The first thing I thought when I picked up the new Prince Tour 98 ESP was that fans of bees and the Pittsburgh Steelers are really going to gravitate toward this frame. But given that it’s been one of the most popular and sought-after racquets by our testers, it clearly has a more universal appeal. And truth be told, of all the new spin-crazy racquets to hit the market recently, the Tour 98 ESP—along with the Wilson Pro Staff 95S (more on that in the coming weeks)—has been my favorite.
The wide open 16x16 string pattern, the speedports, the double bridge in the throat, and the soft flex combine to make an incredibly comfortable feel at impact. It’s so dampened, it’s difficult to know when you even miss the sweet spot. No arm trouble here, but it does make it a bit more challenging to hit with touch. Some players will love it, while others will need more feedback.
The racquet is also very maneuverable. The head light balance and low swingweight beg you to take big rips on every ground stroke. With the soft response and heavy spin potential, it was a blast going after the ball. And those fast swings will result in that unmistakable speedport whistling sound. Again, some players won’t mind it, and others would prefer a silent racquet.
Like most spin racquets, the Tour 98 ESP performs best when strung with polyester. All that room to move affords great string snapback, but it also takes a toll. When I first demoed the frame, it already had some play and its strings were soft and ready to snap. It played like a trampoline and flatter shots were being launched well beyond the baseline. But once I restrung with Luxilon 4GS, it played great. It was the first time I ever found a 15 gauge co-poly comfortable. String choice with a frame like this will be important.
If there was one drawback for me with this racquet, it was that it didn’t have quite enough heft. It feels and plays lighter than its 11.5 oz static weight would indicate. I’d prefer a little more clout in the head to get better stick on my first serve—kick serves, on the other hand are a dream—and defend my opponent’s hard-hit shots.
But enough about me. As I mentioned earlier, our testers have been extremely excited about this frame and I’ve got feedback from three of them, each from a different playing background. First up is Derek Drew—four years the top player on his Wichita, KS high school team, where he is now a senior. Here are his impressions of the Tour 98 ESP:
Of the group of racquets I got to test, this was my favorite. It seems to be a racquet intended for all-courters because it’s very versatile. On groundstrokes I found excellent plow through, control, and spin. Slices absolutely felt like butter; it definitely reminded me of the old Prince Rebel 95, only lighter and more crafted for spin. Topspin forehands were amazing with this racquet. Because of the EXO3 holes I was able to generate a lot of speed—thus more spin—but I could easily flatten out a ball when I needed to.
Volleys felt nice and crisp, and the weight of the racquet was just about right for me, so it wasn’t too flimsy or too heavy around the net. I was able to get some decent touch with this racquet, but it’s more easy to hit solid volleys instead of touch shots or drop volleys with the racquet. Serves were also great. On kick serves I got a consistent five feet of kick, and on slice serves the spin curved sharply into my hitting partner. 3.0+ players could really benefit from this racquet.
Next is Sean McQuillan of the Saddlebrook Academy in Wesley Chapel, Fla. He was able to get the Tour 98 ESP in the hands of juniors and recreational adults of various ability levels.
The Tour 98 ESP received positive reviews from the majority of our Top 500 in the world ITF juniors through our mid-range performance groups. Often players see the EXO3 technology—the large holes in the frame—and completely dismiss the racquet because of the lack of grommets. Which would be a mistake, because players who hit heavy and deep from the baseline should definitely give this racquet a spin. It’s so easy to hit a ball that bounds off the court like a jumping bean.
The combination of a 16x16 string pattern and modern poly strings can generate enormous amounts of RPMs on the ball that will have opponents looking for the sweet spot in their racquets. Prince brought back the double bridge technology in this racquet, which most players liked. For the uninitiated, that’s the built-in shock absorber that you used to see in the Response back in the day. Ninety percent of the players that tested this racquet really liked the stability and the feel of this frame due to the double bridge.
If you are a player that relies on drop shots and touch, this system does dampen the feel to a point that you feel like you’re hitting a tennis ball with a memory foam pillow. The only other negative reviews I had about this frame dealt with the weight: At 10.9 ounces (unstrung), this frame is a little light for heavy hitters. But that’s nothing that lead tape can’t fix to make it your own. Overall, if you are a baseliner that likes to grind out points using heavy topspin, you should definitely demo this frame.
Last, but certainly not least, is Mark Avedikian, the former Georgia Tech Yellow Jacket (maybe that’s why he likes the frame so much) and tour player, who now teaches tennis and customizes racquets in Gainesville, Fla.
All of the new Prince ESP frames I demoed—including the Premier 105 and 115—had great pick-up weight and balance, with technology you can actually see and understand. The double bridge and open string patterns are cool looking and really work well. The Prince Tour 98 ESP turned out to be a dream to play with; so much so that my wife is switching to this frame and I am seriously thinking about switching to it as well.
The ESP 16x16 pattern and flexible frame gives you spin and feel that makes you confident enough to swing all-out and try shots that you only attempt when playing every day. No arm pain with this one and full poly feels great. The only knock on this frame would be the swingweight, which is a bit light. I prefer this, though, as it makes for a perfect platform to customize the frame by lead tape or by lengthening the frame. (Yes, this can be done!)
I actually added a ¼ of an inch to the frame, which gave it some added swing weight and more plow through from all areas of the court. If I were Prince I would add an extended version of this frame and the 100T ESP to their lineup for next year.