Before every new season, I head to the pro shop to have my racket restrung. Its part of my ritual: clean out my bag, restock anything that’s finished, and head to the shop for new tennis strings. It’s the same every season and not something I even think twice about – at least not until recently. About a month ago at my team’s training session, our coach brought up the topic of strings. It was pretty clear from that conversation that many of us didn’t have a clue what strings were on our rackets, or even what tension they were at.
Personally, I did know that my racket had a hybrid set-up, but honestly, I didn’t know what that even meant. The very first time I went to have my racket restrung, the man at the pro shop asked me what I wanted done, and I’m fairly certain I looked at him like a deer caught in the headlights.
What do you mean, what do I want done??? I thought it was pretty obvious, I want new strings. I didn’t say that out loud, of course.
Little did I know at the time, there are probably hundreds of options and combinations to choose from. He needed some information from me before he could proceed. As I’m sure many of you would have done too, I tried my very best to not look like a complete idiot, and asked what he recommended? He then spewed some information about string construction that I totally didn’t understand, and proceeded to ask me if I wanted more power or control. And in my best, I know what the fuck I’m talking about voice I joked, “I’d like both. Ha ha!” The joke was on me because apparently, that was an actual answer, and I walked home with a hybrid set-up on my racket. It’s been that way ever since because, God knows, I was not going through that conversation again. I would just hand them my racket and they would tell me when it was ready for collection. No more discussion.
I didn’t know what brand of string or material I had, and I definitely didn’t know what my tension was at. After making it through that first trip to the pro shop, I didn’t give it another thought. Nobody ever discussed tennis strings, and even if they did (which they didn’t) I’m not sure I would have paid much attention to them. I was trying to figure out topspin, not what strings I should be using. My racket already had strings. I did not have topspin.
I’m embarrassed to say I still don’t, but it’s about time I got my head out of my ass and learn about strings. Truth be told, I’ve been spurred on by the fact that I’m currently dealing with a wrist injury. Since I told my doctor there was no way in hell I was giving up tennis, he suggested that, among other things, I take a look at changing my tennis strings and tension.
My first step was to sit down and start researching, and there’s a decent amount of information on the web about tennis strings. However, a lot of what I read at first was about the physics of ball deformation and transfer of energy, and a whole host of other technical/science-y stuff that I really couldn’t have cared less about. I just wanted to know how to choose the right strings for my racket. To help, I sat down with the American Club’s Tennis Director, Tomas Biernacki, to have him break down the basics of choosing strings.
Don’t worry, I will not be talking about the physics of tennis or getting too technical. There are some fabulous articles, which I will link to below, that do a much better job of explaining everything than I ever could. I’m definitely not an expert in this field. I’m just sharing what I felt were the important takeaways from my conversation with Tomas and what I’ve found online. So let’s get on with it.
There are a few things you really should have a basic understanding of before going to get your racket restrung the next time. These include things such as such as string materials/construction, tension, and gauge. It will absolutely help you determine what you need done.
1. Natural Gut – a natural material made from cow gut.
- Is the most playable and comfortable on the arm.
- It offers the most power.
- It’s the most expensive string option on the market.
- For players with any kind of arm injury, this is a great choice as it cushions the arm by absorbing the vibration of the impact from hitting the ball.
- It doesn’t offer as much precision or feel as you get with the stiffer nylon or polyester strings.
- If exposed to rain or excessive humidity it will begin to break down. It’s not as durable as the synthetic strings. You’ll have to take care with these and likely change them more often.
2. Nylon – synthetic
- It’s the softer, more playable of the synthetic string. Most “synthetic gut” is made of nylon.
- You will find it in both single strand and multifilament construction.
- It offers better durability than natural gut and tries to mimic the feel and playability of it at a much cheaper price.
- It’s probably the most inexpensive string choice on the market.
3. Polyester – synthetic
- It’s even more durable than nylon.
- Offers more control and precision than natural and synthetic gut.
- Comes in several construction options that will effect the durability and feel of the string while playing. There are even some that have a texture applied to the string to help better “bite” the ball and help develop more spin.
4. Kevlar – synthetic
- The most durable and most firm string on the market.
- It’s absolutely not recommended for the average player.
- Users need to watch out for arm injuries.
String Construction – (I’m keeping this VERY basic here)
- Monofilament – solid single strand
- Multifilament – multiple finer filaments twisted together to form the string
- Solid core with a wrap – single strand in the center with a variety of options surrounding it.
- Multifilament core with a wrap – multifilament core with a variety of options surrounding it.
- Solid strands tend to be more firm, while multifilament are more flexible/easier on the arm.
- Solid strands are more durable than multifilament, but the core constructions with multifilament wraps try to offer you a good compromise between the two.
You can choose to do a full bed of any one type of string, or go with a hybrid set-up and use two different ones to give you the benefits of both types of strings. Tomas actually doesn’t recommend that most league players use a full bed of polyester strings. His recommendation for long-term player health is a hybrid of polyester and nylon (sythetic gut) multifilament. That will give you durability and feel but also the playability that will help protect your arm over the seasons. If you are already managing an injury, you can use multifilament and natural gut for even more cushioning of your arm.
Gauge: (thickness of the string)
- Strings come in gauges from 15-19 with half steps in between (ex: 16L, the L stands for ‘light’) but be aware gauge isn’t standardized, so it can vary from brand to brand.
- The larger the number, the thinner the string
- The thinner the string the more playable, and the better it can grip the ball
- The thicker the string the more durable, but the less grip on the ball it can get.
Finally, we come to tension, the last piece of the puzzle.
- The higher the tension the more control and precision.
- The lower the tension the more power.
- The lower the tension, the less impact on your arm.
- Every racket has a manufacturer recommended tension range printed on it, and it’s suggested that you start with your tension within that range. However, if you have arm injuries it’s recommended to lower your tension.
See what I mean about all the different combinations that can be put together? It can be totally overwhelming trying to make sense of it all, especially since nobody talks about tennis strings on court or in clinics to help you learn. And I have to tell you, I feel totally justified in bullshitting my way through my first trip to the pro shop.
This week was different though. I went back to my local shop and actually asked them what he’d strung my racket with last time. They keep a file with my specifics, and I had been playing with a hybrid of polyester and multifilament at a tension of 55 lbs, which is within the recommended range for my racket. However, I have this injury that I need to manage now, so that set-up doesn’t work for me anymore. But this time, I knew what I needed done. I’m pleased to say that I’ve just come back with my new set-up and I’ve gone with a natural gut and multifilament hybrid and dropped my tension to 48 lbs. This should better protect my wrist and let me keep playing this game that we all love so much.
Is there more I could learn about tennis strings? Of course there is, but at least now I feel confident enough to have a well-informed discussion with my racket guy and select something appropriate for my needs instead of standing in the shop wide-eyed and clueless.
If you want to learn more about tennis strings, here are a few terrific articles to check out:
A Comprehensive Guide for the Different Types of Tennis String
All About Strings & Stringing
How to Choose Tennis Strings