Making Racquet Customization a Priority
While tennis players have been tweaking their racquets in one way or another since the start of the game, few recreational players are aware of the skill and care taken in racquet customization at the professional level.
Most recreational players are happy with a stock racquet. They may experiment with strings, string tension and add an overgrip. A few may even go as far as adding some lead tape to make the racquet better suited to their game. However, for those making their living at the sport, racquet customization is a valuable tool in the making of a player. Few know the customization business as well as the Priority 1 team of Nate Ferguson and Ron Yu.
Priority 1 takes care of several pros on both the ATP and WTA tours. While Yu travels to tournaments and fulfills the stringing for several players, Ferguson concentrates mostly on racquet customization.
Ferguson will typically customize 20 to 30 racquets for a professional player. Such a stash should last most players at least a year on the tour, although a player with a temper may get through as many as 50 to 60 racquets.
A lot of Ferguson's work goes into an often overlooked aspect of racquet customization, the handle. Ferguson has made it his business to master the finer points of creating a world class handle.
"We feel what the racquet is doing through the hand," says Ferguson. "Even when a player has matched the weight and balance of his racquets, he may still have a favorite. This can often be because of he prefers the feel and shape of one handle over another."
Ferguson highly recommends players learn how to correctly grip their racquets. By applying the same grip to each racquet in their bag, a player can maintain a consistent feel when switching racquets.
When customizing a racquet, Ferguson asks a player for a racquet with their favorite handle and grip. He then replicates that handle, layer by layer, for every racquet. Ferguson will completely disassemble the factory handle and replace it with a custom made handle.
"If the player's favorite handle has an imperfection in it, say a slight indent or bump in the foam or palate, then each handle will have that same imperfection. Everything about the favorite handle is replicated."
Not only will Ferguson custom fit the handle size for his customer, he will also change the shape if required. If a player likes a more rounded grip, but the factory handle for his racquet has a rectangular shape, Ferguson will create a new handle with the preferred shape. Such customization can greatly help players when switching from one racquet brand to another.
After Ferguson dismantles the grip and handle, taking measurements and notes on each step, he replaces it from one made from his newly created mold. The new handles are made from stronger, heavier foam than most factory handles. Ferguson chooses stronger foam for improved longevity. To hold everything together, Ferguson uses special glue. Any extra weight created by this process is not an issue, as most pros use a heavier than standard racquet. As each step of the customization is carried out, the process is recorded in a book for future reference so the exact handle and grip feel can be replicated for as long as the player desires.
When WTA player Marissa Irvin was having wrist problems, she sought the skills of the Priority 1 team to see if a change in equipment could help her overcome the injury. To make the racquets a better fit for Irvin, Ferguson altered the weight and balance, as well as the handle and butt cap shape of her racquets.
While Ferguson takes care of the racquet customization, Yu travels to the major tournaments to string for players such as Lleyton Hewitt, Tim Henman, Mark Philippoussis, and Roger Federer - that's three out of four 2004 US Open semifinalists with the final an all Priority 1 client affair. Life on the tour can be just as arduous for a professional stringer as it is for these world-class players. For instance, Yu mentions he had to string 24 racquets for Henman's 2001 Wimbledon semi-final against Goran Invanisevic. As the match saw several rain delays, Yu was back at the stringing machine making sure Henman's racquets were ready to go when play resumed.
Having a professional stringer such as Yu on your team has several benefits. For one, the player gets more consistency from his equipment. Players that use the tournament stringing room take a slight risk that their racquets may feel different even though the same string and tension was requested. Many variables such as the type and calibration of the on site stringing machines as well as stringer technique can vary the tension of the string job. The result is that a player never knows if his racquets are going to feel different from tournament to tournament or even from day to day. Having someone like Yu in your corner eliminates such variables.
Yu travels with his machine, calibrating it for accuracy, so the player gets the same feel no matter where they are playing. However, stringer and machine type are not the only things that can alter the feel of the racquet.
