Last week, we profiled stringers Todd Mobley and Joe Heydt as part of our "Four Strings" feature. This week, we profile Ron Rocchi, who we caught up with this past March at the Sony Ericsson Open, in Miami. In addition to leading the Luxilon Stringing Team, Rocchi is inventor and principal designer of the Wilson Baiardo stringing machine. He was also the 2009 RSI Magazine Stringer of the Year.
Ron Rocchi, Wilson Sporting Goods Co.
Global Tour Equipment Manager
Innovations & Design Group
Justin diFeliciantonio: Do you see a correlation between types of string used, or string set-ups, and player types/styles of play?
Ron Rocchi: I see a correlation in the sense that string technology has really caught up to racquet technology. Five to seven years ago, you had a lot of racquet technology leading—better materials, more feel, stiffer materials, different geometries. A lot of things that were imparting more power to the ball and allowing the racquets to move faster through the air. And the string technology, in my opinion, was lagging behind. You still had all of the strings from the older generations of racquets. But as we sit here today, whether it’s a Luxilon string or a Wilson string or a Babolat string or whichever, strings have caught up with racquet technologies; they are better suited to these modern racquets. And that to me is what I’ve seen over the past five to seven years as the innovation part of tour racquets, that the strings finally last long enough, impart the spin pros want, have the feel they want.
JD: What about tension? How has that progressed over the years?
RR: Tension has generally come down. In the old days you had natural gut, which you string very tightly and still get performance out of it. But today's polyester and monofilament strings seem to play better at lower tensions.
JD: But even a few years back when people first starting using Luxilon, were they stringing it tighter then?
RR: Yeah, I think everyone starts tight. They think, “Well, I’ve always played at 60 lbs, so I’ll put this in at 60 lbs.” Then they realize that it doesn’t play particularly well. And when you drop the tension down, the string actually performs better. There are pros who are stringing at 45 lbs, which is unheard of. But their set-up, the type of string they’re using, it performs right for them at that lower tension. Because the string, in a sense, is actually a little stiffer and a little more durable. So you can drop the tension and still be ok. If you drop natural gut that low, you’d be back fence all day [laughter].
JD: What would you say the average is now on the men’s tour for tension?
RR: I’d say the average 10 years ago was about 60 lbs. And nowadays, it’s probably in the 50 to 52, 55 lbs. range. It’s come down 10 percent, which hasn’t happened in a really long time.
JD: And I assume there are some outliers? Players who string especially loose or tight?
RR: Oh, absolutely. There are players who are still tight or loose. But if you look at a correlation of the whole, tensions have come down.
JD: Are players secretive about their equipment?
RR: Yeah, I think some players are a little bit superstitious about sharing all their details. They’ve come up with what they’ve considered to be a secret formula for their racquet that makes them play the way they do. And they’re a little reluctant to share everything about that to people. They feel very personal about it.
JD: What about the strings?
RR: No, the types of strings and the tension is fairly common information. It’s not like we post logs everywhere, but you can get the information; it’s not that hard.
JD: Comparing players who use hybrid patterns, who I understand are in the minority, versus players who play full poly or co-poly strings: What difference does it make?
RR: The hybrid sort of gives you the best of both worlds. In theory, the main strings of your racquet do the work and are the power component. Whereas the cross strings in some regards are the spin component. And when you put two different strings in your racquet, you’re now blending characteristics. So there are a group of players who put a soft string in their mains that gives them a lot of power, then they put a monofilament in the crosses that sort of backs the power down and gives them spin. There are some players who need durability, and they’ll end up putting the monofilament string in the mains, so that the racquet will not break, but they get performance and feel out of the softer crosses. So you’re talking about a matrix grid now that’s immense. And usually players have to try a whole bunch of configurations to figure out where they want to be.
JD: What are the playing styles of those on the pro tour who are using full sets of poly versus half sets?
RR: I’m not sure you can make that comparison. It’s all across the board. It comes to what a certain player wants the racquet to do for them, and it’s very individualistic. Prior to Roger Federer, the vast majority of hybrids were the durability component in the mains and something else in the crosses. And when Roger came out with the natural gut in the mains and the Luxilon in the crosses and started winning, so many players tried that. Like everyone was coming in and saying they wanted to try it. They felt like it might have been the magic elixir. And they all went back to what they played before. Just because it works for Roger doesn’t mean it works for everybody else.
