String Theory: Talking with Top Stringer Nate Ferguson

Monday, January 24, 2011 /by

He has held Hall of Famers’ heads in his hands. He’s given Grand Slam champions that often-elusive quality called “feel.” He has worked more major matches than the entire ATP Top 10 combined and continues to pull strings for the world’s top players.

You may have never heard of Nate Ferguson, but if you’ve watched pro tennis during the past quarter-century, you’ve witnessed his work.

Ferguson, founder of the Tampa-based Priority One Tennis and racquet customizer to the stars, has tailored the frames that have produced some of the most sensational shots in Open Era history.

Roger Federer hit his two U.S. Open tweeners with a Wilson frame strung by Ferguson. John Isner edged Nicolas Mahut in the longest tennis match in history wielding a Prince frame Ferguson customized. Ferguson strung racquets for Hall of Famer Pete Sampras—at exactly 75 pounds, using 1.22 gauge gut. Sampras was as attuned to his Wilson Pro Staff as a classically-trained violinist is in tune with a Stradivarius.

“Certainly, Pete has had great success with that 85 square-inch head, 27-inch long Pro Staff racquet, weighing just over 390 grams,” Ferguson says. “Pete never changed length, weight, balance or swing weight in all those years. Pete is aware of the slightest change or difference in a racquet.”

A native of Glastonbury, Conn., Ferguson was already working with future Hall of Famers when a then-unheralded and skinny teenager from L.A. scored successive upsets over Ivan Lendl, John McEnroe and Andre Agassi in 1990 to capture his first U.S. Open title. With the victories, Sampras became the youngest Flushing Meadows men’s champion at 19 years, 28 days.

Sampras was still a few years away from reaching No. 1, but Ferguson was already at the top of his field, refining racquets for Lendl and Martina Navratilova. The former high school and college tennis player had little indication that his initial phone conversation with the soft-spoken star would prove to be a life-altering event for both of them.

“The company I was with in Connecticut was almost strictly custom-building racquets, so we had a great list of clients, including Lendl and Navratilova, and along comes this 19-year-old kid named Pete Sampras,” Ferguson says. “He called and had a lot of questions about racquets and I explained to him what the process was of duplicating a favorite racquet. He had a real genuine interest in racquets and how they’re customized. I could tell the handle, head and feel of the racquets were very important to him right off the bat.”

Sampras and Ferguson formed a friendship and partnership. Working exclusively with Sampras, Ferguson launched P1 in 1998. Today, Ferguson and his team—Ron Yu, Glynn Roberts and Mike Ludwig—travel to the top tournaments in the world with their own stringing machine and equipment, customizing frames for notable names including Federer, Novak Djokovic, Andy Murray, Jo-Wilfried Tsonga, Robin Soderling and John Isner.

The P1 team re-strings, re-grips and balances each racquet to suit each client’s specifications. The man who makes the strings sing for several of tennis’ top players is busy working behind-the-scenes at the Australian Open, which is where we found him for this interview.

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TENNIS.com: Nate, given the variables of Melbourne—players can face extreme heat, or the roof can be closed shut—what are the biggest challenges of stringing and customizing at the Australian Open? Is this major different from the others in your line of work?

Nate Ferguson: Being honest, there is no difference in customizing for this event and the rest of the year. Although we pay very close attention to the weather forecast, there are no racquet-building differences incorporated into our work leading up to the Australian Open. That being said, the fact that there can be a huge difference in ambient temperature from day to day, and even within a given day, means we are always looking ahead and are anticipating what the weather will be like. It could be 65 degrees if the wind is from the south, and it could be 100 degrees if it is from the north. These temperature differences cause us to adjust string tensions, but not the racquets themselves.

TENNIS.com: At the 2002 U.S. Open, when you were working with Pete Sampras, you told me during the first week that you thought Pete would win. You were right. Who are your clients now?

Nate Ferguson: Roger Federer, Andy Murray, Novak Djokovic, Robin Soderling, Fernando Gonzalez, Lleyton Hewitt, Jo-Wilfried Tsonga, Mardy Fish, Sam Querrey, John Isner, Gael Monfils, Marcos Baghdatis and Stan Wawrinka.

TENNIS.com: I notice there are no women on that list. Why don’t more women pros customize their frames?

