TENNIS.com Gear Editor Justin diFeliciantonio and his technical advisers answer your equipment questions every Monday in the Mailbag. Click here to send in a question of your own.
I live up north and love to play year-round, but unfortunately I don’t have access to indoor facilities. So during the winter, my buddies and I throw on coats and gloves and head out to the courts at the local park. It feels fine playing on more temperate days, but when the temperature drops below about 50°, it feels like I’m hitting a rock. What can I do to feel the ball in cold weather?—Andrew
It’s true, Andrew, that as temperatures approach freezing, frames and strings stiffen, and balls lose their pliancy and bounce. All together, this can make for a pretty harsh, “rock-like” feel upon contact. While changes to equipment cannot make your racquet and ball—as well as your arm—feel and play like it will on a balmy spring day, there are a few remedies that may help soften the blow.
First and foremost, make sure you’re using a top-of-the-line, regular-duty felt tennis ball—like the Wilson US Open or the USPTA ProPenn. Albeit more expensive, high-quality balls are manufactured more carefully and with higher quality materials; as a result, they produce a livelier, more responsive bounce, and will play better than a “bargain ball” in colder weather.
In terms of string, switch to a more pliable, thinner-gauged natural gut or synthetic multifilament string—like Babolat VSTeam or Head FiberGel. And consider stringing it at the lower end of your racquet’s recommended tension range. As racquet guru John Swetka of Swetka’s Tennis Shop in Mountain View, CA explains, “This will allow the strings to deform more and return more energy back into the ball,” creating a more pliant feel in frigid conditions.
And if you’re really willing to experiment, you could try playing with a more flexible racquet. This, too, should help produce a softer feel at impact. Note, however, that racquets with softer beams are typically engineered for more advanced players with longer swings.
Finally, work with a qualified tennis professional or racquet technician. They can be an invaluable asset as you search for the racquet and string combination that’s best for you, your game, and the conditions in which you play.
I’m a beginner 3.0 player. I want to improve my strokes, but I can’t afford lessons with a pro right now. What are some simple, down-to-earth tools I can use to get better?—Anonymous
How about trying a mirror?
As vain as it may sound, swinging in front of a pane of glass can be an innovative—and cost-effective—way to increase awareness of how your body moves when you swing, allowing you to improve your form by feel.
Consider the following story about how Jack improved his self-described “terrible” backhand, from Timothy Gallwey’s classic book The Inner Game of Tennis:
“I asked Jack to take a few swings on the patio where we were standing. His backswing started back very low, but then, sure enough, just before swinging forward it lifted to the level of his shoulder and swung down into the imagined ball…‘Your backhand is all right,’ I said reassuringly. ‘It’s just going through some changes. Why don’t you take a closer look at it.’ We walked over to a large windowpane and there I asked him to swing again while watching his reflection. He did so, again taking his characteristic hitch at the back of his swing, but this time he was astounded. ‘Hey, I really do take my racquet back high! It goes up above my shoulder!’ … After lunch I threw Jack a few balls and he was able to remember how the stroke felt and to repeat the action. This time he just felt where his racket was going, letting his sense of feel replace the visual image offered by the mirror. It was a new experience for him. Soon he was consistently hitting topspin backhands into the court with an effortlessness that made it appear this was his natural swing.”
And of course, there’s no more reliable a partner than the wall: