On Racquet Counsel: Four Considerations

by: Justin diFeliciantonio | May 01, 2012

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Broken RacquetI receive a lot of queries from readers asking me to pick out the perfect racquet for their game. “I am a 38 year old 4.0 player,” an email will go, “with Eastern strokes and an all-court game who likes to volley. For the last five years I’ve used the Prince Bandit, and while it gives me good control, it doesn’t give me enough power. I liked the Wilson BLX 95 18x20, but it was too heavy and hurt my arm and didn’t give me enough spin. What make and model should I purchase?”

These questions are admittedly very hard to answer. And not just because of the fact that it’s extremely difficult, if not impossible, to choose a stick for someone without a deep understanding of their biomechanics and the proclivities of their game; it’s mainly because, at least at present, there is no such thing as a perfect racquet. While the field of “stick science” continues to get more sophisticated about racquets’ performance characteristics, “[i]t is obvious,” tennis physicists Rod Cross and Crawford Lindsey write, “that matching the correct racquet to the player will always be an art.” 

Why? Because a player’s performance with a certain racquet is contingent not only on that racquet’s objective specifications, but also on the player’s own kinetic perception of those specifications. As Cross and Lindsey explain, “A player’s opinion of a racquet”—and by extension, how well he or she plays with it—“is formed by his interpretation of what he feels, and that interpretation can hinge on the littlest of things that have nothing to do with the racquet’s actual performance.”

It goes without saying, then, that player psychology is endemic to racquet selection and performance. And this complicates providing racquet counsel. But that doesn’t mean there aren’t rough guidelines that I—and of course you—can follow when trying to improve upon equipment. Accordingly, what follows are four, relatively straightforward considerations I always make, from head size to balance, when matching sticks to players.

Head size: This is usually the first variable I address when recommending stock frames, frankly because so many other specifications, such as weight and beam width, follow from head size. (Rhetorical question: How many racquets on the market today can you name that are 115 sq. in. with an <20mm beam width?) Indeed, cordoning off a range of head sizes is an easy way to narrow down today’s vast field of racquets into a smaller coterie of choices. 

The general rule I abide by is the following: The smaller the head, the more maneuverable and control-oriented the racquet will be; the bigger the head, the more margin for error and power a racquet will have. Translated into practical terms, I reserve sticks smaller than 100 sq. in. for advanced intermediates and up—i.e., 4.0 to 4.5+ NTRP. For beginner/intermediates, I find it appropriate to look within the range of 102 to 115 sq. in.—on the smaller end of that spectrum if the players are coordinated and/or looking to develop longer, more fluid swings through practice and lessons. Any racquet above 120 sq. in. strikes me as one that’s best for more casual, club doubles players, or those with mobility and/or eyesight difficulties. 

Length: Longer racquets, the theory goes, provide more leverage on serves and greater reach; shorter racquets are more maneuverable. For most people, perhaps because I favor maneuverability over leverage, and perhaps because I’m a bit of a traditionalist with my own equipment, I recommend racquets that are at or near standard length (i.e., 27 inches). But there are special cases—it might not hurt, for example, for shorter players looking to add consistency to their first serves to experiment with 27.5 inch+ racquets. Players with mobility and/or eyesight difficulties may also benefit from a longer racquet.

Weight: Surely we’ve all experienced this on the court: A light racquet is more maneuverable; but a heavy frame is much more stable. What you might not know is that a heavy frame, if swung as fast as a light one, is much more powerful than a light one—that is, if the ball is consistently hit in the center of the strings, which is difficult to accomplish if the racquet feels too heavy and cumbersome.

So, again, in practical terms: I advise beginner/intermediates to select a racquet that weighs somewhere between 9.5 and 11 ounces (strung)—on the heavier end if they’re strong and relatively athletic and/or looking to improve. On the other hand, more advanced players, in my opinion, should consider playing with the heaviest racquet they can comfortably manage (i.e., consistently center the ball in the stringbed). This may involve adding lead tape. After all, it’s not uncommon for professionals to swing a racquet weighing in at 12, or even 13 oz. 

Balance: To a certain extent, balance is a matter of personal preference; some players—think Carlos Moya—like the feel of a head-heavy frame, others a head-light one. And for beginners, who aren’t sure about the feel they like yet, it shouldn’t matter as much how their racquets are balanced—just as long as it’s not extreme, between 4 pts. HL and 4 pts. HH, I’d say. But at the same time, we shouldn’t forget that how weight is distributed throughout a frame can affect where the sweet spot is located. More specifically, head-light racquets tend to have sweet spots that are lower in the stringbed than head-heavy ones, insofar as more of the former’s weight is placed near the handle.

This fact, of course, has consequences for performance, and all serious players should take it into consideration. Judging by wear patterns I’ve seen, players that rely on their volleys and/or hit with flatter strokes tend to make contact with the ball lower in the stringbed, while those who play a more Western style typically make contact higher in the stringbed. Serve-and-volley players and frequent doubles players, then, would do well to select a stick balanced ~>6 pts. HL. Baseline grinders who hit with lots of topspin, on the other hand, might want to stick to something more evenly balanced. And finally, all-court players with Eastern to semi-Western grips, I’ve always thought, should seek a third way, balanced according to how heavily they rely on their net game and baseline play to win points.

UPDATE: I just wanted to note that the above list is not exhaustive. String selection, grip size, beam width, etc.—there are a number of additional variables that can and should be considered, especially by serious players, when choosing or modifying racquets. Thanks again for reading.—JD 

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