Chapter 18: Racquets And Balls

Tennis racquets come in a great variety of shapes, materials, and prices. The latest advancements are the larger sizes and the space-age materials used for their construction. That same variety sometimes makes it difficult to choose a racquet to learn the game. In this chapter I will give you some help in this respect, and also an idea of what to expect from the racquets available on the market.

Tennis is a game of “feel,” and the best way to play it is with a racquet that gives you feel. When you start you are striving to learn control. The power of your shots is secondary. You need to spend some time hitting the ball at slower speeds and into the court before you start going for harder shots.

Also, your arm is not yet built up to the strain of hitting hundreds of balls. Therefore, your racquet should have some special characteristics that will help you build up both your stroke and your arm.

First, the racquet should be light. For an adult, that would be around a 10- to 12 1/2-ounce weight. Second, it is preferable that it have a large size head because the area of lively response, called the sweet spot, is much larger, and you would have no apparent difference on off-center hits, saving your arm from further strain. For the same reason your racquet should be very flexible.

The racquet should also have a small grip, fitting comfortably in your hand, perhaps a 4 1/4- or 4 3/8-inch circumference for an adult. This may be contrary to common sales practice and “expert” advice, but smaller grips make the racquet feel lighter and easier to handle. Cumbersome grips make racquets harder to handle and strain the arm. The choice should be left to the player, who knows what feels most comfortable and manageable in his hand.

The larger racquet heads, up to 110 square inches of string area, make play easier. They tend to vibrate slightly, but if you put a rubber grommet on the strings, as shown in the picture below, or some other vibration dampener, it stops the vibration.

On the more expensive side there are many kinds of wide-body racquets made of materials such as graphite, kevlar, ceramic, etc. Some of these new racquets are flexible, light, and very responsive, especially with the larger head. They are a pleasure to play with. There are now so many kinds of racquets on the market that you need to get some good advice. If help is not available, just avoid stiff models, heavy racquets, large grips, and small racquet heads.

Strings

The more flexible and responsive the racquet, the less you’ll need to overpower the ball and the more feel you’ll get. String thickness and tension will greatly affect the racquet’s response. In general, thinner strings are more responsive (added power, longer string contact and thus more feel), and for those playing flatter, tighter string tension will diminish feel but give you more control.

The most popular strings on the market are synthetic strings. They are not as elastic as natural gut, but they are more durable.

It wasn’t until the late 1970s that the larger racquet head was developed. These racquets give a good response with nylon strings, while with the previous smaller wooden racquet models the only high response was obtained when strung with natural gut. Those strings didn’t last long but they were the only choice for a world class player.

Today there are many types of synthetic strings available, some of them with incredible response. The best ones require custom stringing and may cost as much as a complete racquet at the lower end of the price scale. But they are the choice of the top pros. They may break several sets of strings per match, but they get them free. And they also get paid to advertise them!

You can get the best combination of racquet response and control by stringing the racquet medium tight with tournament-gauge synthetic gut or fiber. These strings are very thin, seventeen gauge and above, while the normal strings on racquets sold prestrung are usually the thicker 16 gauge.

Top quality strings make the mid-size racquet very responsive. Most professionals use racquets between ninety to one hundred square inches of string area. They feel that the mid-size is the best combination for both power and control. Only the younger crop of professionals are geared toward the larger size. The reason may be that most of the experienced pros in the game today started in their childhood with the smaller racquet. The younger professionals, on the other hand, started when the large-size was most popular, possibly prior to the development of the mid-size.

Choosing a racquet

Different combinations of materials such as graphite, fiberglass, boron, and ceramic make the selection of a composite racquet very difficult for the beginner or the accomplished player who wants to change to a different racquet. Many stores have resorted to lending out “demonstrator” racquets. You can borrow a racquet, usually with a sizeable deposit, and try it for a few days.

This is a great service to the player, but the final decision is still not easy. Is this the best racquet you can buy? Will the racquet respond better with top quality strings? Will it play better at another string tension?

The choice is easier for the beginner. You can start with an inexpensive racquet. If you enjoy playing, you may look for a better racquet and pass the older one on to someone else.

People who get “hooked” on tennis usually like to get their friends started. Now you know what to do with your older racquets.

You don’t need to be a pro to start someone on the right track. This book offers the opportunity for any two beginners or more experienced players to learn the game.

