Gear Q&A: Trading Down

by: Jon Levey | April 27, 2020

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Jon Levey answers your equipment questions in Gear Q&A. Click here to email your question, or send him a tweet @levey_jon.

After many years of using the same racquet, I finally bit the bullet and bought a new one. Almost all the specs—head size, length, weight, balance, strings and tension—are nearly identical to my previous racquet. The only major difference was I decided to drop down a grip size because I heard that helps create more spin. I love the way I’ve been playing with the racquet, but for the first time in my life I’ve developed some tennis elbow. Do you think the smaller grip has anything to do with it?Tom G.


Sorry to hear your elbow has gotten cranky. It’s a debilitating injury, but especially so after the excitement of upgrading to a new frame. There’s no certainty that your recent equipment change is the culprit; after all, chronic outer elbow pain is a hazard of playing the sport. So much so, it earns the shorthand for the medical condition (lateral epicondylitis). 

For one thing, while the specs are in-line with your previous frame, simply playing with a new racquet can present a different experience for your arm. If you’re an avid player, the older racquet has been restrung scores of times, probably smacked the court as often and will have suffered other forms of fatigue. Over the many years and matches your arm has grown with and gotten accustomed to its response. The subtle differences of the new frame—materials, damping technology, greater liveliness—could present a shock to the system.

That said, the smaller grip size is the most glaring variable in your situation and worth strong consideration. I confess that the only time I ever encountered chronic elbow pain—actually on the medial side—did come while experimenting with a smaller grip. I went from 4 5/8 down to 4 3/8, as well as opted for a synthetic grip instead of my usual leather, which may have also contributed to the problem. Again, simply doing something different from what the arm has become so familiar can be an irritant. 

Like you, I was searching for some added rotation on the ball. The trend of sizing down infiltrated the recreational level after it was discovered that pro players—Rafael Nadal being the most noteworthy—preferred smaller than appropriate grips to promote greater wrist action and topspin. Unfortunately, this may have been misleading. 

I interviewed Tom Parry, Racquet Services Director at the IMG Academy and longtime tour stringer and technician, for a recent article on customization for Tennis Magazine. He has strung Rafa’s racquet countless times over the years—even measured it with calipers and other equipment—and says it’s not 4 ¼ as often reported, but actually more than 4 3/8. He also points out that just as most top pros use custom-made frames, their grips have unique molds that have little bearing to the stock sizing that adorns their racquets. In other words, just because Rafa’s frame reads L2 on the handle doesn’t make it so.

While a smaller grip can potentially increase wrist action, there’s also a chance the user will be compelled to squeeze with extra pressure to keep the racquet stable during contact. All that additional force and tightness in the arm—not to mention potential vibration from the instability when the grip isn’t secure—takes a toll on the joints. The resulting arm troubles usually get blamed on the stiffness of the frame or the strings, when the real culprit is poor grip selection.

The easiest and most enduring method for properly sizing a grip is to measure from the bottom lateral crease in the palm—in palmistry it’s the head line—to the tip of the ring finger. The resulting length in inches should correspond with the appropriate grip size. When you close your hand around the grip, there should be room enough between the ends of your fingers and the meaty thumb pad to slide the index finger of your opposite hand. 

Of course, that’s just a guideline—there are players who thrive with grips that buck this practice. However, if your elbow is aching, it might be wise to error on the side of convention. You may want to consider doubling-up on overgrips, use a heat sleeve on the bare handle to increase the grip size, or finding a savvy racquet technician to swap out the palette—if possible—for a bigger one. Along with additional rest, rehab, soft strings, and possibly meds, your elbow will hopefully find its way back to fighting shape.


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