|Tennis For Seniors|
A 42 year old friend of mine approached me several weeks ago at the tennis club. He proudly showed me his new racquet and stated that this was the model used by Rafael Nadal, and that it had a great feel. Several days later, I asked him how he was doing with his new racquet, to which he replied that he had given up on it. (He had actually smashed it edgewise against a net post.) It felt great, he said, when he had tried it out on the hitting lane at the store, but he had run up against a player that continually hit "junk" shots, and he could not control the ball well enough to win points.
As a senior tennis player, your ideal racquet will not be anything like the ones used by professional tennis players. The proper racquet can help your game immensely, but it will not correct improper strokes. Your ideal racquet is the one that compliments your style of play. For each tennis player, there are probably at least 50 models that will fit that bill. How do you choose which one is best? Certainly not by choosing one that is used by your idol. You have to try them. If you don't have several years to spend on a ball machine hitting hundreds of forehands, backhands, volleys, and serves, you need a method of narrowing your choices down to three or four, and then trying those choices to determine which is best for you. Several online tennis suppliers will, for a reasonable fee, lend you up to four "demo" racquets. You can then keep them for a couple of weeks, and determine which plays best for you. Some will even apply the demo fee toward the price of a new racquet, should you decide to purchase one of the models.
This chapter will help you narrow your choices of racquets based on your style of play. We won't help you choose a particular racquet, but we will acquaint you with general characteristics of racquets that effect power, stability, feel, and control. With that knowledge, you should be able to choose a frame that suits your needs. We'll also explain how your choice of string and string tension will effect the power and control that you get from your racquet.
A touring pro hits so many balls that he very seldom hits one off center. If you were to inspect one of their racquets, you would find that the wear pattern of the strings is a 3 inch circle near the center of the hitting surface. Mere mortals, on the other hand, use a lot more of the racquet to hit balls, so the "sweet spot" size is much more important to us.
The reality is, there are actually three sweet spots on a racquet face. All three are centered on the racquet along the vertical axis when it is standing on the butt of the handle. Each one is "sweet" in a different way.
Modern racquets with their larger heads have made it possible to bring the center of maximum restitution further out into the stringbed. Their added stiffness also widens the area of minimum vibration. Placing more of the weight of the racquet in the head rather than the handle also widens the area that returns ball speed, bringing it closer to the center of percussion.
Two additional factors contribute to racquet stability. Any time a ball is hit off center (toward one side or the other of the racquet), the racquet has a tendency to twist, which will lead to reduced depth control. A heavier racquet will twist less than a lighter one, but will require more strength to bring up to speed. On the other hand, if the weight can be placed further from the center of the racquet, we can gain stability without adding much weight. The newer wider racquets make this possible. Finally, the "heft" of a racquet can be controlled by the balance point. A heavy racquet can feel lighter if it is head-light, and conversely, a very light racquet can feel heavier if the balance is head-heavy. Most of the newer racquets are balanced slightly head-heavy, which contributes both to stability and power.
The sweet spot of a racquet, then, is a combination of the three centers described above. On most racquets the length of the sweet zone depends a lot on the length of the main strings. The width of the sweet zone depends on the length of the cross strings, and the weight of the perimeter of the racquet. (stability). The position of the sweet zone depends on the balance... head heavy= toward tip of racquet, head light= toward the throat.
Choosing Your Racquet, Simplified
There are four things you look for when you buy a new racquet.
Bigger racquets are slightly harder to maneuver than smaller one. Nevertheless, a larger head is more forgiving than a smaller one, and can generate power with less effort. My advise to most seniors is to buy a racquet with a head of at least 100 square inches. The original Prince Racquet was 110 square inches. I still have one of them, and for me, it plays better than any mid-size racquet I have ever tried. The advantages of a wider head are a bigger sweet zone, and better control when hitting with slice or topspin. If you hit most of your shots squarely on the sweet spot, you can choose a smaller head size, but as a senior, I favor larger.
Weight and balance are very subjective. Lighter racquets are much easier to maneuver quickly. So are head-light racquets. If you love to be at the net, you will probably benefit from a lightweight racquet. If you stay at the baseline all the time, or play nothing but singles, you may want to consider a heavier racquet. Also, a heavier racquet helps dampen the shock of hitting the ball, but with the newer, stiffer designs, this is not so much of a problem anymore. Tennis elbow is now more often caused by bad strokes than by racquet design. A light racquet can be made to feel heavier when you swing it by making it head-heavy. The advantage is that since the weight is out in the head rather than in the shaft and handle, you develop more power on longer swings, and the racquet is more forgiving on off-center hits. In the end, you will have to play-test the racquet to find out if you like the weight and balance. You can get a good starting point by measuring the weight and balance of the racquet you are already using. Weigh it. Then lay it across the net and see if the balance point is up in the string bed. If so, your racquet is head-heavy. If the balance point is down in the throat, it's head-light. The balance point of my Prince O3 Speedport (red) is right at the base of the strings. I've added 1/8 oz of lead tape along the outside edges of the head to make it more head-heavy. It weighs 11 oz. I measured the favorite racquets of two of the tennis pros at my club. Both of them balanced slightly over an inch down from the strings in the throat. They both weigh 11 3/4 oz. A third pro uses a Wilson BLX Tour, which weighs 11 1/8 oz. strung, and balances just below the stringbed. For reference, a wooden Jack Kramer Autograph balances 2 inches down from the stringbed, and weighs 13 ounces. Remember, if you get a racquet that is too light, you can always add weight to change the weight and balance. You don't want to mess around with removing weight.
