Following Andy Roddick’s four-set win over Fabio Fognini, I spoke with Roman Prokes, Roddick’s key racquet technician, outside the U.S. Open Wilson Stringing Lab. Prokes’s company, RPNY Tennis, works extensively with players on tour, providing them with racquet customization and stringing services. Roman and I spoke about the American’s racquet, his string set-up, and the recent success he’s enjoyed with lower tensions.
Justin diFeliciantonio: I understand that your company, RPNY Tennis, has a number of clients on tour. In what capacity do you work with Andy Roddick?
Roman Prokes: I customize Andy’s racquets. I string for him, too. Roddick has been a client of my company, RPNY Tennis, since he was 16 years of age. There are also several guys who work for me who string for him whenever he needs them.
JD: What is Andy playing with currently? I know that he uses a Babolat Pure Drive.
RP: Yes, that’s correct. With his string, he strings hybrid—Babolat VS Touch 16 natural gut in the crosses and Babolat Pro Hurricane 17, a polyester, in the mains.
I was watching the match today
, and saw that, midway through, he sent in a racquet for restringing. What did he request?
RP: Yeah, he did. He wanted lower tensions—three racquets, one strung at 52, one at 53, and one at 54 [lbs.]. It’s kind of interesting, actually, because Larry [Stefanki] and I have always told him to string lower. That’s what we’re always telling people, to string at lower tension with the poly. But going back, he always strung anywhere from 60, 61 to 64, 65 [lbs.], which was really tight.
JD: With the gut and the polyester?
RP: Yeah, same tension for both. But as of this summer, he switched to 52, 53, 54 lbs. He really went down about 10 pounds. And all three tournaments he won this year he won with the low tension. So he’s kept going with it. Here right now, depending on the weather, he’s stringing 55, 56. Today, because it got cooler during the match, he went all the way down to 52 lbs.
JD: Do you know if he used the racquets that he sent in on-court for restringing?
RP: He did, actually, because he dropped off the other one. Today he played with the [racquets strung at] 53 and 54, I think.
JD: Interesting. What about his racquets? How are they weighted?
RP: He customizes his racquets. And in order to customize racquets, you have to make them all exactly the same. Which also means they have to look the same. It’s not like we just add weight to the racquet, you know. We build the racquets from inside. We get the raw frame with nothing on it, with no handle, nothing. And then we mold a handle. We also have machines that tell us how heavy the handle is, where to distribute the weight within the frame; part of that weight is visible on the side. At the end of the process, every racquet is the same.
JD: If I could ask: What are the specifications on his racquet?
RP: I can’t give out exact specs. of players. It’s a legal issue, really. The information is not our property to give out. You’ll have to ask him. But I can say, in general terms, that [compared to others on tour] he plays somewhat of a light racquet—lighter and more head heavy. It’s also half an inch longer.
JD: And his grip?
For an up-close look at Andy Roddick—his shoes, shirt, and yes, sweat—click the above photo.
It’s a custom, molded handle. It’s a shape that he’s used since he was a kid. This happens with a lot of players. They’ll come to you and say, “I love this handle.” And then we copy it, basically. We make a mold of it, and from that we’ll make handles. With Andy, it isn’t identical to a Babolat 4 in the store. It’s a grip that works for him. We made it a little bit smaller here, a little bit bigger there. It’s hybrid that fits his hand.
JD: How many racquets a year does he go through?
RP: Last year, we did 150 frames. Pretty much every tournament he plays we’ll bring new ones. For the U.S. Open, I brought 10 brand new ones, and he brought six that we gave him brand new in Winston-Salem a week before the Open. So we started here with 16 racquets. And by the end of the Open—I mean, he is done so he won’t need them—but pretty much they would be finished, for the most part.
JD: Just two weeks, that’s it?
RP: Yeah, they get really beat up. You’d be surprised. The way Andy plays, we’ll give him a new racquet, and he comes back an hour later, and it looks like it’s two months old. How he scrapes it, how he beats it up—the racquets take a lot of abuse and beating. Not abuse as in physical, intentional abuse, but from all the scraping of the court. And the fact that they get restrung every day, there’s a lot of pressure that gets put on the frame. So eventually they end up pretty beat up.
JD: Will he string all his racquets everyday? Or just—?
RP: Not all 16. But today, look, before the match, we strung eight. Plus we did two for practice. So that’s 10. And then, during the match, because he wanted a lower tension, we strung four more. So today we did 14. And that’s—10 to 12, that’s a pretty normal day. And that goes for a lot of the big players, because many of them change racquets every ball change. Or they’ll take multiple tensions with them on court. Sharapova, she goes on the court with nine racquets. So for her, every day we string eleven—two for practice, nine for the match.
JD: Does Roddick change racquets on every ball change?
RP: No, he doesn’t. Once he gets a right tension, he stays with it. But he wants three different tensions when he goes on court. So he’ll go, let’s say, three at 55, three at 56, and two at 57 [lbs.], just in case conditions change.
JD: Has his equipment changed much over the years? Or has it pretty much stayed the same?
RP: Oh, it changes all the time. New technologies, new constructions, things are always changing. Some players like to stay with what they’ve had. Others are always looking for and testing something new. Roddick, he’s more [in the camp of] keeping things the same. Obviously, he has the new frames from Babolat. You would need to talk to Babolat about exactly what’s the construction inside of the frame. But as far as the way they’re weighted and balanced, he hasn’t changed.
JD: Since when, you think?
RP: For a long time. There was some minor changes done a long time ago—I would say, eight, 10 years ago. But since then, he’s stayed the same.
JD: Even if his fitness is changing, or he has injury problems, it’s always the same racquet?
RP: It’s the same—same weight, same balance, same swingweight, same handle, same everything. Because for these guys, a lot of times it’s an extension of their arm; it’s what they are used to.
JD: I’ve heard from a number of players that certain types of paint can change how a racquet feels. Your thoughts?
RP: It really could be. What happens is, let’s say that you have a player who plays with a matte-finish frame. Very rarely will they be able to switch to a glossy paint, because it completely changes the feel. Take identical racquets and repaint one: It will never play the same. I’ve been doing this for 30 years, and from day one, every player will know and will not be able to switch. The matte and the glossy each makes a tremendous difference—even to the point that you and I will feel it, blindfolded—let alone these guys.
JD: Why do you think that is?
RP: Different layers of paint. Different vibrations. It changes the shock, changes the sound, changes everything. The matte finish, for the most part, has more of a feel to it, more touch. With the glossy, it feels a little bit harder.
JD: And what’s the finish on Roddick’s racquet?
RP: He has the shiny finish. That’s what he’s used to. The Pure Drive was always the glossy.
For all of Justin diFeliciantonio's reports from the U.S. Open, click here.