The only sure things in the life of your tennis racquet are death and the taxes you paid when you bought it. All of today’s premium racquets are built to stay as tough as an F-150 pick-up, but the graphite, titanium and/or carbon fibers in the frame weaken after thousands of whacks. How do you know when it’s time to bury Ol’ Faithful? We asked Bruce Levine, chief racquet advisor for TENNIS.com and TENNIS magazine, for some tips to stave off the Grim Racquet Reaper:
Q. When will I know that my racquet is dead?
Bruce: The big uh-oh moment comes when you hit right after a new string job and you can’t tell the difference. It plays soft or mushy like a wet noodle, and you’re not getting any sense of where the balls are landing on the stringbed.
Q. When can I expect it to go belly-up?
Bruce: Depends on how often you play, how hard you hit and the climate where you play. It could be as little as two years for an aggressive five-times-a-week player who strings at the top of the tension range and refuses to come in from the 35-degree cold of winter; to six years if you only play once a week, hit soft bullets, string loose, and live in cold-and-humidity-free Tucson, Arizona. Of course, the quickest way to kill a racquet is the Dr. Kevorkian assisted-suicide method of smashing it on the net post after you blow an easy overhead.
Q. Are there other factors?
Bruce: Restringing takes a toll on the frame, particularly on the grommets, so if you have it done often that will also shorten the racquet’s life expectancy. The string machine stretches the hoop and the materials in the frame stretch with it. Insist that your stringer pre-stretch the string by hand before putting it on the machine. Also make sure your stringer uses a “six point” machine, which holds the frame securely in place and minimizes distortion of the head of the racquet.
Q. Are you saying it’s better to restring only when the string breaks?
Bruce: No, you should restring often because the synthetic or polyester—and especially gut—will go dead long before the racquet’s demise.
Q. Is there anything I can do to extend the racquet’s lifespan?
Bruce: Have the grommet strip replaced when you restring—not just the top edge that a lot of people call the bumper guard, but the whole strip. It should only cost you between $5 and $8 extra. You should also keep your frame in a racquet bag with a thermal lining to protect it from heat, humidity and the cold. Never, never keep it in the trunk or the garage. And if you have to be like Marat Safin, then beat the racquet against the soft back curtain of the court, if it has one, instead of the ground. Or, even better, learn to curse in French.
Q. What about taking it with me on a plane?
Bruce: It’s always better to carry on your racquet, but some airlines have deemed them potential weapons. They can be safe from the baggage (mis)handlers in a well padded suitcase.