Now that we've covered choosing a racquet, let's get into the really important part of your equipment.... the strings. Strings will have more effect on your power and control than even the most expensive racquet. If you thought choosing a racquet was tough, wait till you start shopping for string. Tennis Warehouse, for instance, carries string from 28 manufacturers in more than 900 different varieties.
The most important property of tennis string is elasticity. The string, when under tension in the frame, must still be able to stretch in a somewhat linear fashion when the ball is struck. Gut string is made of cows gut. The process is quite complex, so the price is quite high. Most pros use gut strings, either alone, or as part of a blend, using gut as the cross strings, and synthetic gut or kevlar for the main strings. It has excellent elasticity, tension stability, and liveliness. But in addition to being very expensive (around $40 per set), it is not very durable, and therefore, not recommended for amateur players. If, however, you are a retired CEO, you might consider using gut anyway. If you play 3 times a week, you will probably not have to re-string more than every 1 1/2 months.
On the other end of the price spectrum are nylon strings. This is what usually comes in pre-strung racquets, and consists of an inner core, and a layer of thinner strands, and is most often covered with a smooth outer jacket. These strings are reasonably durable, and hold tension well. They lack somewhat in elasticity, so they will feel a bit more harsh than some of the other synthetics.
Kevlar strings are the most durable. They are usually multi-filament and woven, which gives them just a little elasticity. Most often, they have a thin outer jacket. They are very hard strings, so if you don't have very strong arms, or are sensitive to shock, don't use kevlar. If you should want to try them, most stringers will advise you to string around 15 percent looser, and to buy them in a thinner gage. Kevlar strings are sometimes used by pros as the mains, since they are the most durable, and since the main strings are longer than the crosses, the stiffness is less noticable.
After gut, multifilament strings are the top category. They have the best playability of the synthetics. They are soft enough so that they don't punish your arm, and they have enough elasticity that you can gain some power without giving up much control. These strings are made up of many very thin fibers. They tend to form a fray pattern in the sweet spot of your racquet, which may bother some players, but does not decrease their durability, and the string still holds it's tension reasonably well. For the same reason as gut, multifilament string is expensive, but less than half the price of gut. They are much more durable than gut, and unlike gut, are not sensitive to humidity. For senior players, this type of string is the top choice. They range between $10.00 and $20.00 for a set. If you play 6 hours of doubles per week, they will likely last you four months or more.
Tennis strings also come in several thicknesses, from 15 to 18 gage. The larger the number, the thinner the string. 16 gage is the norm. Thicker strings are more durable, but for that, you give up both power and control. Thinner strings are more elastic, which results in more power. They have a smaller cross-section, which results in them biting into the ball in a more knife-like manner, affording you more control, and as mentioned before, the greater elasticity gives you a softer feel. The only reason to use heavy gage strings is to avoid breakage. As a senior player, you aren't likely to break 16 gage synthetic strings more often than every 6 months or so. If you play 3 times a week, you should restring your racquet long before that anyway, so you should consider dropping down to 17 or 18 gage string to take advantage of their superior characteristics.
Finally, seniors should experiment with different string tensions. Two facts you should remember when you have your racquet strung:
Tighter strings give you more control. To explain this, consider the figure to the left. A ball traveling horizontally at any speed which strikes a racquet at an angle will reflect off the racquet at the angle of incidence. In the instance pictured, the ball is traveling level to the ground. The stationary racquet is angled upward at 10 degrees. When the ball strikes the racquet, it bounces off with an initial angle of 20 degrees from horizontal.
Different circumstances exist when the racquet is also being swung toward the ball. As shown in the figure to the right, if the racquet were stationary, the ball would follow the path of the blue arrow. But when the racquet is moving toward the ball, the direction and speed of the racquet have a much larger effect, and the ball will take the path of the red arrow, even though the racquet is still angled upward at 10 degrees.
Stringing the racquet tighter allows you to swing the racquet at a higher velocity without causing the ball to sail long, thus giving you more control over the direction of the ball. The angle and speed of your swing tends to dictate the ball direction, rather than the ball speed and errors in racquet angle.
When having a racquet strung, senior players should take into consideration that they are not as strong as younger players, and also must take care not to overstress their arms and wrists. For that reason, they should choose strings that give a softer feel, such as multifilament synthetic gut. Two of the best strings currently available in this category are Wilson NXT and Technefibre NRG2, both of which are highly rated by many amateur players in the 3.5 to 5.0 ability range. You may also want to consider restringing with a thinner string, which will provide more elasticity and power than thicker ones, without giving up any control. If you have a racquet strung with 17 gage, and you still don't break strings in less than three months, consider trying 18 gage.
Seniors should also string their racquets at lower tension than younger players. This allows you to hit crisp penetrating shots without as much effort as would be necessary when the strings are tight. Experiment by having your racquet strung at the low end of the recommended tension. See how it feels. If you can place balls near the baseline without hitting too many long, you should stay with the lower tension.
Just for reference, I personally use a Wilson Hyper Carbon 4.3 racquet, which weighs 9 5/8 ounces strung. It is balanced head heavy, making it feel more like 11 ounces. I use 18 gage Technefibre NRG2, and string my main strings at 56 pounds, and the cross strings at 52 pounds. Though I'm not a particularly hard hitter, I can still put plenty of pace on my ground strokes without spraying the ball all over the place. I have two racquets, and on average, I re-string one of them about every four or five months. I seldom break a string. I generally keep one racquet just a bit tighter than the other and use the tighter one when playing against harder hitters.