The challenge to today’s racquet consumer isn’t that there are too few choices; it’s that there are so many. Go to Web sites of major retailers, and you can choose from more than 300 recent models, each with its own mix of specifications—from head size, shape, length and weight to balance, beam width and string pattern. Add in other key variables that affect performance and feel, such as string (according to the U.S. Racquet Stringers Association, there are more than 800 strings on the market) and tension, and the permutations are seemingly endless.
And that’s not even starting to consider the plethora of manufacturer technologies, which can alter racquets’ playability even further. While most companies this year are integrating existing developments into new makes and models, several racquet makers are unveiling new innovations in 2013. Head, for example, has re-engineered its latest performance racquets with a cutting-edge material called Graphene, whose lightweight, super-strong properties, the company says, allows for optimal weight redistribution and enhanced power and maneuverability. Wilson, meanwhile, as part of its Steam line, has debuted Spin Effect, an unorthodox 16x15 string pattern that, when paired with a monofilament, increases string movement and spin. And Tecnifibre says they’ve brought their T-Fights up to the standards of the ATP World Tour, namely by tightening manufacturing variances and injecting the racquets’ handles with vibration-damping silicone.
Indeed, navigating so much information makes hunting for new sticks daunting. Thankfully, this year’s racquet guide gets a handle on all this wealth of excess. That said, don’t purchase a racquet solely on the basis of our recommendation—treat the reviews as guidelines of racquets’ strengths and weaknesses, and demo those that are appropriate. If you’re in the market for a new stick, we suggest that you sample at least a half dozen potential candidates, then elect the frame that plays best. The notion of a “perfect” racquet is illusory. Even so, racquets are all different; some will undoubtedly mesh better with your game than others.
Finally, don’t underestimate how much string can affect a racquet’s playability. Beginners and others who hardly ever break strings would do best to use a soft, high-quality multifilament or, ideally, natural gut, both of which can go a long way toward improving comfort, reducing the likelihood of arm injury and maximizing shots’ power and depth. Fast-swinging players with Western grips looking for additional topspin might consider stringing with a monofilament (i.e., polyester) at low tensions (high 40s to low 50s in pounds). Compared to gut or multifilaments, monofilaments are generally harder on the arm—and so caution is warranted for players with a history of injury—but the increase in spin can be considerable. Talk to a knowledgeable tennis professional; he or she will be able to help select the string that’s right for you.
How We Test
We requested at least four samples of every racquet reviewed. Each model was strung with the manufacturer’s recommended string and tension to optimize the frame’s playing characteristics. Racquets were then distributed to playtesters based on their level of play. Tennis editors and recreational players participated in our evaluations, with Tennis’ racquet advisor Bruce Levine, manager of Courtside Racquet Club, in Lebanon, NJ, lending court time and expertise throughout the process. We also compiled quantitative data, such as racquet length, weight, head size, balance and beam width. That way, players can compare the frames’ specifications. (All relevant measurements correspond to strung racquets.)
We tested the racquets thoroughly, identifying possible matches for a variety of player types, ability levels and stroke styles—from short-swinging beginners who specialize in doubles, to intermediate power baseliners and advanced all-courters. Racquets were evaluated using a number of criteria, including power, control, comfort, maneuverability and overall playability. Each tester was encouraged to try a racquet for as long as it took to get a feel for its particular playing characteristics. In many cases, testers returned to a frame a week after they first hit with it just to be sure that they liked it.
To make it easier to compare racquets, we’ve filled this chart with all of the pertinent technical information. Head size is the area of the racquet head in square inches. The bigger the head, the bigger the sweet spot. Length is from the cap of the handle to the top of the head. Longer racquets provide more leverage on serves and greater reach on volleys and groundstrokes; shorter racquets are more maneuverable. Stationary weight is how much the racquet weighs when strung. A light racquet will be more maneuverable, a heavy frame more stable. Swingweight is a guage of how heavy the racquet feels when you swing it as measured by a Racquet Diagnostic Center; the lower the number, the greater the maneuverability. Construction refers to the extent to which the racquet flexes on impact. A flexible frame bends more and gives you additional control and feel, while stiffer beams offer more power but less control. By taking into consideration both RA measurements and playtesting experiences, we categorized frames as flexible, firm, stiff and very stiff. In the Balance column, HH stands for head heavy and HL for head light. Pt. stands for 1 point, which represents a 1/8th inch difference between the racquet’s balance and its midpoint. Beam width is a measure of the thickness of a racquet’s sidewalls. Some frames have a constant width (one number), while others taper from one width at the top of the head to another at the base of the head (listed as two or three numbers). Thick racquets are usually stiffer and more powerful, while thin frames tend toward greater flexibility and richer feedback. String pattern lists the number of main strings (up and down) first and crosses (side to side) second. The tighter a string pattern, the stiffer and more control-oriented the string bed is; the more open the string pattern, the looser and more powerful the string bed. Ideal swing is the type of swing for which the racquet is best suited. Typically, beginners have more compact, slower strokes and advanced players have longer, faster strokes. NTRP recommendations will help you target racquets that are appropriate for your skill level.
Bonus: Which Racquet is Right for Me?
This useful chart can point you to the frame best suited for your game.