The Pro Shop

Midweek Mailbag: Grass-Court Shoes, Assuaging Elbows, & Restringing

Wednesday, June 27, 2012 /by

TENNIS.com gear editor Justin diFeliciantonio and his technical advisers answer your equipment questions Mondays and Wednesdays in the Mailbag. Click here to send in a question of your own.

Ferrer Stares*****

Watching Wimbledon, I heard the announcers talk about how players switch shoes transitioning from the clay to the grass. Why do players feel the need to switch shoes? What’s so special about grass-court sneakers anyways?—Rick H.

In short, Rick, traction. When lawn courts are unworn, as they are during the first few days at Wimbledon, the surface can be very slick—even slicker if the grass is damp. To compensate, grass-court shoes feature small nubs or pimples on the outsole, which penetrate into the turf for extra grip.

(An interesting tangent: Back in May before the Mutua Madrid Open, as players complained that the clay there was too slippery, Rafael Nadal requested that he be allowed to wear grass-court shoes for extra traction. In accordance with tour rules, the ATP denied his request.)

While these pimples don’t damage the grass nearly as much as the spikes used in the days of Laver and Newcombe, they still exert more friction and wear on the court than conventional outsoles. For this reason, many grass-court clubs—like the West Side Tennis Club, in Forest Hills, NY—actually ban them from use. Of course, excess wear is not an issue for Wimbledon, which resurfaces their courts each year before the tournament begins.

One final note on purchasing: It can be tough to snag a pair of grass-court sneaks stateside, as there’s not really a market here for them. But for those interested, the NikeStore, as part of their shoe customization service, allows customers to order Nike Zoom Breathe 2k11s with a dimpled outsole suitable for grass-court play.

*****

My name is Sergio, and I am writing from Brazil. I am 46 and my old elbow is saying that it’s time to forget tennis and start to play chess. Here in my country, especially in Para where I live, which is very far from big cities, we do not have many options in stores in terms of tennis gear. The sellers know even less about tennis than the farmers in the Amazon forest. So please, could you indicate some "elbow-friendly" approaches that will allow me to play the sport I love for at least another 146 more years? Thanks a lot in advance.—Sergio G.

Before considering my advice, Sergio, please make sure you see a licensed physician and/or physiotherapist. Therapy or medical intervention may be necessary to get you back on the court without pain.

With that said, there a number of equipment changes you can make to try and ward off tennis-induced elbow pain. For starters, switch to a softer string—preferably natural gut—to reduce the forces acting on your elbow. Natural gut is not nearly as stiff as conventional nylon or polyester strings, and thus upon impact doesn’t impart as much shock onto the arm.

To this end, check out this year’s string survey conducted by the USRSA (United States Racquet Stringers Association). What’s helpful about the survey is that it lists all major strings on the market in order of their stiffness. Stiffness values in the 80s, exhibited by a number of natural gut brands, indicate that the string is pliable (and thus arm-friendly). Conversely, strings with stiffness numbers in the 200s—such as most polyesters and even some nylon strings—are very stiff (and thus harder on the elbow).

Other elbow-friendly equipment moves include:
—Stringing at lower tensions (40 to 50 lbs.)
—Avoiding very light (<10 oz.) and head-heavy (>5 pts. HH) racquets
—Using a thicker, softer grip

One final note: If you’re not already, start taking lessons from a certified teaching professional. Playing with more efficient form can go a long way toward preventing injury.

*****

How important is it to restring racquets often? My two teenagers have been playing tennis for seven years now, both now play on their high school teams, USTA Jr Team Tennis, and love playing. We have previously only restrung racquets after the strings have popped. After the last restringing, which lasted about a month, I questioned the stringer about string types that last longer, and he informed me that he restrings racquets for some players after each match. Is this necessary? Am I putting my kids at a competitive disadvantage by restringing only if a string pops?—Trina D.

It’s rare but true, Trina, that some recreational players choose to have their racquets restrung before each match. Why? Because they feel that playing with looser strings adversely affects their performance.

As you may know, after a racquet is strung, the stringbed continually loses tension. In fact, it’s not uncommon for polyester strings to loose 20 percent or more of their initial tension after 10 hours of play. For some players, such losses are too much to bear. So they restring frequently in order to keep tensions in a range they’re most comfortable with.

It’s important to note, however, that this practice doesn’t necessarily translate into a universal competitive advantage. As professional stringer Joe Heydt notes, barring breakage, the frequency at which a player decides to restring has everything to do with personal taste; some players can play just as well with—and may even prefer—older strings, while others cannot.

“If I have a player,” Joe says, “who goes out with strings that are a year old, and they can do what they want with the ball, and they don’t sacrifice any control and the strings feel good to them, and they win, it doesn’t matter if they haven’t been strung in five years. I can’t tell someone what tastes good.

“What I can do, however, is question the player about what he or she feels. I might ask: On the day you break a string, does your racquet feel different to you than the day the strings were new and fresh? Right before it breaks is when the strings have been in there the longest, when the tension has dropped as far as it’s going to go. So I put in brand new strings with fresh tension. If they say, ‘Wow, that’s amazing, that’s a lot better,’ one, I want to know what they feel that’s different. two, I’m going to say, ‘Great. How long does that good feeling last? Is it two weeks, a month, two months?’ Once I find out where their good zone is, my job as a stringer is to adjust string tension and material such that I put their racquets in that zone for the longest period possible.”

The takeaway, Trina, is to get your kids to pay attention to what they feel and how their strings play over time. If they like their strings until they break, there’s no need to restring more frequently. But if, however, they claim that, say, after eight hours of play they're shots start flying on them, you may want to consider getting their racquets restrung more frequently. Have a certified stringer talk with your kids about what they’re perceiving string-wise; he or she should be able to recommend a specific course of action.

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