Gear of the Year: Some of our favorites from 2018

by: Jon Levey | December 21, 2018

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Tags: The Pro Shop

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Babolat Pure Aero
When a franchise is as popular as the Aero, changes to the recipe tend to be subtle. From a playing perspective, consider the new Pure Aero a more refined version. Disciples need not worry: power and spin are still in rich supply. If you like to rip heavy serves and groundstrokes it will happily oblige. But tweaks to the composition have imbued this latest update with better control and comfort. A thin, rubber-infused carbon fiber layer added at 3 and 9 o’clock reduces shock and increases dwell time; a carbon layer in the yoke to improve torsional stability; oblong grommets at 6 and 12 o’clock create more string movement and spin. Plus, the flex has been lowered a bit—it remains plenty firm—making it more arm-friendly and not quite as powerful. Players finding previous models too stiff or disobedient may finally have an Aero they can play with.

Dunlop/Srixon CV 3.0
The CV line represented Dunlop’s first effort in the ‘tweener world after teaming up with Srixon. In the ever-deepening sea of racquets in the category, it’s hard for frames to stand out. And the CV 3.0 does possess the familiar weight, variable beam, balance and stiffness that is so common among its competitors. It also hits the expected marks off good racquet head acceleration producing easy depth and plenty of spin. But where it steps out of the shadows is in the feel department. So many ‘tweeners can play brassy, but the Sonic Core technology in the CV 3.0 does a stellar job of filtering unpleasant feedback while still leaving a good connection to the ball at contact. Besides being comfortable, it allows the chance to play with more control and finesse rather than just blasting away. If the performance of the CV 3.0 is an early indication of the Dunlop/Srixon partnership, expect more good things to come.

Head Graphene 360 Speed Pro
The latest iterations of the Speed own an entirely new mold with a thicker beam—23mm up from 22mm—wider string spacing and Graphene 360 technology. The previously place Graphene in the throat is joined by Graphene rings in the head at 3, 9, and 12 o’clock to reduce twisting at impact and provide better energy transfer into the shot. Besides giving the frame a bit more thump, there’s also a more solid feel. This was especially noticeable on off-center hits, which were punished more severely in previous models. And while it’s chunkier, it still lived up to its name with deft handling and maneuverability. Which came in handy for taking advantage of the larger spin window opened up by the wider cross strings. Shots had more natural height, and for a dense 18x20 pattern it was no trouble putting plenty of work on the ball. All in all, the most playable Speed Pro to date.

Yonex VCORE Pro 97
Other options drop your jaw with nuclear power or devilish spin, but the VCORE Pro curries favor with the more pedestrian qualities of predictability and precision. Compared to the previous Duel G, the VCORE Pro has a few new wrinkles intended to improve the frame’s aggressive qualities. A new carbon material (Namd) in the throat creates more torque at higher swing speeds, the beam is also slightly thinner and—as a result of consumer demand—the string pattern has been opened up to 16x19 from 16x20. It offers easier access to spin, friendlier feel and bump in power, but ultimately remains true to the line’s heritage of feel and control. The lighter 310g version is quicker and riper for customization than its sturdier and more demanding 330g sibling. Both are honest brokers: if you’ve got the game, this frame will reflect it.

Asics Speed Solution FF 
The latest edition of the Speed Solution franchise introduces FlyteFoam to the design. The inclusion of the lighter, plusher cushioning with enhanced shock absorption is a terrific addition. Along with Asics’s venerable GEL technology there is bounce and forgiveness in every stride. It isn’t a perfect shoe: the forefoot is a little too roomy, the upper billows when you cinch up the laces and ventilation could be better. But the low weight and stellar cushioning make for an exceedingly comfortable ride. Even with a few minor missteps, the Speed Solution FF maintains the franchise’s claim as one of the top choices in the lightweight, high-performance category.