JD: What about the Luxilon Team: What qualifies one to become a part of the Team?
RR: The current Wilson/Luxilon Team is made up of really accomplished stringers from all over the world. To even be thinking that you want to be part of this team, you have to have lots of experience at tournaments, you have to be willing to work long hours under pressure for very little reward. It’s a pressure cooker when it comes to stress and time, and not everyone can do that. We’ve had very accomplished stringers just crumble, because it’s too much pressure at a tournament. But I think over the years, we’ve been able to assemble a team of the right people. And I believe that right now we’re the best team in the world.
JD: So people actually crumble.
RR: Yes. I mean, if they’re at home in their shop, they can string 20 racquets a day with no mistakes and everything’s fine. But you put them in this environment, and we’ve actually had stringers who have packed up and left, because they know they can’t handle it.
JD: So what is it about the pro stringing environment?
RR: The turnaround time, the amount of racquets you have to do in a day. It’s not uncommon for a stringer on our team to have to do 30 racquets a day, without a single mistake, with a proper stencil, in the right bag, with the right strings, you know, on time, if the player said 2 pm and they show up at 1:50 pm. And there’s on-court racquets. There’s a lot coming at you as a stringer, and you have to be able to manage that. You have to rise to a level that you didn’t think you could string at.
JD: What’s the average time for stringing a racquet?
RR: At a tournament, we like to keep a pace of about somewhere around five racquets in two hours. And that includes cutting the strings out, putting the strings back in, stenciling, bagging, inspection. And you have to do those 5 racquets in 2 hours and sometimes you’ll have to do 30 racquets a day or more.
JD: How do the stringers stay organized?
RR: We’ve developed a very transparent, check-and-balance system. When the racquets are being checked in at our desk, we’re gathering the right information about how the player wants it strung, which string goes where, the right tension. We offer nuances such as pre-stretching, if they want two knots or four knots, if they want power pads, if there’s tubing. There’s a lot of variables. Once we get all this information, it’s relayed very precisely to the stringer. Each racquet has a work order, and that work order specifically states exactly what’s to be done. And there’s not a lot of question. But the challenge is to do it correctly—after you’ve been on your feet for 18 hours and this is racquet 34.
JD: Wait, how many hours? 18?
RR: Yes, there are some days we’re here 20 hours a day [smiling].
JD: So people aren’t sleeping very much?
RR: There are some days we’re not getting very much sleep. But we know what we’re capable of, we sort of gut check the tough days, and as players lose and we progress into the tournament and the draws get smaller, it eases up and we start getting smaller as a team as well.
Our team is based on a lot of regionality. The team I’ve assembled has who I feel to be the very best stringer from Argentina. When he’s in our stringing room, the majority of the South American players come in—they know him, they've had him string for them at home, for Davis Cup, you know; they want Luis to string their racquets when they’re at the tournament. We have a stringer from Japan, so all the Asian players know him and really respect his work. So we’ve got some U.S. guys, we’ve got a guy from Croatia, we’ve got a guy from France, so when the French players come in, they know Benoit. Having that familiarity gives the players a lot of confidence in our team. They know the level we’re going to string for them at.
JD: So you’re stringing all year long then?
RR: Yeah, multiple events. We string at the Australian Open in January, Miami in March, and at the U.S. Open. There’s about nine or 10 smaller events we’re at throughout Europe—they’re [ATP] 250 events or 500 events. For those the team consists of only one, two, three people. But the big three tournaments are the ones we gear up for.
JD: How do you select new stringers? If you’re an up-and-coming stringer, what’s the path you have to take?
RR: It’s not a very clear path. But we have in the past had a need to add a few stringers. And we’ve developed a training program—a boot camp, if you will. It's a two-day event, when we’re trying to push that stringer to the breaking point and maybe a little past and see how they react. We train them on ways we do things, certain knots we like to tie, and we sort of throw everything we can at them. And to date, we have about a 25 percent success rate with that, so one out of every four makes it through.