Changing racquets

Most people aren’t too choosy when they select their first racquet. But when they already play, they feel that a racquet choice may be crucial to their tennis future. And it is, for more reasons than the obvious goal of hitting better shots.

For one, the health and durability of your arm depends on several factors related to your tennis racquet: stiffness or flexibility, weight, grip size, and overall size.

At this stage the arm has already developed itself around the racquet’s characteristics. It has gotten used to the string tension, the racquet weight, the grip size, as well as the racquet’s flexibility and response.

The player’s technique and detailed muscle work has been conditioned instinctively from experience with his first racquet. Going to another racquet may be a traumatic experience. Mis-hits with a stiffer racquet, or one with a smaller sweet spot, go right down the arm.

It is a delicate proposition, to say the least. You either build up your muscles and your technique gradually for the greater demands of a stiffer, heavier racquet, or you end up on the long list of players with “tennis elbow,” or some other physical problem.

On the brighter side, if your technique is very good and you have the patience to start slowly and deliberately, drilling one shot at a time, your muscles may respond well.

Here is my advice:

1) To start learning, choose a very flexible light racquet or get one with very responsive strings.

2) Be very selective when you change racquet brands or models. Of course, you can upgrade your equipment, like the top stars. But keep in mind that they get customized equipment, a contract, and usually so much practice time that the new racquet gets to feel like a part of their body, just like the old one did.

3) Make the stress factor on your arm your most important consideration. You’ll have to try the new racquet and trust your feel, watching for signs of pain or stress. One of the most dangerous signals is pain appearing in any joint, such as your wrist, elbow, or shoulder. The tendons attach the musculature to these joints, and they are harder to repair than the muscles themselves. The rest period necessary to fully repair a tendon can feel “infinitely” long.

Shorter racquets

Shorter racquets, much lighter and with a large head, are excellent for children. There are plenty of these on the market. The best type is very flexible, light, with a large head, a short throat and a small handle that fits comfortably in a child’s hand. With these I have been able to teach children as young as four and five years old.

When those were not available I cut two to six inches off old adult racquets and used them not only for children but to teach adults as well. Shorter racquets are a very successful teaching tool.

The tennis industry would do well to develop shorter learning racquets for adults, similar to the Graduated Length Method used in teaching snow skiing.

For the beginner, the shorter racquet makes finding, feeling and controlling the ball much easier. Students go for control rather than power and they enjoy hitting back and forth at the slower ball speed. With the techniques shown in this book, it makes tennis a very easy sport to learn.

Students learn quicker with a shorter racquet. Next I have them use a normal size racquet, while “choking” up on the handle, as explained in Chapter Seven. From there, they move the hand gradually to a normal grip position. But these adjustments are different from individual to individual, depending on their feel and confidence.

Tennis Balls

In the U.S. tennis balls are very lively, while in some other countries the balls have some characteristics that make them slower or harder to propel.

Some European balls, for example, come in boxes, while in the U.S. they are packed in pressurized cans. Professional players resort to lowering the string tension while playing with the slower European ball to get more ball speed and feel.

There are two distinct types of balls: one is for clay courts, the other for hard courts. The advertised difference is that the hard court balls last much longer on hard courts, which is basically true. The same can’t be said for the player’s arm. The hard court balls are somewhat stiffer, less flexible, less lively.

The regular balls, or clay court balls, are softer, have a much better feel and cause a lot less stress on the arm, to the point that many professional tournaments played on hard courts have chosen the regular ball over the hard court ball.

Personally, I coach adults and top juniors with the regular ball, use special balls for kids, or larger sponge balls for beginning adults, whether on hard courts or clay courts, saving my students’ arms and my own. The only exception would be in preparing someone to play a tournament in which other balls were used. In this case it is best to choose the exact brand and type so that the player adjusts to the conditions he’ll have to face later on.

A beginning tennis player doesn’t hit consistently in the center of the string area. When the less-responsive area of the strings comes into play, the stress of the impact is greater on the arm. This situation is compounded with a faster ball. Hard court surfaces don’t slow the ball much. A fast ball will continue traveling with quite some speed. If you mis-hit it, you’ll feel it on your arm.

Avoid stressing your arm until you have built it up to the task. As a beginner, have your partner play or toss the ball deliberately slow.

Good technique will help your arm immensely, as will finding the ball really well. Most notably, off-center hits on the appropriate racquet string-bed location create a torque that contributes to good ball-handling and to an easier effort on your arm.