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Racquet science – Facts will help your students find right feel


September 2004 --

As a tennis professional, you can have a strong influence on the racquets your students choose. The type of racquet a player uses can have a profound effect on the type of tennis game he develops. Ideally, a player should use a racquet that enhances his style of play. However, if a player ends up with the wrong type of frame, his game will have to change to adapt to that type of frame. Here are some facts you can share with students to help them find the right frames.

Basic performance frame categories

Performance frames retail for more than $100, and there are basically three main categories of them: game-improvement frames, players’ frames and intermediate frames.

Game-improvement frames tend to be more powerful. They are designed to allow a player to generate more power with less effort. When racquet manufacturers design a new technology to improve the power of a frame, this is the category of racquets to which they usually first add the new technology. These also tend to be the most expensive racquets in a manufacturer’s product line. Players with short, slow swings usually prefer game-improvement frames. The extra power they generate appeals to them because their strokes don’t generate the depth and pace they want.

Players’ frames generally are less powerful. They are designed to allow a player with powerful strokes to keep more of his shots in the court. Generally, these are the frames tour-level players use. Although changes have been made to players’ frames, this category experiences the fewest new technologies. In fact, the players’ frames built and used today are still very similar to those from 10 to 15 years ago. They usually are the least expensive performance frames in a manufacturer’s product line. Players with fast, full swings tend to prefer these frames because they frequently want help with control. They don’t want to shorten or slow their strokes; it is too much fun hitting the ball hard. So, if they can improve their consistency by using a less powerful frame, they will be in heaven.

Intermediate frames, frequently called "tweener frames," are a balance between power and control. They are designed to offer players more control than game-improvement frames and more power than players’ frames. These frames even tend to be priced intermediately. But there is one way in which they are the tops: They usually are the most popular racquets, with more racquets made and sold in this category than either of the other two categories. Players with moderate, medium swings often prefer intermediate frames. They tend to hit too many balls long with game-improvement frames and too many short with players’ frames. They frequently find that intermediate frames offer the best of both worlds – more power and more control.

A better way to choose a racquet

Putting certain player types together with their corresponding racquet category is the most basic form of personalizing someone’s racquet selection. Within each category of frames, there are many frames with different characteristics. So to help a player find the right frame within his category, you first have to understand what he feels when he uses the racquet. The four main characteristics of a frame that most players can feel are power, maneuverability, comfort/shock and spin.

Manufacturers create racquets with varying levels of these four performance characteristics by using different specifications that make every racquet unique. To effectively help a player narrow his choice of frames, you have to understand the specs of a frame and how each spec affects power, maneuverability, shock and spin.

What are specs?

Specs are all the physical measurements of a frame. Each frame has many specifications, but we will focus on the seven that most directly influence the four performance characteristics that your students will speak about. For example, a player probably won’t ask you for a frame that has a lower swing weight or balance point. He is more likely to ask for a more maneuverable frame. It is up to you to understand which specs can be altered to enhance maneuverability.

Length, which refers to the overall length of the frame, ranges from 27 inches to 29 inches for adult racquets. According to ITF rules, 29 inches is the legal limit.

Head size in today’s adult racquets ranges from 85 square inches to 137 square inches.

Stiffness refers to how hard it is to bend a racquet. A stiffer racquet will have a higher stiffness rating.

Weight refers to the overall weight of a racquet.

Balance refers to the point along the length of a racquet where half the weight is above and half is below.

Swing weight refers to how difficult it is to swing a racquet. It is influenced by weight and balance. In other words, the weight and where it is positioned in a racquet both determine how difficult it is to swing. A racquet with a higher swing weight is more difficult to swing.

String pattern refers to the number of main and cross strings in a racquet as well as the spacing of these strings. For the sake of this discussion, we will only be referring to the number of mains and crosses.

How specs affect feel

Here we will discuss how each of the specs defined above affects the power, maneuverability, shock and spin of a frame. All of the discussions will be based on the assumption that all other things remain equal. So, when we change the length of a racquet, we are assuming that all the other specs of the frame remain the same.

As length increases, power increases because of the longer lever that allows the same swing speed to result in faster racquet head speed. Maneuverability decreases because more weight is positioned farther from your hand, making it more difficult to swing the frame. Shock is reduced slightly because there is more racquet material to dampen the shock and the shock must travel farther to reach your arm. Spin is increased because the racquet head is traveling at a higher speed.