Head Sprint SF
Toughness and durability are not traits commonly associated with lightweight, speed shoes, but that’s exactly what you get from the Head Sprint SF. This special edition of the Sprint Pro is made with SuperFabric on the upper, an abrasion resistant, snakeskin like material that lowers the weight while upping the resiliency. The shoe has an overall feel of serious equipment. The fit is snug and secure, without a great of wiggle room or give. It’s more than an ounce lighter than the Sprint Pro, which is far from a heavy shoe. Along with the low-to-the-ground midsole construction and minimal heel-to-toe drop, it made the SF model super quick and responsive around the court. Cushioning could be better, but it otherwise meets the standards of a high-performance model built for speed and competition.

Mizuno Wave Exceed Tour 3 AC
Even though Mizuno is an established brand in the running shoe category, I’m not much of a runner. And being a lesser known commodity in tennis, the Wave Exceed Tour 3 AC was my first foray into Mizuno footwear. If it’s indicative of their other offerings, it won’t be my last. The high-performance shoe, seen on the feet of Top 10er, Kiki Bertens, strikes a great balance between speed, stability and comfort. The shoes are also exceedingly light; a size 11 carries just 13.4 ounces. The Wave plate located towards the heel helps disperse shock, as well as support the ankle to prevent rolling and foot slippage. This makes for assured movement and changes of direction. Sizing is a bit tricky—the shoe runs about a half-size long—but when you get the fit right, you’re rewarded with a quick, responsive and connected ride.

Laserfibre Native Tour
Started just a few years ago by a group of industry veterans, Laserfibre has developed a line of premium strings, which has been bolstered by the addition of the recently released JB Tour 100—developed in partnership with former world #4, James Blake. While I haven’t tried the JB Tour yet, I did get my hands on Native Tour. Produced in the USA, it’s unusually springy and comfortable for a polyester. It’s still control-oriented, but not nearly as unforgiving as other options in the category. I even found myself stringing at tensions closer to what I would normally use for a multifilament. However, as expected with a softer poly, playability duration was a little compromised. Still, it’s right up the alley of players new to the polyester genre, or simply want one that’s more arm-friendly and capable of putting a little more pace on the ball.

Yonex PolyTour Strike
Used as a prototype by Denis Shapovalov and Caroline Garcia during their breakout 2017 seasons, PolyTour Strike embodies what seasoned poly players like in their strings: low power, firm feel, dependable response. The round, monofilament polyester produces excellent control even on the biggest cuts. All that racquet head speed results in decent pop with respectable work on the ball. Other strings produce more power or spin, but the combination from the PolyTour Strike will be plenty for high-level players. While not as comfortable as softer polys, the string settles nicely after a brief break-in period and maintains its playability better than many competitors in the category. And as you might expect from a tougher polyester, durability is not an issue. 

Babolat Backpack Maxi
Traditional racquet backpacks can often leave you feeling squeezed. There’s just not enough space for all the things you want to bring to the court. Not so with the Babolat Maxi—it’s a supersized backpack capable of holding up to three frames with storage aplenty. The bag features an internal laptop or tablet pocket, built-in shoe tunnel, a large internal compartment for apparel and additional equipment, numerous external zippered pockets for other smaller gear and valuables. And if the weight starts getting too onerous, there’s a buckle waist band to offset the load. It’s the perfect middle ground between a cumbersome, full-length racquet bags and a cramped backpack.

Pickle Juice Sport
As unlikely as it sounds, pickle juice has long been a staple for serious athletes and trainers to alleviate and even prevent cramps. In fact, the Pickle Juice Company has been bottling the stuff as a sports drink since 2001. I only stumbled upon it this year, and the stuff works. As you might expect, it possesses a much higher sodium content—470mg in a 75ml shot—than most other sports drinks, which can be a blessing for heavy sweaters. There’s also small amounts of other vitamins and electrolytes with no sugar or caffeine. Beyond replacing sodium, there is also evidence that cramping is more nerve-related than muscular, and pickle brine serves as a neural inhibitor. But it is an acquired taste; like a shot of a kosher dill, this sports drink absolutely lives up to its name.



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