Monday Mailbag: Traditional Frames, Manufacturing Variances

by: Justin diFeliciantonio | February 07, 2012

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TENNIS.com

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.

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201201260418155354727-p2@stats_comHi. I would like to ask: Should I get the Wilson Pro Staff BLX Six.One Tour 90? I'm 15 years old, and have just started to play tennis. I know you will say it's got a small head, and is too difficult to use. But I have good hand-eye coordination and timing from playing cricket for years. Also you will probably say it's too heavy. But I'm an active 15-year-old who is quite strong and fit. Can you recommend that I use that racquet?—Adam

Sorry to say, Adam, but I can't advise you to buy the Pro Staff Six.One 90 BLX if you're just starting to learn. Roger Federer may make it look easy to swing, but it's an extremely difficult racquet to use, because of, like you said, its heavy weight and inordinately small head size. Even experienced players have trouble employing it. I'm 24 years old, was on the varsity tennis team in college, and have played my whole life, and still the Six.One 90 is far too difficult for me to use; when out of position with it, I can't get near enough pace and depth on the ball. Even the majority of professional players choose to use a racquet with a bigger and more forgiving head size. Look, for instance, at the ATP Top 20; pretty much all the guys, with the exception of Federer, use racquets with head sizes that are between 95 and 100 sq. in. (612 and 645 sq. cm.).

Long story short: If you’re a good athlete who’s just starting out, I’d recommend that you try out a bunch of different “tweeners”: racquets that blend the playing characteristics of beginner and intermediate sticks—which typically feature 10-11 ounce weights, 100+ sq. in. head sizes, even to head-heavy balances, and a relatively wide beam—with those of advanced players’ sticks, which tend to be heavier, more head-light, and have thinner beam widths.

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Interesting take on the changes to Rafa's racquet. While I appreciate the help understanding the concept of swingweight, one question remains: How can two racquets with identical lengths, weights, and balance points have different swingweights? A quick scan through any of the online retailers’ racquet specifications shows plenty of variety in swingweight between otherwise identical racquets.—Jared

Good question, Jared. While it may seem counterintuitive, two racquets with identical lengths, weights, and balance points can have different swingweights and thus feel totally different when swung. Why is this?

First, remember that a racquet’s swingweight depends on two variables: (1) mass and (2) how that mass is distributed throughout the racquet. Now, let’s consider the following example. Say we want to add 20 grams of additional mass to a 280 gram, evenly balanced, 27-inch racquet. Of course, simply adding those 20 grams to the racquet, regardless of where it’s placed, will make the stick feel heavier to swing.

But how much heavier will depend on how that weight is divvied up and distributed along the shaft. If we take those 20 grams and place them equidistant from both ends: the racquet will be 300 grams, the balance point will remain even, and the swingweight will increase from 287 kgcm2 to 299 kgcm2. On the other hand, if we place 10 grams on each end of the racquet: the racquet will still be 300 grams, the balance point will still remain even, but the swingweight will increase from 287 kgcm2 to 324 kgcm2. The second racquet, insofar as it has a higher swingweight, will feel heavier to swing.

Why is this the case? Why does the swingweight increase more for the latter racquet? Rod Cross and Crawford Lindsey, in Technical Tennis, offer the following explanation:

“When you swing a rod or a racquet, you rotate it about a point near the handle end. That means the tip will travel faster than the handle. It also means that if you add 20 grams at the tip, then the extra 20 grams will travel faster than if you put it at the handle end. To accelerate the 20 grams faster, you have to push harder on the handle. The 20 grams will feel heaviest at the tip, lightest at the hand, and in between in the middle of the racquet.” 

One more thing to keep in mind, as you compare the specifications on retailers’ websites, is that there are small variances in racquet manufacturing—they don’t all come out of the factory the same. Buying two sticks of the same exact make and model, in other words, does not guarantee that they will have the same weight, balance, and swingweight. To compensate for such manufacturing variances, many professionals pay qualified racquet technicians to strategically add weight in order to match all of their racquets to the weight, balance, and swingweight they prefer.

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As an older player (64), I resist the current wisdom that racquet technology has improved. It may have improved for—or even created—the extreme-topspin, high -acquet-head-speed game that’s taught today. But there are few racquets made for us traditional players anymore. I played with the Wilson Pro Staff 6.0 95 for years. When it was discontinued, I searched for a racquet with similar stats and playing characteristics, and settled on the Tecnifibre TFight 335. Now that the TFight 335 has been discontinued, I am searching again. What did these rackets offer me? Comfort, control, and injury prevention. I’ve tried lighter, 100 square inch frames as I’ve gotten older. But I'll gladly sacrifice power for the comfort and control of a more traditional frame. Roger D. Miller

I wouldn’t say, Roger, that racquet technology hasn’t improved; today’s graphite racquets are certainly made (and play) better than the graphite models released, say, ten years ago. But it’s true that most of the major racquet manufacturers have, in recent years, released fewer so-called “traditional” frames—i.e., heavily-weighted sticks with head-light balances and relatively flexible beams—in favor of racquets with lighter weights, more even balances, and stiffer beams. And it’s likely, as you suggest, that these modern racquets have indeed improved the game for today’s power baseliners; easier to whip around and with the weight distributed more toward the frames’ tip, these racquets are a great match for fast-swinging baseliners who, because of their extreme western grips, make contact with the ball in the upper regions of the stringbed.

That’s not to say, however, that manufacturers have totally forgotten about players with all-court games and classic grips. While the Wilson Pro Staff 6.0 95 was indeed discontinued some years back, its nephew, the new Wilson Pro Staff Six.One 95 BLX, retains many traditional playing characteristics: a head-light profile (7 points HL, strung) with a relatively flexible construction (18 mm beam width). While it may feel a little light for your liking (11.5 ounces, strung), you could easily add weight in the form of lead tape to the hoop and/or handle, depending on what you want to the stick’s final balance to be. Also check out some of Technifibre’s new TFight racquets, specifically the TFight 325 VO2Max. It’s heavy (nearly 12 ounces, strung) and head-light, and could also be easily customized with a few strips of lead tape.

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Hi, I really enjoy reading the gear articles on the website and am disappointed there haven't been any recently. Any chance of a new one soon?—Earl

Sorry, Earl, for the dearth of gear commentary in recent weeks. The editors and I at TENNIS have been working hard to review over thirty new racquets for our upcoming spring gear guide, which will debut, in print as well as online, in early April. Look for new gear articles to appear regularly again starting next week. Thanks again for reading.

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