Gear Q&A: Racquet Hunting

by: Jon Levey | November 29, 2013

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Photo Credit: Manuela Davies / doubleXposure

Jon Levey answers reader questions in Gear Q&A. Click here to submit your question.

I’ve been seeing a lot of racquet reviews on the site lately, and many of the frames sound intriguing. I’ve been playing with the same frame for many years and it’s probably time for an upgrade, but I find the process a little daunting. There’s just so much to choose from. Any advice on how to go about my search?Robert C.

I probably get asked a version of this question more than any other. Usually it’s accompanied with the racquet the person is currently using and how it compares to certain new frames on the market.

Unless specifically asked about them, I’m generally reluctant to suggest particular models because there are many good frames out there, and a racquet is a pretty personal relationship that can defy conventions. I’ve known light-hitting, short swingers who love the 90 sq. in. Pro Staff, and highly advanced players who prefer sub-11 oz. frames. It’s whatever feels right and works for an individual’s game.

So rather than blindly toss out individual racquet brands and models I find worthwhile, here are three questions to consider that might help you on your racquet quest:

1. What am I searching for?
A new racquet is a fairly significant investment of time and money, so there should be a reason behind your purchase. The goal could be things like more pop, bigger or smaller head size, or better racquet maneuverability. Sometimes your game feels stale and may need a b12 shot; a new frame can often do that. (Although if you’re feeling that way but are happy with your stick, you’re probably better off tinkering with new strings). And knowing what you’re looking for will narrow your hunt considerably.

If you’re after more swing speed, it wouldn’t make much sense to demo frames with the same or more swingweight as your current one. If increased spin is your desire, there’s no point in trying the same, or a denser, string pattern. When I posed the question of the racquet search to racquet technician to the pros Roman Prokes of RPNY Tennis, he said he always first extensively interviews his customers to find out about their games and their goals before ever offering suggestions. Even then he advises them to be patient and expect some trial and error. If your game is important to you, it should be more than a weekend project.

2. How should I rate each frame?
For quite some time, whenever I demoed a frame my biggest barometer was my weakest shot—the down-the-line backhand. I felt confident that I could serve and drive my forehand with just about anything in the category of frames I prefer—midsize head, around 12 oz., and very head light. So if I could nail the down-the-line backhand consistently, then the racquet was worth considering.

I’ve since done a 180 on that philosophy. My serve is clearly my best shot, so if a frame doesn’t produce the same, or ideally better, results than my current one, it’s out of the discussion. Of course I’d like to be able to crack a nice backhand down the line, but it’s not as high a priority. I’m going to lean on my serve far more frequently than the down-the-line backhand, which with practice should become serviceable enough not to be a liability.

Often there’s give and take when demoing a new frame. A gain in some category means a loss in another. The extra power on the forehand is great, but it’s going long more frequently; the added spin is terrific, but the ground strokes seem less penetrating. Since no racquet is perfect, at least not at first hit, it’s helpful to establish a pecking order of priorities. If you’re looking for more control and consistency, but the frame you’re trying limits the explosiveness of your forehand—your best shot—perhaps it’s not right for you. Or, maybe you’re willing to make that concession for the sake of getting more balls in play. Unless you stick to a grading scale, it’s easy to waver between frames and never come to a conclusion.

3. Am I willing to put old faithful aside?
Here’s the simple truth: You’re initially not going to play as well with your test frame as you do with your regular racquet. Even if you do for a set or two, there’s undoubtedly going to be some growing pains; the old saw of one step backward for two steps forward. You may even lose to someone you ordinarily beat.

I can’t tell you how many people I know use this as a reason not to switch to a new racquet. They demo for months and never commit because they don’t like the results on the scoreboard. It’s shortsighted since it should be the performance they’re judging. Or there’s a detail about the frame, like the shape of the handle, which isn’t as comfortable as their current one and it’s a deal breaker. Since there’s no necessity—they already have a battle-tested frame they trust—there’s no urgency to switch, even if it could mean potential improvement.

When you buy a suit or dress off the rack, it seldom fits perfectly. It usually takes some alterations before it has the ideal dimensions. Over time—as we…ahem, grow—further adjusts might need to be made as well. When buying a new frame it helps to be, or know, a good racquet tailor. That way you can take what is essentially a good racquet for your playing style and customize it so it’s an even better fit.

This is a point Prokes is quick to make: If a racquet feels good to play with, and provides the benefits you were searching for, then minor quibbles can be worked out. If it’s not quite stable enough when defending heavy shots, some weight can be added. If it’s got the added power you were looking for but can be a bit wild, that can be solved with the right strings and tension. A less than ideal grip can be replaced with the one you’re familiar with. If you’re not willing to work a little with a new frame, then it probably won’t work for you.

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