We're in the throes of assembling the 2013 gear guide over here at Tennis Magazine. Volumes of information need to be digested, editorial decisions must be made, racquet specifications organized, manufacturers’ technologies deciphered and explained into human language. That’s the secretarial part. The other part—the fun part—is that, as gear editor, I get to sample a smorgasbord of new frames. Once or twice a week for the past few, I’ve lugged to the court six or seven yet-to-be-released racquets for an extended afternoon session. One by one, I've chewed on each—parsing the nature of its feedback, teasing out its playability, and determining whom each racquet best serves (so as to distribute it to the right group of players to test).
This past Thursday, Head was on the docket. And so I had the chance to hit a few balls around with one of company’s new frames, entitled, pro tem, the “Prototype Speed MP.” It’s an update to Head’s previous YouTek Innegra Speed MP. Which, to be perfectly honest, I’ve never played with. So forgive me for not drawing comparisons between the two generations. Note, also, that Head isn’t planning to disclose details on the new racquets’ technology, specifications, or final cosmetics until it launches on January 11.
For now, then, let me offer simply a few notes on my own personal experience of how the racquet felt and played:
—The first thing I noticed about the Prototype Speed MP was its cosmetics: It’s a nice, matte black. Surely, when the racquet is released to the public next year, the colorway will be different; but I hope Head retains that smooth finish. At the risk of sounding ridiculous, I’ve always suspected that racquets with such a finish play better—i.e., softer and with more “give” (see below)—than those coated in a glossier paint. As to whether this correlation is real or imagined, it’s hard to say. But it’s planted firmly in a corner of my racquet worldview.
—Also of note, re: cosmetics, is the racquet’s throat, which is covered with clusters of interlinked, embossed hexagons; it looks like a diagram that you’d encounter in an organic chemistry class. At the throat’s crux, just above the grip, is the letter “G.” What does it signify? For now, Head won’t say.
—Hitting groundstrokes, I was surprised by how powerful the racquet is for a beam width in the low 20mms; my first few shots sailed far beyond the baseline. This is, at least in part, a function of the racquet’s (distribution of) weight. It felt like it was in the low 11-ounce range—a little on the light side for my tastes—and balanced only a few points head light. So there’s a good bit of weight up in the hoop, which causes the sweet spot to play pretty high (above the six and nine positions). This characteristic should be well received by all manner of baseliners.
—At the net, the Speed Prototype was capable enough, but by no means inspired. But the frame’s extra power was noticeable on those difficult low and half volleys; I remember hitting a few pretty poorly, but found that, to my pleasure, the ball sailed a lot deeper than I expected.
—Nevertheless, for my strokes—a semi-Western forehand, which I hit pretty flat, and an Eastern one-handed backhand—the Prototype just had too much juice. As a result, I found myself trying to hit with much more spin than normal in order to keep the ball in the court. And there was plenty to be had, what with the racquet’s open string pattern and poly set-up. That might not be a bad thing; perhaps I should hit with more spin. Doubtless, it’s where the game’s headed. (Check out a video of me hitting with the racquet, below.)
—Which brings me to a more general comment on racquets, power, and player type. More and more, it seems, players’ frames are being designed for those who hit with lots of spin. The point being: A racquet that’s too powerful for a flat-hitting player might not be so for a player who swings a Western grip. (See, for example, Nadal’s Babolat AeroPro Drive, a relatively powerful racquet.) Inversely, players who hit extremely spin-laden shots, and who use racquets without much power, run the risk of leaving balls short.
—The one thing I didn’t enjoy about the Prototype was its grip. I’ve never been a fan of Head palettes. For whatever reason, the bevels on their grips just don’t feel as sharp as those on a Wilson or a Volkl; and I’m a bevel kind of guy. This is a pretty important factor, the grip. I imagine that many players decide on a racquet primarily for this reason.
—I came away with impression that the Speed MP would best serve NTRP 4.0+ players. In junior terms, I also could see a sectionally-ranked baseliner in the 14s or 16s really enjoying this racquet.
—What impressed most about the Speed was how much it “gave” on impact. It has a soft feeling for a player’s frame—not as much as the Prince Exo3 Rebel 95 I’ve been playing with, but in the same neighborhood. What I mean by this: It feels as if the hoop is cradling the ball. This is pleasant to me. (Others who like stiffer frames have told me that this feels “mushy” to them.) Again, it all comes down to personal preferences. I love open grommet systems, flexible to firm constructions, and low tensions—all of which contributes to that cradling sensation. And you?
Whet your curiosity further, Head fans, with the following video, in which Djokovic has a hit with the G at a "secret test area":