Stick-y Situation

Wednesday, July 24, 2013 /by
AP Photo
AP Photo

In certain quarters, it has long been a given that Roger Federer could solve all of his problems—such as they are—if he joined the modern world and switched to a bigger racquet. As Federer himself mentioned this week, it’s been on his mind as well. He’s practiced with various prototypes made by his manufacturer, Wilson, but says he’s never had time to test them in live competition. His second-round loss at Wimbledon this year, his earliest there since 2002, gave him that time. Can the 98-inch head that Federer debuted in Hamburg last week, and will try out again in Gstaad tomorrow, make a difference?

A better question to start with may be: Can he make the switch at all? From an historical perspective, the evidence is mixed. Like any group of professionals, the world’s best tennis players are fussy about the tools of their trade. They’re creatures of extreme habit, who don’t usually think of change as a good thing. 

Rod Laver spent evenings whittling his grips to the perfect shape for his hand. Ivan Lendl began the tradition of switching to a new racquet with each set of new balls because he felt that the properties of his frame and its strings changed over the course of just a few games. Pete Sampras preferred Wilson Pro Staffs that were made at a factory on the island of St. Vincent, where a faulty mold altered the racquets' thickness by a millimeter. This millimeter was so important to Sampras that, when the St. Vincent factory shut down production, he bought all of its remaining Pro Staffs. (Sampras now says that he wishes he had switched to a larger frame at the end of his career. His contract with his current manufacturer, Babolat, may have something to do with that retroactive desire.) My Tennis Magazine colleague Tom Perrotta once had American pro Michael Russell test different racquets with him and give him his reactions. Tom’s conclusion was that Russell could pick up differences in the sticks and strings that weren’t scientifically measurable.

Dozens of pros, after attempting to change racquets mid-career, have ended up using blacked-out or repainted versions of their old sticks. The latest case is Caroline Wozniacki. A longtime Babolat user, she left the company for Yonex in 2011. This summer Yonex voided her contract after they caught her...using a Babolat. One of the most successful switches in history was John McEnroe’s move from a small-headed Dunlop wood to a mid-size Dunlop graphite in 1983. He won Wimbledon that year and had one of the greatest seasons in history in 1984. But that was also a special, never-to-be-repeated transitional period in tennis. With wood being phased out everywhere in the early 80s, there was no choice for McEnroe but to learn to play with something completely new.

Switching isn’t as easy now, thought it’s hardly impossible; after some early grumbles and struggles, Novak Djokovic’s move to Head in 2009 eventually paid dividends. Change probably won’t come easily for Federer, who isn’t known for throwing caution to the wind—he says he’s still not sure if he’ll take the plunge and go bigger at the U.S. Open. It will help that he’s not moving to a new manufacturer; brand loyalty is real at all levels of the game. As far as the size upgrade, Federer is making a bigger jump than I had anticipated, from his traditional 90-incher to a 98. That’s not just a tweak, and I can imagine that it will be an adjustment for him to get the frame through and time his shots on his backhand side in particular. Still, 98 puts him in the range of his rivals Rafael Nadal and Novak Djokovic. The question is, will it help him hang with them at the baseline and on returns of serve?

Theoretically, a bigger racquet will give Federer a little more power, and its larger sweet spot should help him on off-center hits. In Hamburg, commentator Jason Goodall said he thought Federer was getting more pace and bite on his slice backhand, but I didn't notice that. The shanks that have always plagued him were still there, and he had trouble finding the range on his mid-court forehands. But there’s obviously going to be a breaking-in period. Djokovic and Murray, and to an extent Nadal, are able to be more offensive with their backhands, and especially their backhand returns, because they use two hands on that shot. Federer’s one-hander isn’t going anywhere, and his high backhand will always be something of a liability, but he’s doing what he can to narrow the gap. The longer-term question is whether a bigger racquet will help Federer play a more muscular game, and do some of the work for him. That won’t be answered this week, or maybe even this year. For now, I’m guessing that whatever help he can get with his struggling return game will be progress enough.

As it happens, I used Federer’s 90-inch Wilson frame for five years before making a switch two years ago to Djokovic’s bigger Head You-Tek (I used the 100-inch model). The Federer racquet, much like the 85-inch Sampras Pro Staff that I used as a kid, was a thing of beauty when I had time to set up and hit the ball cleanly—when it’s good, it’s really good. The Djokovic racquet, perhaps not surprisingly, helped me more when I was pushed put of position and on defense; I didn’t have to strike the ball as perfectly to get decent depth on it. The racquet made up for a little of the power I had lost with age.

During that time I also experimented with a 30-year-old wood racquet. It too was fabulous when I nailed the tiny sweet spot, but it was murder when I was out of position and scrambling. I could see why serve-and-volley had been the game of choice, because it was so difficult to win once you were on defense. Perhaps more than anything else, bigger sticks have made it possible to do what Djokovic, Murray, and Nadal do so well: Play offense from a defensive position.

Is it too late for Federer, an attacker at heart, to learn a few new-school tricks? I’ve always been skeptical of the idea that a racquet switch was the answer for him. He has his shots, and his game, and he’s not going to turn back time. But I’m glad he’s doing whatever he can while he still has a chance. I hope he can get comfortable with more head space, but I’ll bet his old 90 will always feel right to him. That’s the way it usually is with tennis players—we go with what we know. A year after picking up the  100-inch Djokovic Head, I tested an 89-inch Yonex. I guessed it was probably too small, and I had never used a Yonex before in my life. None of that mattered, though. From the first ball, I knew it was the right frame for me. It felt right. It felt like old times.

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