"I try to keep the time between when the racquets come off the machine to when the player is scheduled to play consistent throughout the tournament," said Yu.
Yu states that the feel of the stringbed will change depending on how long the racquet has been sitting before play. To make sure that each player gets that same, consistent feel for every round, Yu will maintain the time difference, even if that means stringing at odd hours. For instance, if Yu strings a player's racquets eight hours before for a first round night match, he will string the player's racquets eight hours before his next match, even if that happens to be a morning match. Only luck will get that kind of service from the tournament stringing room.
For the 2004 Wimbledon Championships, Ferguson and Yu had Federer's racquets on a morning stringing schedule. However, the frequent rain delays that plagued the 2004 Championships made it even more of a challenge for the Priority 1 team. While the stringing schedule was adhered to as best as the British weather would allow, there were instances where compromises had to be made.
"During one of the rain outs, Roger asked for my advice on racquets that had been sitting around," said Ferguson. "I recommended we have the oldest strung again the morning of the match. Otherwise, we would have had strung racquets ranging over a three day period. By stringing the oldest, we eliminated the third day, leaving only racquets strung the day of his next match and those strung the day before."
Having to cut out multiple, unused Babolat VS Natural Gut and Luxilon ALU Rough hybrid string jobs might seem like sacrilege to most tennis enthusiasts, but for touring pros, the price of jeopardizing equipment consistency makes such waste insignificant.
During the Championships, Federer requested only slight changes to his equipment. His choice of preferred tension ranged from 50 to 55lbs depending on his opponent and the expected weather. For instance, in the final, Federer was up against hard-hitting Andy Roddick. To help him control some of Roddick's power, Federer used a tighter strung racquet. However, of the ten racquets stashed in Federer's racquet bag, there was a varied selection of tensions for him to choose from.
"Roger is not as rigorous when it comes to tension as other players," said Ferguson. "While players like Tim (Henman) will change racquets with every ball change, Roger will only change when he notices a loss of feel. He will usually finish the game and then change to a new racquet."
The only other change made to Federer's racquets outside of tension choice was to the grips. During the Championships, Federer felt that his grips (4 3/8 handle size) felt a little small. To create a slightly thicker grip, the Priority 1 team wrapped the white Wilson Pro Overgrips Federer prefers with more overlap.
The racquets that Federer does not use during his matches are saved for the next day's practice. Regardless of tension, each of Federer's racquets was strung with 1.30mm Babolat VS Natural Gut in the mains and 1.25mm Luxilon ALU Rough in the cross strings. Each strung racquet had a total of 10 string savers inserted, in a crisscross pattern across the five center main strings and the fourth and sixth cross strings. Although these string savers may seem to be inserted a little high and out of the racquet's sweetspot, Ferguson said that most pros tend to hit high up in the stringbed.
According to Ferguson, out of the Priority 1 clients, Henman is the player who pays the most attention to his equipment.
"Tim is the most sensitive to changes in tension," said Ferguson. "He likes to change his racquets with each ball change, and also likes to wrap his own grips. Over the years, Tim has also switched to thinner and thinner strings."
Currently, Henman uses 1.10mm Luxilon Big Banger TiMO in the mains with 1.25mm Babolat VS Natural Gut in the cross strings. Ferguson said that Mardy Fish uses a similar set-up except with a thinner 1.22mm natural gut.
While Yu currently makes sure all the Priority 1 clients are getting the best possible string service at the major tournaments, Ferguson has also clocked a lot of air miles as a traveling stringer. Working as Pete Sampras' personal stringer, Ferguson traveled with Sampras from 1998 till the end of Sampras' career. Previously, Ferguson had been building and customizing Sampras' racquets since 1990. Now the Ferguson and Yu team continue to make the art of racquet building and stringing a number one priority.
Nate Ferguson's tips to get the best from your racquet