stiff, heavy rackets inasmuch as they are harder to control and much less forgiving.
“There are so many rackets on the market that it’s tough to pick one out,” said the founder of Annacone Tennis Management (at annaconetennis.com), who lives and teaches tennis here and in Tucson, where he also volunteers with the University of Arizona’s women’s team.
“The racket should evolve with the skill level — the type of strings used are just as important as the racket itself,” he said.
Annacone’s a big fan of natural and synthetic gut, especially for players prone to elbow tendinitis, and as for string tension he suggested that anyone playing several times a week change strings twice a year. “In general, think of it as two seasons — outdoors and indoors. In summer, the strings should be a bit tighter, while in the colder months they should have a bit less tension. Strings react differently to temperature changes, especially in the Northeast.”
Few club players would feel the difference, he said, between a racket strung at 50 pounds and one strung at 52, but they might when the tensions vary between 50 and 58.
“Again, it’s important for players to try different tensions to see what feels best for them,” Annacone said. “I have clients who have rackets strung at 40 pounds all the way up to nearly 60. There is a lot of individuality in this sport.”