Learning to Love Again

Reprinted from tennis.com

By Dave Bone

          Every tennis player has a story of heartbreak. No, not from being dumped by your mixed-doubles partner. We’re talking about the painful blow of having your racquet taken off the market only a year after you bought it. You’ve been dumped before the relationship has gotten off the ground.           Welcome to the harsh world of tennis racquets.          

          It wasn’t always this way. In the wood era, racquets like the Jack Kramer Pro Staff and Dunlop Maxply were produced for decades, and even after the advent of graphite you could expect a frame to be around for quite a while. But these days the typical stick remains on store shelves for as little as 12 to 24 months before it’s sent to the big racquet heap in the sky.          

          Companies discontinue sticks for a variety of reasons, most obviously because they aren’t big sellers. But even popular models are phased out because, like any consumer industry, it’s the nature of the business—out with the old, in with the new. Sometimes the “new” is marketing hype, sometimes it leads to worthwhile advancements in materials and construction. Either way, the constant turnover can be maddening for players.          

          “If our R&D [research and development] group has a technology breakthrough that will help a racquet play better, we’ll usually try to update it,” says Kevin Kempin, vice president of sales and marketing at Head. “But it’s always a tough call if the current frame is selling well.” You may not know it, but chances are you’re using a racquet that’s no longer available. Unless you stockpiled your model, you’ll have to make the switch eventually (or spend the rest of your life searching the Internet).          

          This may be a good thing, especially if you’ve been clinging to your stick for a few years, in which case it could be breaking down. Each time you strike a ball, the frame distorts backward and absorbs the impact, then bends forward as it returns energy to the ball. Over time, this process damages the bond between the thousands of graphite fibers (the primary building blocks of racquets) and the resins that hold them together. Eventually, the frame loses stiffness, which leads to a loss of control and power.          

          Knowing that your racquet has seen better days doesn’t make it any easier to part with it—the familiar look and feel can make it seem like an extension of your arm—but upgrading means you’ll probably be playing with a better product. “Sure, there’s marketing hype out there, but for the the most part racquets get better,” says TENNIS Magazine equipment adviser Bruce Levine. “Companies have found ways to make frames easier to use for all levels of play.”          

          Ah, but finding a new racquet that plays like your old one—that’s the tricky part. The good news is that if past racquets are successful, there’s probably a follow-up version available with similar specs. And most companies have a swing-speed, power, or style index to help you match old frames with new ones.          

          If you want to take matters into your own hands, you’ll need to compare your racquet’s key specs—head size, length, weight, string pattern, and balance—with current models. Another important factor is the frame’s construction, which significantly affects the way the racquet feels. A flexible frame deforms more on impact, enhancing feel; stiffer beams offer more power. Unfortunately, companies don’t categorize racquets by stiffness, so you’ll have to consult resources such as TENNIS’ racquet reviews, in which we rate the stiffness (you can find past evaluations at TENNIS.com). You should also consult a teaching pro or professional stringer to help determine a racquet’s flexibility.          

          And while you’ll want to find a racquet that approximates the specs of your current model, you should use this opportunity to improve your game. Need more control? Find a frame with a slightly smaller head. Looking for more spin? Try a racquet with a more open string pattern (with fewer strings), which will bite into the ball.          

          After you’ve settled on the specs, check out the latest offerings from your favorite brands. Or if you’re fortunate enough to play with a recently retired frame, refer to our chart, which we’ve compiled with the assistance of the leading racquet companies.          

Out With the Old, In With the New

This chart compares some out-of-production sticks to their current equivalents. While all of the specs are important, pay particular attention to two numbers: swing weight and stiffness. Swing weight is a measure of maneuverability as determined by the Babolat Racquet Diagnostic Center; the lower the number, the greater the maneuverability. Under the stiffness category we’ve listed the “RA” number, also achieved through the RDC machine, which is the industry standard for determining a frame’s flexibility. The higher the number, the stiffer the frame; those below 60 are very flexible, and those above 70 are extremely stiff.