As head size increases, power increases because the strings become longer, creating more trampoline effect. Maneuverability is decreased slightly because the larger head creates slightly more wind resistance. Shock is decreased because the longer strings create a softer string bed. Spin is enhanced because the gaps between the strings are enlarged, allowing the strings to bite into the ball better.

As stiffness increases, power increases because the frame flexes less during impact. When the frame flexes less, more of the energy from impact goes into propelling the ball. Maneuverability is not affected. Shock is increased because when the frame flexes less, more of the impact energy is transmitted to the player’s arm. Spin is increased because the ball is on the strings for a shorter time. The racquet causes a glancing blow against the ball and more energy goes into spinning the ball and less energy goes into propelling the ball. Remember, this only holds true if the stroke already creates some spin.

As weight increases, power increases because the racquet outweighs the ball to a greater degree. Since the ball weighs less than the racquet, it takes more of the abuse from the collision with the frame. Maneuverability is decreased because the racquet is heavier. Shock is decreased because the heavier racquet causes more damage to the ball. It’s like being in a car accident in a big sport utility vehicle vs. a little convertible. The SUV is going to experience less damage because it is the heavier object. Spin is increased slightly because the frame deforms less, allowing the frame to strike more of a glancing blow against the ball.

As the balance point of a racquet moves closer to the head or farther from the hand, power increases because there is more weight in the racquet at the point of contact. This is the same concept as hitting a nail with a two-pound hammer instead of a two-pound stick. The hammer is going to drive the nail much more easily because more of its weight is at the head. Maneuverability is decreased because there is more weight at the point of impact, making the racquet seem heavier. Spin is increased slightly because the heavier head makes the frame deform less, allowing the racquet to strike more of a glancing blow against the ball.

As swing weight increases, power is increased because the racquet has more weight closer to the point of contact. This ties in pretty closely with the concepts of increased weight and higher balance point because both affect the swing weight of a frame. Maneuverability is decreased. Shock is decreased because there is more weight near the point of impact, making the racquet seem heavier. Spin is increased slightly because the frame deforms less and makes a more glancing blow against the ball.

As the string pattern becomes denser, meaning there are more strings, power is decreased because the greater number of strings causes a higher stringbed stiffness that allows for less trampoline effect. Maneuverability is not affected enough to notice. Though some might argue that more strings create more wind resistance, thus reducing maneuverability, most players can’t feel this change. Shock is increased because of the increased stringbed stiffness created by the more dense string pattern. Spin is decreased because the spaces between strings are smaller and reduce the string’s ability to bite into the ball.

Now that we have explained all these concepts and their effects on the performance of a frame, it is important to remember that these concepts were all explained under the assumption that all other things remain the same. For example, we said that a heavier racquet is more powerful, but that is only true if the swing speed stays the same. In fact, if the heavier racquet causes a player’s swing to slow down, he may actually get less power from the frame depending on how much it slows down. Another example is that a longer racquet is not necessarily less maneuverable if it is lighter with a lower balance point.

While price is not a physical measurement of a frame, many consumers consider it to be one of the most important specs. Many consumers also base a big part of their decision on a racquet’s looks. If they think the racquet looks cool, they will find a way to play with it. However, we don’t consider these to be important specs when trying to narrow a player’s choice of frames. We recommend using the specs and tools we have discussed here to narrow the field to three to six strong candidates. Then the player can consider price and color when he decides which of the finalists to purchase.

Demo, demo, demo

All of the information here is designed to help you narrow the choices available to the player. But, there is still one test that is more important than all the rest. The player has to try playing with the racquets. Unfortunately, even with all this valuable information on your side, it still comes down to what the player thinks feels the best when he plays. Even if you think one racquet is better for the player than another, it is ultimately going to come down to what he enjoys playing with the most. Perception is reality. If a player believes he will play better with a longer racquet, he probably will and there isn’t much you can do to change his mind. You can explain the science of your reasoning for a shorter racquet, but if he has it in his mind that he will play worse with a shorter racquet, he will subconsciously make that come true.

So, just suggest that the player play with each finalist once. He should then be able to narrow it down to his favorite. But this is still not the time to make the purchase. The player should play with his favorite two or three times more before making a final decision. Many players play better with a new racquet because they concentrate better. See if they are still excited about it after they use it two or three times. Then they should be ready to make their purchase.

This is the first of two articles adapted from the chapter about equipment in The Complete Guide to USPTA Membership. The chapter was written by Dave Bone, executive director of the United States Racquet Stringers Association. For more information, call USRSA at (760) 536-1177 or visit its Web site at www.racquettech.com.

 
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