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Coaching Tips - Equipment

But I want more power AND more control!

I need more power. Should I have my racket strung tighter?

I often encounter players who can quote chapter and verse on the respective merits of a wide range of tennis rackets. When these same players ask me to restring their instrument of choice without giving me any specific instructions, I am flabbergasted. I know rackets are expensive and players don't replace them as often as they replace the strings, but the rackets don't hit the ball - the strings do! It's just bizarre to choose precisely the right racket only to install precisely the wrong strings.

Basically, there are four main types of string to choose from:

  Natural gut Made from animal intestines, these strings are expensive, but offer better feel and response than all the other types. They are the least durable and are susceptible to the vagaries of the weather.
  Synthetic gut Made from a wide variety of materials, these strings are the most popular as they offer relatively good performance and durability at a much cheaper price than natural gut. Different constructions mean there is plenty of scope for you to choose the characteristics best suited to your particular requirements.
  Polyester These strings are stiff and less elastic than natural gut and synthetic gut strings, but they are a more durable option. They tend to lose tension quickly.
  Kevlar These are easily the most durable strings, but the tradeoff entails a significant loss of feel and response. The lack of elasticity means they are not exactly easy on the arm.

Polyester and kevlar are often used in hybrid combinations, i.e. polyester or kevlar for the mains and natural gut or synthetic gut for the cross-strings. Many Tour professionals use a high-tech co-polyester string like Luxilon's "Big Banger" in these hybrids.

The gauge (thickness) of a string is another important factor. In general, thinner strings are more elastic and therefore more powerful. They bite into the ball more, enabling more effective use of spin. On the downside, they will obviously break quicker than thicker gauge strings. Typically, the most durable string you'll find will be 15 gauge, while the thinnest will probably be 17 gauge (although it is possible to get even thinner ones). The letter 'L' is used to denote half-gauges, e.g. 16L is between 16 and 17 gauge.

The other major consideration is tension. Lower tensions provide more power because the strings stretch and absorb the energy of the ball before snapping back again (a trampoline effect). Higher tensions provide more control because the string bed remains stiffer and flatter, making it easier to control the depth of your shots. Racket manufacturers specify a recommended range of tensions which is usually printed somewhere on the frame of the racket.

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Tailored rackets

I'm returning to tennis after a 10 year break. How do I pick from all these new rackets?

Yes, confusing, isn't it. I suppose in one sense, you've never had it so good! Since titanium was introduced, there has been a much greater diversity of racket types. Manufacturers are now looking to match rackets not just to the customer's playing standard, but also to his or her playing style. You can get rackets that are suitable for advanced serve-volleyers, intermediate aggressive baseliners, etc, etc.

Your best move is to go along to a specialist retailer - choose one who offers an in-store stringing service, because they're more likely to know their stuff! - describe your playing level and your style of play and try out 2 or 3 of the rackets the retailer recommends.

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Get a grip!

How do I know which grip size I need?

Holding an eastern forehand grip (the "shake-hands" grip), you should be able to fit the index finger of your other hand in the space between your fingertips and your palm (as in the photo). Grip Size Test

If the finger doesn't fit, try a bigger grip. If it fits, but there's space to wriggle your finger, try a racket with a smaller grip, because you won't get such a good wrist snap on your serves. Using the wrong grip size leads to overuse of the muscles in your forearm and this in turn can lead to tennis elbow problems.

If you've already bought the racket and the grip is a bit too small, you can use an overgrip to get round the problem (literally). If it's too large - sorry, can't help you!

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Getting heavy!

Are heavy rackets better than light ones?

You pick up a racket in a shop. It looks good. Some of the top pros use it. It's made of graphite or titanium and, boy, it feels light! You think it'll be really comfortable - easy to swing. You've simply got to have it!

A couple of weeks later, you've got tennis elbow and you can't play any more!

If you want to avoid tennis elbow, avoid light, stiff, head-heavy rackets! Light rackets place less weight behind the shot and you have to swing faster to get more power. Pay no attention to the sales pitch - weight is not a bad thing. You need weight to return a heavy shot. You need weight when you're stretched and you haven't got time for a long swing. You might be able to swing a light racket faster (when you've got the time), but swing speed is not the be all and end all. A racket's mass is as important as its speed.

Two other things that are worth bearing in mind. Firstly, heavier rackets vibrate less. Secondly, despite appearances, the top pros are NOT using the same racket as you're going to pick up in the store. Invariably, they'll be using a heavier model. The Head Ti Radical that Andre Agassi uses weighs over 13 ounces - actually 2.5 ounces heavier than the one in the store!

Look for a head-light racket (balance point closer to the hand than the midpoint of the racket's length) with adequate mass.

By the way, if there's a particular racket you like and it's too light and it's head-heavy, you can compensate by applying lead tape under the grip.

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Put on some weight!

Where do you put lead tape on a racket?

Adding lead tape to a racket increases its mass and therefore enhances its potential power. However, it changes the balance and makes it more difficult to manoeuvre (unless the tape is applied to the handle). You also change the playing characteristics of the racket by altering the shape and position of the sweet spot - it moves or stretches towards the added weight. This can have the advantage of making the racket head less prone to vibration and twisting when you hit off-centre.

You can stick tape at any of the following places (using a clock-face analogy):

12 o'clock
2 o'clock and 10 o'clock
3 o'clock and 9 o'clock
4 o'clock and 8 o'clock
6 o'clock
the handle (under the grip)

The closer you go towards the tip of the racket, the more power you acquire at the expense of manoeuverability. If your objective is to add mass without unduly affecting the playing characteristics of the racket, consider applying tape at or below the balance-point (i.e. at 6 o'clock and/or the handle).

Experiment to find out what suits your style of game.

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Bless your cotton socks!

What should you look for in a pair of tennis shoes?

Using ill-fitting or worn-out shoes can adversely affect both your health and your performance, so you should attach plenty of importance to your footwear. Martina Hingis has just returned to the WTA Tour after a three year absence. Her progress will be closely monitored by her doctor because the reason for her retirement in 2002 was a series of foot injuries attributable to ill-fitting tennis shoes.

To avoid the sort of problems Hingis encountered, it's important to choose tennis shoes that provide adequate comfort, support and stability. It's advisable to go for specialised tennis shoes. Other types of shoe may have been designed for a specific purpose and may not be compatible with the demands of playing tennis. Running shoes, for example, may leave you vulnerable to ankle sprains if the designers have sacrificed side-to-side stability in order to focus on forward motion.

The old maxim "you get what you pay for" generally applies, but cost is only one consideration. When you're buying shoes, try them on and impress the sales assistant with a few sideskips and changes of direction. Check for a good, comfortable fit with some room to move your toes. Make sure there is good arch support, adequate cushioning for the soles and heels and firm support for side-to-side movement. The upper part of the shoe should be breathable to facilitate evaporation of sweat. If you tend to drag your foot when you're serving, you will also need plenty of reinforcement at the tip of the shoe.

Footwear is almost as crucial to your tennis as your racket. As well as using the right shoes, pay plenty of attention to your socks. In tennis, you can produce more than a pint of perspiration per foot. Acrylic and other high-tech synthetic fibres retain less moisture than cotton and reduce the risk of friction blisters. Cotton socks also tend to stretch, wrinkle and lose their shape.

Put your best foot forward and see your game improve!

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© 2001-6 Dave Winship

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