Yesterday, I chatted with stringer Joe Heydt. A USRSA-certified Master Racquet Technician, Heydt owns and operates Racquet Corner in Omaha, Nebraska, and also works as a professional stringer with the Wilson and Luxilon Teams, which services the Australian Open, U.S. Open, and Sony Open in Miami. Among other topics, we discussed the rise and fall of longer racquets, and what benefits they can offer to players today.
Justin diFeliciantonio: Recently, I’ve been curious about extra-long racquets—specifically, how they affect serving proficiency. In fact, perusing The Physics and Technology of Tennis the other day, I came across this passage: “Every extra inch of impact height corresponds to about a 5% increase in the first serve percentage for the average player hitting a [flat] 100 mph serve.” Can a racquet longer than 27 inches really improve the consistency of your serve?
Joe Heydt: Oh yes, longer racquets certainly can help. Gosh, the big push in longer racquets happened back in the mid ‘90s with Michael Chang, when tiny little Michael Chang suddenly started ripping serves 129 miles per hour. At the time, the line was, “By the way, he’s playing with a 28 inch racquet.” The industry was really shifting to longer sticks. And the statistic they always referenced was that, for every inch higher you can serve, you have access to 10 percent more of the service box that wasn’t available to you before, just as a result of the heightened angle of attack.
Having played with those racquets myself, it did seem like I put a lot more serves in. But the marketing pitch of the time—that if you play with this long racquet, you’re going to get more serves in—it wasn’t necessarily true. The thing is, if your technique involves tossing and hitting the ball next to your ear, it doesn’t matter how long your racquet is, because you’re not taking advantage of the extra length. To get more serves in, you have to use the racquet to reach up those extra inches. If you do that, yes, it really will make a difference in your serve.
JD: So basically, a longer racquet helps only if it increases your serve’s impact height.
JD: What if you’re shorter, say, 5’5”? Will a longer racquet benefit you more than John Isner, given that you’re both using the racquet to increase your impact height?
JH: Yeah, not that John Isner wouldn’t get more serves in. But remember that Isner—adding his height to the length of his arm and racquet, he’s coming at the box from a little more than 10 feet. If you gave him one more inch, it probably wouldn’t make as dramatic a difference as if, say, you gave that inch to Justine Henin. Keep in mind, though, that technique will still make the biggest difference. You have to make sure you’re attacking the ball at your apex.
JD: As a way of increasing that impact height, I’ve heard some people say that players should focus on hitting serve more toward the tip of the racquet. Is this practical advice?
JH: Well, yes and no. You’ll get the extra height. But you still want to hit the sweet spot, and the sweet spot’s not at the tip. I’d say you should focus on getting the sweet spot of the racquet at the highest point you can in your swing. You don’t necessarily want to catch the ball at the tip, because there’s not a lot going on there.
JD: Back to industry history: If you look through old racquet reviews in Tennis Magazine, published in the late ‘90s, you see so many extra-length racquets featured. Even players’ frames were 28, 29 inches.
JH: You’re right. If you remember the orange Prince Thunderstick, 28.5 inches, Jan-Michael Gambill actually played with the mid. I remember there were even companies that advertised in the back Tennis Magazine; you could send your racquet to them, and they’d modify the handle to make it extra long.
JH: Oh, yeah. It throws your balance off. But yeah, they’d pop your butt cap off and remold a longer handle. I’m not sure, though, how reputable the companies were who doing this. [Laughter]
JD: So what happened to the extra-long craze? Why did it recede?
JH: Well, one thing I remember happening was—let’s say you’re a customer in the ‘90s, and it’s all about long racquets. You try a long racquet, and for whatever reason you don’t like it. When you come in again to try another racquet, I say, “Do you want to try this one?” And you say, “Is it longer? I tried one of those. I didn’t like it.” Okay, it could’ve been 19 other reasons why you didn’t like it. Maybe it was too stiff, too small, too heavy, not strung well, whatever. But you peg it to, “Nah, I tried one of those long ones. I didn’t like it. So therefore, I don’t like all long racquets.” After some time, longer sticks kind of got panned.
JD: Manufacturers do still produce racquets with extra length.
JH: They do. But they don’t market the length heavily as a selling point. The other day, for example, I was playing with the Wilson KTour 95. It doesn’t say anywhere in the title that it’s long, but it’s a quarter-inch longer. Now, a quarter inch isn’t a lot. But if it had been called the KTour Stretch or the KTour+, I think a lot of people would go, “Do you have the regular one?”
JD: It just strikes me that, today, there aren’t practically any 28-inch frames for advanced-level players. That kind of extra length seems to have been relegated to the game-improvement category, you know, sticks like the RZR Bubba and the Weed.
JH: Right, there’s nothing like that now for serious players. You may find a couple of 28-inch racquets made for grandma and grandpa. But 27.5 inches is about the limit for a player’s frame today. I think by 2000, there was a foul taste in everyone’s mouth, because there was such a marketing push. It’s all ebb and flow. The market went back to a traditional 27s. And now the range extends to 27 and a quarter, 27 and three eights, 27 and a half, maybe. I can’t tell you how many people come into my shop with the Outer Limits, that 29-inch, 135 square-inch racquet Wilson made years ago. A guy came in the other day and said they were selling on Ebay for $300.
JH: It’s an evolutionary dead-end. If you’re 70 years old, and you play with that racquet, that’s as big as you can legally be in length and head size. Most everything else on the market is smaller and shorter. People are dying for ‘em, because there aren’t that many out there. Granted, I’m from Nebraska, so we don’t get a lot of niche racquets out here, like the Gamma RZR Bubba. It’s pretty conventional.