Better Know A String: Polyester
This is the third in a four-part series highlighting the major string categories available to consumers. Today's subject is polyesters.
We follow our leaders. What happens at the pro level eventually trickles down to the mere mortals. Chrissie and Borg make hay with a two-handed backhand and it eventually becomes the preferred style from that side. When queried about string preference among the pros at this year’s Roland Garros, stringer Josh Newton surmised that about 50% use polyester strings. Of the remaining half, the large majority opt for a polyester-gut hybrid. If nylon remains king at the recreational level, polyester may soon reign supreme.
So what makes polys so attractive?
The first characteristic that often draws players to polyesters is its durability. They can be tougher to break than John Isner in a fifth set. Strings generally snap because they grind against each other during play. But polyesters are less abrasive than other strings, resulting in less wear and tear. Early incarnations were primarily monofilaments that were incredibly sturdy, but not the most playable strings. When players complain about the rigidness of polyesters, these are the first offenders. As polys have evolved, offering more sophisticated multifilaments, they are still long-lasting, and will never be confused with a soft synthetic or gut, but are now much more comfortable.
Still, the top pros don’t care much about durability. They rotate their racquets so frequently during matches—often with the change of balls—that string longevity is hardly an issue. To them there must be another reason polyesters are so attractive. Enter spin and control. The texture and stiffness of polyesters allow the strings to better bite the ball and apply more spin. Plus, strings like Luxilon—not technically polyester, but with many of same characteristics—actually move down at contact and snap back into place while the ball is still on the strings, which enhances spin generation. The extra topspin offers two obvious benefits: 1) a heavier shot that bounds higher and pushes opponents further back in the court; 2) greater net clearance since the topspin will bring the ball down in the court more quickly. Hitting long, therefore, becomes less of an issue. Additionally, many players find stiffer strings, like polys, better for controlling the ball. With less flex, the ball spends less time on the string bed promoting a more consistent response. The analogy being the difference between throwing a ball against a concrete wall versus a pitchback.
The caveat with many of the stiffer polys is you need adequate racquet head speed to enjoy those benefits. That’s obviously not an issue for pros, but a definite concern at the rec level. Otherwise the strings won’t move at all and it will feel like hitting the ball with a wooden board. That’s why it’s often recommended to string polyesters anywhere from 5-10 pounds lower than nylon or gut strings. That will alleviate some of the inherent stiffness.
Along those lines, pros get their racquets restrung constantly, eliminating another problem with many polys: tension loss—it happens quicker with polys than most strings. Combine that with their toughness, and players can be using their strings long after their full effectiveness. Besides resulting in a mushy string bed and possible control issues, it’s not good for the body. “This is especially problematic for juniors,” says Bob Patterson of the U.S. Racquet Stringers Association. “They like poly for the spin and their parents like it because it doesn't break as quickly. The player ends up playing until it breaks which is usually long after it is dead because that is what they are accustomed to. This can lead to arm and shoulder injuries.”
Making playing with a polyester both a blessing and a curse. To pros, and all others who swear by the string, it’s clearly the former.