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What’s your take on natural gut? I’m a 3.0 player who recently started playing and have heard mixed things about it. I’ve read in some places that gut is a relic of the past and a poor fit for the modern game—which is why you see players on tour using co-polyesters instead of natural gut—while others claim that it still can provide benefits for recreational and professional players alike. Which is it? Could you give a case-by-case breakdown?—Tom Renault
Thanks for your question, Tom. There’s no question that natural gut has deep roots in the sport’s past. By one count, gut’s been around since 1875, when Pierre Babolat reportedly manufactured his first tennis string. While the manufacturing process has been tweaked over the years—including such features as moisture-resistant coatings and more durable layups—natural gut is still made as it was in 19th century France: From cow intestines, specifically a thin membrane called the serosa.
But while gut has a long history, there’s no doubt that its performance benefits are very modern. Incredibly, despite advances in artificial polymer and string technologies, the serosa membrane still yields strings that are softer and more elastic than any other man-made synthetic. According to Joe Heydt, who owns Racquet Corner, in Omaha, Nebraska, these qualities make gut superior in several categories. “Every year when strings are tested and played,” Heydt says, “natural gut ranks at the top in tension maintenance, comfort, and power. Man has yet to accurately make an artificial string to replace gut.”
The question is: If natural gut confers all these benefits, why is it showing up in fewer and fewer pro racquets on tour? Indeed, while gut is superior in tension retention and energy return upon impact, it isn’t nearly as spin-friendly or resistant to breakage as polyester. For pro players, this translates into less-than-ideal RPMs—a death knell in today’s power-baseline game. Accordingly, most professionals string polyester in full sets, though there are still a minority of players, Roger Federer among them, who hybridize gut with polyester.
So what does this mean for you? It’s pretty clear, Tom, that most of us aren’t ready for pro tennis—i.e., what works for professionals won’t work for the majority of recreational players. To this end, I still believe that a large swath of players—especially those with shorter, slower swings, who hit flat and break strings no more than a couple times a year—would benefit from the extra power of natural gut. Players with nagging arm injuries are also good candidates, due to gut’s unmatched natural resiliency.
Of course, natural gut is expensive. It can run upwards of $50 a set, depending on the brand and quality of the string. But considering the extent to which gut can heighten a stick’s power and feel, it seems to me that most recreational players would do well to shell out a few extra bucks. Shop around, and take a look at the USRSA’s (United States Racquet Stringers Association’s) 2012 String Selector, which includes a category listing every gut product on the market according to stiffness.