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My son just finished up his freshman season on his high school tennis team with a bad case of tennis elbow. He wears a brace and can manage the pain, but it’s obviously affecting him. At his age (15) I'm rather hesitant to treat it with medication, and am wondering if there’s something we can do with his equipment to help. He’s not a big kid so he uses a decently weighted frame—the Head Speed MP—strung in the high 50s with Babolat RPM Blast. Any advice would be greatly appreciated.—Jim L.
There’s probably not going to be a magic bullet that will suddenly cure your son of his elbow trouble. Everybody is built differently, and some people handle the rigors of swinging a racquet better than others. If he was playing every day during a multi-month team season, there’s a chance he could suffer some soreness regardless of equipment. Before juggling racquets and strings it can’t hurt to have him examined by an orthopedist who specializes in sports medicine to make sure there’s no real damage outside of inflammation.
That said, if it’s just an irritated joint, there are some things to consider that could mitigate tennis elbow. Opinions vary, but the biggest cause is usually faulty technique. Having never seen your son play, there’s not much I can offer you in this regard. However, there could be a stroke or playing situation which seems to exacerbate the problem. Speak to his coaches to see if there’s an obvious technical flaw that might be the root of the injury. And if their instruction (or lack thereof) is behind the swing defect, it could be time for a new coach.
If the strokes are mostly sound, then it could very well be the equipment. There’s nothing wrong with any of what he’s using, but it may just not be right for him. The Speed MP is not crazy stiff, but it is plenty firm. Plus, it’s not terribly heavy—about 11 oz. strung—meaning a teenage boy should be able to generate ample swing speed. The two traits together equal the potential for some shock at contact on off-center hits.
Players currently shy away from heavier racquets for fear they will be difficult to wield, but the extra weight makes them much better for absorbing shock before it passes to the user’s arm. And static weight can be misleading; players should really be more concerned with the balance and swingweight. A very head-light frame can feel much easier to swing than a racquet with significantly less weight if the latter has more of its mass toward the head. Having more weight in the handle not only makes it more maneuverable, but also serves as a better shock absorber. And the truth is, heavier racquets, when swung with adequate speed, can deliver a more powerful blow.
Current players, particularly of the younger generation, also seem to gravitate toward the stiffer, crisper frames as they tend to pack a bigger punch. But a more flexible frame is generally better at diffusing the stresses of impact, leading to a more comfortable playing experience. My generation learned to play on much heavier, more flexible wooden racquets, so when I transitioned into graphite frames in my pre-teens, it wasn’t much of an adjustment to use something of substance that had some flex. During all my years at tennis camps and on high school teams with players following a similar racquet progression, I can’t remember anybody suffering from tennis elbow.
But if your son has grown attached to his frame, perhaps he could experiment with his strings. RPM Blast is a playable, spin-friendly poly, but it is on the firm side. Throw in the fact that your son strings it rather tight and that’s not going to make for a very forgiving string bed. A lot of young players want to follow their teammates or emulate the pros by using polyester strings, but their bodies and games aren’t quite ready for it. A player needs significant racquet-head speed to be able to bend and move some of the stiffer polyesters in order to reap their spin and control benefits. Otherwise the response can be quite harsh.
I would suggest dropping starting string tension to the lower 50s—even lower if possible—to see if that helps. Using the thinner 17g or 18g versions of the string is also something to consider. It may not be a bad idea to try to hybrid the RPM with a soft cross string to create a springier string bed. And lastly, there are numerous softer polys out there that may not have the control of RPM, but make up for it in comfort and pop. Now that your son has hit his off-season, it could be the right time to test out some of the different options.