JD: So it’s like a simulation.
RR: Yes, very much so. Usually we do it a tournament. So we stick them in a back corner. They’re not stringing players' racquets, but it’s the same type of process. And they get a sense of what it’s really like. And if they can get through the two days, they have a chance of trying to make it on the team to be, say, a qualifier stringer one day. It’s a process of working your way up the ladder.
JD: So it’s competitive then.
RR: Very competitive. There are a lot of people who want on the team, but there are very few spots.
JD: So does it just come down to sheer accuracy and speed?
RR: It comes down to speed, accuracy, and quality, and how long you can do that for.
JD: So it’s almost statistical.
RR: Yes, in a way it’s very statistical. If you’re a stringer, this is the apex of the stringing world.
JD: The Major Leagues.
RR: This is the World Series of the Major Leagues. There’s nowhere else to go from here. If you can survive here, you’ll be fine anywhere on the planet.
JD: How are stringers rewarded?
RR: Every team is different. Our philosophy has been we want to compensate our stringers fairly and well for the work they do. There’s a lot of different philosophies about how you do that, and I’m not going to go into the details of it. But they do receive money for the days that they string. We take care of them as far as hotels and things like that. But we want to make it equitable. They take a tremendous sense of pride back to their home countries when they can say, “I’ve strung for the Wilson Team at the U.S. Open,” or “I’ve strung for the Luxilon Team in Miami.” And it’s not something that everyone can say. So they’re willing to meet us half way and give us their very best effort, and we want to make sure that we compensate them fairly for the job that they do, because the players—at the end of all this, the players have to be happy. And if we keep the players happy, we’re doing our job.
JD: And the players are happy?
RR: The players are very happy. They like our service. It’s accurate. It’s on time. We don’t have any issues.
JD: Do players ever disagree with you about what they receive?
RR: Occasionally. But a lot of times you can talk to them and have a meaningful and relevant conversation. And occasionally things will go awry, but we will fix them and make them happy.
JD: I see that everyone here is using Wilson stringers.
RR: Yes, the machine that I’ve invented is called Baiardo. It’s the only machine in the world that adjusts to the stringer. So if you’re stringing at a tournament for 18 or 20 hours, it’s not a good idea to be hunched over with your back. So this machine actually rises and tilts and adjusts to the human body of a stringer. And that’s one of the reasons, I believe, that we can string more accurately for a longer period of time. If you string on other machines, you have to lean over and you’re not as efficient—especially after 18 hours on Day 4.
JD: Have there been efforts to figure out the best way to position the body when stringing?
RR: There's been quite a lot. The stringing machine hadn't really changed in almost 100 years; the Baiardo was really the first one of its kind—again, it puts you in the right position ergonomically and biomechanically.
JD: What I mean is, do stringers need to be standing up to perform well?
RR: I believe so. You need to be standing up, and you need to have the racquet close to you and raised. One other thing is that when we're doing the weaving process, which is the most difficult part of stringing the racquet, we actually tilt the racquet anywhere from 5 to 15 degrees, depending on what the stringer's preference is. And that allows a couple of things. No. 1, you can see the holes better; they become illuminated as the light comes through. And No. 2, you get to see the string closer to your eyes, as far as the path it has to take. So you make fewer mistakes. If you have to hunch over the machine, then your body actually blocks a lot of the light in the most detailed part of what you’re trying to do.
JD: Where do you see string technology moving in the future?
RR: I think materials are going to play a huge part in what the next generation of strings are. If you look at the limited number of materials that are used in strings—and what materials are available on the open market—I think that going forward you’re not going to see anything radical other than some materials being used that haven’t been used before.
JD: So some sort of transfer from another industry.
RR: Yeah. A de-regulation of the military, or a way to process a material you can’t use today because, say, you can’t get it to bond with nylon. I really think racquets aren’t going to inherently change that quickly; they’re not going to become orbs, they’re not going to fold in half. The racquets are pretty much going to share today's basic configuration, of course with added technologies. But I think there’s more room for strings to change and to become something other than what they are today.