US Open Notebook: Gear trends we discovered at the season's final Slam

by: Jon Levey | September 12, 2018

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Arthur Ashe Stadium needs better ventilation, Naomi Osaka is for real and matches are still best settled between players. Those are just a few of the things we discovered during this past US Open. The two weeks also presented an opportunity to meet with manufacturers to find out what they’ve got in store in 2019 for the holy gear trinity of racquets, shoes and strings. Apologies for the lack of specifics and attributions; most of what was discussed is not officially ready for public consumption.

Racquets
Promising updates to existing lines and a few new releases—one major manufacturer is heralding a game-changer next spring—will hit shops in the coming months. But, all in all, there wasn’t a great deal of buzz on the racquet front. I had a conversation with an executive at a major online retailer and he shrugged with tepid enthusiasm at the racquet prospects for next year.

Rather than revamping a series, releasing special-edition and alternate cosmetics of certain frames—all-black, all-red, camouflage, custom colored—seems to be growing in popularity. The time between new racquet purchases of frequent players has grown to 7.1 years according to the Tennis Industry Association, meaning it has become increasingly difficult to convince consumers that new equals better. So, if players are content with the performance of old reliable, perhaps they’d be willing to freshen it up with a different coat of paint.

Another tactic is dropping the price tags on certain frames to position them outside of tennis specialty stores. You’re going to see several lines coming to market at a cost usually reserved for clearance discounts. Typically, these will be the franchises that have been around for a while, but haven’t established the traction of the more popular and respected models.

Shoes
The trend of streamlining shoes to emphasize quick movements will continue. Manufacturers want to create models that ooze speed and responsiveness. They feel the current emphasis on baseline play has created greater demands on lateral court coverage, and designs need to reflect it. A bulky, lumbering shoe that brandishes protection and durability has become more of a relic. A company described the latest update to its flagship performance shoe as second skin; the thick sock crowd best look elsewhere. 

There will still be some options for players seeking comfort and security, but those models seem to be relegated to the “recreational” set, and don’t carry as much of the new tech and designs as the offerings directed at avid, competitive players. In fact, in a sign of the times, one company is going to retire a venerable stability shoe—but perhaps only temporarily—in favor of a brand-new model that features a wider base and lower to the ground profile that benefits side-to-side movement. Everyone I spoke with outside the company with this knowledge was thoroughly surprised by the decision.   

Strings
Developing new and refining existing polyester strings remain the prime directives for manufacturers. While they would love to see recreational players rediscover the merits of multifilament strings—both for health and playability reasons—nobody is turning back the clock. The rec audience covets the enhanced durability of polys, with the spin potential and control being welcome subspecialties. 

That said, several of the companies mentioned they plan to push more aggressively on the hybrid angle. They want everyday players to know that it’s the preferred method of many tour pros, and could be what saves their creaky elbows or sore shoulders, even if that means blending a poly with a softer poly. Not to mention, these companies believe they’ve got worthy strings being bypassed simply because they lack the polyester label. 

And producing strings in a multitude of color options—rainbow versions, as well—seems more important than ever. Manufactures want to give players the opportunity to color coordinate their equipment, especially with strings that complement and amplify a frame’s strongest attributes.   

Other takeaways:

—Bags are getting more thoughtful and sophisticated. The designs, quantity and layout of pockets and compartments and the quality of materials have really upped the game in this sector. The backpack genre, which used to be limited to a couple of frames with the handles exposed, and a few essentials, has been particularly noteworthy for its innovation.

—Talk of smart racquets was noticeably quiet. Head is pleased with its Sensor, and will continue to tweak and enhance the app for better social engagement. But the other brands didn’t address the subject, which was top-of-mind the past couple of Opens. 

—Manufacturers were impressed with the UTR’s presentation at the Tennis Industry Association meeting. There’s a feeling that the USTA’s NTRP system is too limited and shuts out players from leagues; whereas a broader rating format—one that also includes both singles and doubles—would be more inclusive and encourage greater participation. 

—Spare a thought for the tournament stringers. Their previous stringers’ room, which wasn’t overly spacious, was transformed into a café for the players. Some of the stringers got to work in front of fans at Wilson’s sleek new store in Louis Armstrong Stadium. But the rest were relegated to tight, windowless quarters in the bowels of Ashe. Hopefully, it’s a temporary stop.

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