The 1997 French Open final pitted a two-time Roland Garros champion, Sergi Bruguera, against an unknown 20-year-old from Brazil named Gustavo Kuerten. Kuerten was ranked No. 66, and he hailed from a country that hadn’t produced a major champion in 30 years. But over the course of two weeks, the rail-thin kid with the roundhouse backhand had charmed the finicky French fans. By the time he had won three consecutive five-set matches, “Guga” had become a household name in Paris.
It didn’t take long on the final Sunday to see that Bruguera would be powerless to stop the samba. Early in the match, Kuerten sent a topspin backhand deep into the court that kicked forward with more momentum than Bruguera had anticipated. Handcuffed, Bruguera could only bunt a forehand back. It was the start of a mercifully short afternoon for the Spaniard.
As far as revolutionary sports moments go, Kuerten’s furiously spinning backhand was one of the least dramatic. But few one-handers had ever been hit with so much snap and sizzle, and 20 years later, it’s clear that Guga’s victory represented a sea change in tennis, one that would transform the sport in the 21st century.
While Kuerten went on to win three French Opens, his Parisian story wasn’t all about love. It was also about something much duller: polyester. Not clothes, but strings. As he slid and smiled his way through Roland Garros, Kuerten had a new weapon inside his Head frame: a purple string called Luxilon Original. This ultra-stiff thread made from a polyester-like material gave him the freedom to swing as hard as he wanted, while also creating the topspin needed to keep the ball in. Nineteen years after the debut of the oversize racquet, tennis equipment had taken its next evolutionary step.
“People talk about the game changing, about players growing more powerful, and racquets getting bigger,” Andre Agassi has said, “but the most dramatic change in recent years is the strings.”
In the 1970s, racquets shifted from a naturally-occurring substance—wood—to man-made steel and graphite. In the 1990s, strings made the same technological advance, from natural gut to polyester.
As with racquets, the leap into Luxilon has come with its share of controversy. With the 20th anniversary of Guga’s enchanted run in Paris approaching, it’s time to ask: Has poly been worth it?
Luxilon began making thread for women’s clothes in 1959. In the mid-80s, the firm expanded from bra straps to tennis string. The material wasn’t technically polyester, but it had similar properties: stiffness, deadness and “snap-back.”
Those qualities may not sound promising to most players, but they were just what a new generation of dirt-ballers wanted. By the 1997 French Open, a significant percentage of players were using Luxilon, including Kuerten’s semifinal opponent, Filip DeWulf. It didn’t take long for the “Luxilon shot” to be born. This was a heavily-spinning ball that arced upward and appeared to be heading for the back fence, until it took a sudden nosedive. A novelty at the time, the shot is standard today.
“We would see balls that looked like they would go eight feet out land on the baseline,” Todd Martin recalled to Sports Illustrated. “You started to understand that the game is really changing.”
Luxilon didn’t remain a string for clay-court specialists for long. According to pro stringer Nate Ferguson, the moment he knew Luxilon would change the game for good came in 2000, when Kuerten used his dipping passing shots to stun Pete Sampras on an indoor hard court at the season-ending Tennis Masters Cup. Many of us watching wondered how anyone would ever serve and volley again.
Today every string manufacturer produces polyester, and every top player uses it—the only question is how much. Most mix it with natural gut to create a hybrid that gives them a blend of spin and feel. Roger Federer helped pioneer the concept, and Novak Djokovic, Andy Murray, Serena Williams and Angelique Kerber, to name just a few, have followed. For others, half measures aren’t enough. Rafael Nadal, Juan Martin del Potro, Stan Wawrinka, Milos Raonic and Nick Kyrgios lead the all-poly brigade on the men’s side.
“I’ve been using them for years,” the 21-year-old Kyrgios says of his Yonex Poly Tour Pro strings. “They suit my game, so I’m nice and aggressive. I can create a lot of spin and at the same time my string allows me to have a lot of control.”
Kyrgios doesn’t mention power; spin is his concern. With his equipment and technique, a flick of the wrist is all he needs to hit a winner.
The most obvious change that poly has wrought is the one many of us anticipated: The serve-and-volleyer has been driven to extinction. Where bigger racquets juiced up players’ serves, polyester strings made their returns and passing shots too vicious for even the deftest volleyers to handle. Offensive shots could now be hit from defensive positions.
“With polyester, you can back up and take a bigger swing, and you can use a lighter racquet to increase racquet-head speed,” says commentator and coach Darren Cahill. “It made the net game more difficult as the ball was diving faster around the net-rusher’s shoelaces.”
Polyester has done more than change the way pro tennis is played—it has also helped alter its geography. Since 2000, the clay game has been in the ascendancy, and the heavy-topspin style traditionally used on dirt has spread to hard and grass courts.
The decline of serve-and-volley, the emphasis on fitness and defense, the graying of the game, Europe’s rise: poly has had a hand in every significant tennis trend in the 21st century. So how, with 20 years of hindsight, should we feel about this subversive string’s impact?
Cahill speaks for the traditionalists when he says that, “Overall, poly has had a net negative effect.” He mourns the contrasts in styles that came with the serve and volley.
But Brad Gilbert, Cahill’s ESPN televsion colleague, sees the evolution as inevitable.
“The strings take nothing from the game,” Gilbert told ESPN.com. “People say, ‘Go back to wood.’ Well, that’s just antiquated. Football was beautiful in the ’70s, but we’re playing a different game now. Same with tennis. I like what we’re doing.”
As with any technological advance, the story of polyester string is a story of destruction and creation. There may be never be another hard-slice one-handed backhand as elegantly economical as Ken Rosewall’s. But without poly, there could never be a one-hander as jaw-droppingly powerful as Wawrinka’s. While few players today charge the net with the dynamic abandon of Rod Laver or Martina Navratilova, no one in the ’60s or ’70s could match the spins, arcs and angles of Federer or Nadal, or the thunderous power of Williams.
Beauty has been lost and gained, but thanks to a purple string, there’s little question that this era—the poly era; the era of Rafa, Roger, Serena and Novak—will be remembered as a golden one for tennis.
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