Unstrung Heroes: the stringers behind the racquets of the stars

Unstrung Heroes: the stringers behind the racquets of the stars

The US Open stringers room is the critical part of a Slam no one knows about.

NEW YORK—The US Open is often characterized as chaotic. The masses of boisterous New Yorkers, the planes flying overhead and the unpredictable conditions can create a frenzied atmosphere for players. With so many on-court variables out of their control, they need the peace of mind that their equipment is not one of them. The wind can cause a wayward forehand, but their racquets and strings can’t be the source of any turmoil. Which is why players put their faith in the steady hands at the US Open stringers room. 

For the 14th consecutive year, Wilson is in charge of the stringers room. Just like the tournament, the stringers room has an international flavor. The staff of 40 includes 21 stringers from 11 different countries. Besides assembling some of the best talent from around the globe, it puts the players at ease to see recognizable faces. For instance, if a Japanese player is familiar with the work of a stringer from his home country, he’ll feel more comfortable letting him handle his frames over the course of the Open. Each player is assigned a particular stringer and stringing machine as long as they’re in the draw—no deviations. That way, the player knows there is no variance in the process. Again, consistency is key.

A typical day early in the tournament will see the stringing room churn out 500+ racquets. That’s more than the average small shop will do throughout the entire year. By the end of the tournament, 5,500+ frames will get serviced and sent out the door. Even with so many frames flying off the machines, the stringers will adhere to the players’ particular demands. It’s not uncommon for a player to request that all racquets be freshly strung on the day of a match. For an 11 a.m. start time, that means the stringer is spending 3 to 4 hours that morning preparing the frames. 

“I look at it as though we’re chefs,” says Ron Rocchi, head honcho of the stringers room and Advanced Innovation Manager for Wilson. “And we’re preparing a meal exactly to their dietary needs.”

Some players have their own off-site stringing service, but the large majority of entrants use the tournament stringers. Players or their coaches drop of their frames at stringers room located in Arthur Ashe Stadium and make any tension or stringing requests. They will typically provide their own string, but are charged for stringing services, which is subtracted from their winnings.

All racquets are important, but on-court racquets receive the highest priority. Even though players hit the courts with about six freshly strung frames (Serena Williams carries closer to ten) they often send racquets to the stringers room during a match. They may want more because they believe the match could go long, or perhaps they brought a few different frames at varying tensions and want more at a particular poundage. Whatever the reasoning, on-court frames bring a level of anxiety. The average turnaround time is in the neighborhood of 18 minutes, so no hiccups allowed.

Last year the stringing room was relocated. The old spot, just inside Players Facilities, was turned into a café. The new room—further inside the bowels of Arthur Ashe Stadium next to player warm-up area—lost some square-footage and (sadly) all the windows. However, on the plus side, half of the stringing team was moved to the second floor of the Wilson retail store located in Louis Armstrong Stadium. Besides the practicality aspect, it showcases the stringing team’s expertise and allows consumers a peek behind the curtain. In fact, there’s a dedicated tour guide stationed there to answer questions and educate the everyday player. 

“It’s a way for people to interact with something they have never seen before,” says Rocchi.

The top “wow” highlight for most tour recipients has been the tournament’s sustainability initiative. In the stringer’s room this primarily means two things. A common courtside sight in previous years has been players pulling their freshly strung frames from a plastic bag, but that’s now a thing of a past. Additionally, all the discarded string—it’s not uncommon for players to use a string job for as little as one ball change—is being collected, with the USTA intending to recycle and repurpose the leftovers. The same thing goes for the retired tennis balls. There’s a display booth adjacent the Grandstand Court explaining the initiative, complete with a silo of used strings. The hope is to find a useful destination for the waste rather than a landfill.

Ironically, the second-most interesting thing to spectators has nothing to do with the speed or skill of the stringers, the types of strings the players prefer or which racquets belong to which players. It’s stenciling. People are fascinated by the process of putting brand logos on the string. But to the stringers, it’s just another part of the job. 

And again—consistency is key.

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