Nate Ferguson: Men care and they notice the difference in their racquets when they are customized. And it’s not that I say women don’t care about customization at all, because there are exceptions, but generally, in my experience, women get the racquet they’re given and play with that. I heard a story about a lady who played all the way through the quarters of Wimbledon with one string job. Women pros are perhaps not as technically orientated as men. There are exceptions, don’t get me wrong, but in my experience it’s extremely limited.

TENNIS.com: I was told that early in her career, Serena was playing with a game-improvement racquet you could buy off the shelves of a Modell’s or a retail store.

Nate Ferguson: I’ve heard the same thing. Serena kicked everyone’s ass playing with essentially retail racquets, and Venus was the same way for a while. They were not using elite player frames so they had to string it very tight, using all gut, or they would break their strings. It makes you wonder if Serena would have won even more, had she been playing with a frame best suited for her game.

TENNIS.com: You have a family. How challenging is traveling all over the world to tournaments, and how often are you on the road?

Nate Ferguson: Home for me is Tampa, Fla., and I’m on the road about 22 weeks a year. It’s still hard but it’s something my kids have grown up with, so they’re used to it. It used to be Ron and I doing it all, and then three years ago we hired Glynn Roberts from England and Mike Ludwig from the University of Florida. So now it’s not just Ron and I stringing for 13 guys. Also, with the four of us there’s a duplication of effort, which helps in that not everyone has to be at the courts all day. We can have a guy working at the hotel, so it’s getting easier, thank God.

TENNIS.com: Who is the pickiest player you’ve ever worked with—someone just super sensitive and picky about their strings and frame. Do you mind revealing that?

Nate Ferguson: I don’t mind revealing it. Pete Sampras was, without a doubt, the pickiest client ever. Pete could tell around the butt cap flare with his leather grip. If it had compressed the thickness of two hair widths, Pete could feel it and tell. It was unbelievable and uncanny.

TENNIS.com: In recent memory has any pro strung his racquet ridiculously low?

Nate Ferguson: Lleyton Hewitt was into the 30s (pounds) at Wimbledon using half poly and half gut. The poly allows players to play so loose, and they are swinging so hard with low tension and getting more of that cupping effect. And equally as important, they can really swing out and keep the ball in the court with poly.

TENNIS.com: People know the story about Goran Ivanisevic smashing so many frames that he actually ran out of racquets during a match. Have any of your players ever experienced racquet emergencies due to destructive tendencies?

Nate Ferguson: Fernando Gonzalez, when he lost to Guillermo Coria in the 2004 Key Biscayne semis, smashed a few racquets during the match and gave the rest of his frames to a few kids after the match. The next day I get a call from Fernando: “Nate, I gotta start practicing to play Davis Cup next week, can you help me out?” These guys are professionals, but they’re human, too, and they get emotional sometimes. But the fact they work with a customizer tells you they do take their equipment and their jobs seriously.

TENNIS.com: A broad question: How has string technology impacted the game?

Nate Ferguson: Polyester has really, really changed the game and the way it’s played. A few weeks ago, Tennis Channel replayed the Pete Sampras vs. Guga match from the 2000 Tennis Masters Cup. After 10 minutes of play, Pete had already broken a string. People don’t break strings during matches anymore.

I was at that match, and watching it again on TV, I noticed, number one, what a tremendous volleyer Pete was, and number two, how many volleys Pete had to hit off his shoe tops in that match. Guga was one of the first to go to Luxilon strings, and if you watch that match, notice how Guga is hitting normal looking forehands that dip tremendously at Pete’s feet. What we’re looking at when we watch that match is the earliest evolution of the game changing right before our eyes, because of the strings. Though at the time, no one realized what was happening.

Technology has impacted the game, particularly for players who have grown up with that string technology. It’s tough if you just try to take a great ball striker like an Andre Agassi and give him the new strings, though he did use them and they did help. But when you’ve got a young kid named Rafael Nadal who grew up with this stuff, then you’ve got a guy who can accentuate the benefit of the string and a guy whose game has truly evolved playing with the string.

TENNIS.com: What are your favorite customization tools?

Nate Ferguson: 1. Lead tape. 2. Double face tape—you can use it for a variety of things, including grips. 3. A variety of grips at different thicknesses, both synthetic and leather. 4. A powerful staple gun. 5. Lighter fuel. I’m not sure so many people know about the benefits of lighter fuel, but I find it’s effective to take any residual residue off when working with lead tape or grips on the handle.

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