Made To Order

by: Jon Levey | August 15, 2014

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Back in June I got an email from Dunlop. They said they’ve got a new racquet line unlike anything I’d ever seen before. The details were difficult to extract—the company was being ultra secretive and I had to sign a non-disclosure agreement just to get some clues—but from what I could gather, these new frames gave the user more freedom in choosing the specifications of their racquets. I always carry a healthy amount of skepticism when a manufacturer claims to have something revolutionary, but I was definitely intrigued.

Intrigued enough to hop a plane to South Carolina (Dunlop’s U.S. headquarters) to get a first-hand look.

Two of the companies reps—Hunter Hines, Director of Marketing and Development; Kai Nitsche, VP and GM of Dunlop Sports Americas—took me to the Kroc Center in Greenville which, along with numerous recreational facilities, has an expansive tennis complex. We got on a relatively secluded court and the guys unveiled four completely white frames of varying specs. I gave them the once over and other than an unusual looking butt cap—more on that later—they appeared to be typical racquets.

We each grabbed a frame and started playing. I believe I started with the 98 sq. in., because it’s deemed the most control-oriented in the line. There’s also a 100 sq. in. which is stiffer and more powerful; a 100S sq. in. with a 14x18 string pattern (the others all have 16x19) for added spin; and a 105 sq. in. that is lighter (10.5 oz.) than the other three (11.1 oz). I spent time hitting groundies, volleys, and serves with all of them. They played nicely—good pop with the firm, crisp feel that so many of the “modern” tweener frames possess—but without anything overtly distinguishing. Which left me with a disappointing question:

So what?

The answer came about an hour later in the Dunlop conference room. That’s where Hunter presented me with a cosmetic version of 98 sq. in. racquet I had just played with. Only rather than having a traditional cover, it came in a medium-sized briefcase. And it was also in two parts—the head/throat was separate from the handle. And then he produced two other 98 sq. in. heads that had completely different graphics. And then another handle that was longer than the first.

Now we were getting somewhere.

I had just been introduced to what makes the Dunlop iDapt frames so unique. Players can assemble a racquet to their particular preferences and can potentially reconfigure it if it doesn’t match their expectations. Pros rarely, if ever, play with a stock racquet. They alter the handle length and grip size to a particular fraction of an inch, and pinpoint the weight to the exact gram. The iDapt frames aren’t quite to that level of precision, but for those of us who believe one size does not fit all, it’s a long step in the right direction.

It starts with choosing the preferred head size. Besides the slight weight and string pattern differences between them, the 98 has the softest flex (66 RA), the two 100s the firmest (70 RA), and the 105 is in the middle (68 RA). And all four have three distinct cosmetic combinations: conservative, slightly feminine, and aggressive. Players with multiple racquets—they’re expected to retail for $199—could conceivably play with the same frame painted two or three different ways. You're basically buying the head, as it's the only part of the iDapt that is not interchangeable.

The next choice is feedback. To regulate the response, three different shock sleeves can be implemented on all the iDapt frames: firm, medium (20 percent softer than firm), and soft (25 percent softer than medium). What’s nice is that the decision isn’t a permanent one; players can have the handle removed and a substitute sleeve subbed in—they’re $5 each—if it turns out they want something firmer or more forgiving. In fact, players with multiple racquets could even opt for multiple feels, depending on playing conditions or string choices.

Which brings us to that handle. It’s connected to the top of the frame by a bolt which can be accessed through the trap door in the butt cap. A proprietary tool that only certified iDapt dealers will have—you won't find it at Home Depot—can manipulate the bolt. And don’t worry about a big serve snapping the racquet in two. According to Dunlop, the connection point withstood more pressure under stress tests than molded frames. And when I was playing with the racquets, I didn’t notice any difference in the handle between the iDapt or a conventional frame.

With the six grip sizes—0 to 5—and two length options—standard and 0.5 inch extended—there are actually 12 handles to choose from. And just as with the shock sleeve, they’re interchangeable. If users want to test out a smaller handle for extra spin, or see what adding more length to the frame does for their serve, it’s not a lifetime commitment. A handle ($30/each) can be replaced if it’s a failed experiment.

Players looking to add weight to the frame for greater stability and power will have a more old-school option. Silicone weights, at three grams per piece, will be offered for purchase with the racquets. Designated blast zones are marked at 2, 3, 9, 10, and 12 o’clock on the hoop to add weight for the desired effect, which can be balanced by adding weight to the handle underneath the grip. Or the grip can be replaced—just like any other grip—with a heavier leather grip. And since the handle is completely hollow, serious racquet techs can also shoot silicone in the handle to add weight, change the balance, and potentially absorb more vibrations. However, once that’s done, it will be nearly impossible to access the connection bolt, making it more of a permanent option.

I would have liked the chance to see what a small change to the specs does to the frame’s playability. For instance, take a 98 sq. in. frame with a firm shock sleeve and standard length, and compare it to a 98 sq. in. frame with the same sleeve, but extended length. The latter setup is what one of our testers, Kin Roseborough, had configured for the frame he received at the iDapt launch event in New Orleans earlier this month. When he got home and measured it, the frame checked in at 330 grams (11.6 oz.), 338 swingweight, 3 pts. HL, and an RA of 67. We hope to construct a few of our own and report back with reviews in the near future.

All in all, there are 432 different iDapt combinations. The frames are scheduled to be available at retailers in the next few weeks. (Visit the iDapt website for the nearest one). For a company thought be staid and unimaginative, it’s a bold departure for Dunlop. Their racquets have long been considered solid, but generally geared toward better players with subdued tastes. The specs of the iDapt frames, along with the flexibility of design, puts them squarely in the heart of the tennis-playing population. And the look of the racquets—even the conservative options—are much flashier than typical Dunlop.

As with any new racquet innovation, the proof will be on the court. No matter how enticing the concept, only positive performance will determine whether this is indeed a game-changer. But until the jury comes back with that decision, Dunlop remains correct about one thing: iDapt is unlike anything we’ve ever seen before.

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