September 07, 2020
Are you an avid tennis player that hasn't thought about or researched your string set up in depth? Perhaps you've used the same string and tension for as long as you can remember (even as your game as evolved)? If so, we've written this blog post for you.
When it comes to choosing tennis equipment, it's all about feel, personal preference and the amount you are willing to invest. At the most fundamental level, one of the most important things to get right is choosing the correct strings and then applying the ideal tension. Tailoring your strings to your game style can considerably improve your performance and make you feel much more comfortable on court.
Which attributes about strings should you consider when narrowing down your options? All strings can be rated in terms of power, spin, comfort, control, feel, playability duration and overall durability. Scoring high in one category necessarily means compromising in another (e.g. power versus control) so it's worthwhile considering what variables matter most to you as a player.
In order to kick things off, here is a list of broad generalisations that will serve you well when narrowing down your string choice and assessing your set up:
If you're looking a wall full of string options (or perusing page after page online), it's easy to feel daunted by the sheer diversity of what you can buy. We will try to disentangle and simplify your main alternatives here.
Modern strings are made up of one or a combination of the following materials: natural gut, nylon or polyester.
Natural gut is is made of parts of a cow intestine and is touted as having the best control, stability and spin of all string options. The downside? It's both expensive and comparatively less durable. As a consequence, the use of natural gut is relegated to tour-level or highly advanced players, who often include it in a 'hybrid' set up (more about that later). Want to find out more about this relatively rare type of string? Check out this in-depth article by Tennis Warehouse.
Nylon - AKA synthetic gut - has more feel and durability than natural gut, but relatively less control. A common choice for beginner or intermediate players, it's economical while being easy on your arm for those concerned about injuries.
Polyester - AKA 'poly' - is the most durable variety of string on the market so intermediate and advanced players that hit frequently and break a lot strings gravitate towards options in this category. One of the downfalls of poly strings is the stiffness, so combining it with a gut string is a common tactic to add comfort.
A hybrid string setup is defined by the use of two different strings in the mains and cross strings of a tennis racket. This can be as simple as using two different gauges of the same string but is more commonly done with two completely different string materials such as a natural gut being combined with a polyester. The popularity and demand for hybrids mean that many string manufacturers now sell prepackaged sets. Instead of needing to buy two full sets of different strings and cutting them in half, companies are putting half-sets in one package.
Hybrid setups are extremely common on the ATP and WTA Tours with players choosing a strong, endurance-type string in the mains like Babolat RPM Blast or Luxilon and pairing it with a softer string in the crosses such as natural gut or a multifilament. Because about 80% of the playability in your racket comes from the main strings, these are the ones that are usually the first to break (when is the last time you recall breaking a cross string?!). If you put polyester strings in the mains then that provides access to the enhanced spin and control that those type of strings offer. Coupling the durable string with softer strings in the crosses will decrease the harshness that you'd get with a full polyester string bed. An added plus? The poorer durability of a full bed of natural gut is mitigated.
Interesting fact: Roger Federer is arguably the grandfather of the hybrid string setup as he's been using it since 2002 with a combination of Wilson natural gut and Luxilon ALU Power Rough. Federer's exact setup is known as a 'reverse hybrid' because he uses natural gut in his main strings and Luxilon in the cross strings. That setup gives a livelier feel on contact but also gives plenty of spin potential. Having natural gut in the mains means the playability is more comfortable because the emphasis is on the more forgiving strings. It also gives access to more power thanks to the properties of natural gut. The Luxilon in the crosses tempers the power of the natural gut and gives Federer access to more spin and control. (Insight provided by PeRFect Tennis).
The gauge of a tennis string refers a measure of its thickness. String gauge ranges from 15 to 19, with 15 being the thickest available. As you increase your gauge, you will get more spin and power but sacrifice control and durability. The difference in thickness is subtle: 15 gauge strings range between 1.35 and 1.40mm while 17 gauge strings are between 1.20 and 1.25mm in diameter. In general, the most frequently used string gauges are 16 and 17.
Tennis strings are all about trade offs: if you lower the tension, you gain power but lose some control as a consequence. Increase the tension and you’re limiting power generated from the trampoline effect of the strings, but you’re gaining more control and spin potential.
If you’re a beginner, you should focus on selecting easy playing strings which are soft, forgiving and have a comfortable feel. Synthetic gut and multi-filaments (such as Wilson Synthetic Gut Power, Wilson Sensation or Wilson NXT) will do the trick.
Intermediate & advanced:
As you progress, you can start moving to more solid strings which are designed to give you more control and finesse. Polyester strings (aka "poly") will be in your sweet spot at this stage. More intermediate and advanced players who have honed solid technique can sacrifice some comfort to gain more spin and control. Some popular options include Solinco Hyper-G and Luxilon ALU Power Rough.
Court surfaces are also a variable to consider when selecting strings.
The slowness of clay courts usually necessitates a drop in tension whereas players hitting on the quick pace of hard or grass courts benefit from a higher tensions and hence more control. Environmental conditions play a part too - specifically if you use natural gut which is common on the tour. Humidity impacts these organic strings much more than the synthetic ones and tension can be lost as a consequence.
The short answer is yes.
If you’re a counter-puncher and elect to use the pace of your opponent rather than generate most of it yourself, it’s advisable to choose tighter strings. On the other hand, if you’re an aggressive baseliner and shotmaker, lowering the tension will assist you in hitting more penetrating shots. All court players should consider a hybrid setup designed to give you the best of all worlds: power, spin, control and comfort.
A great place to start is by looking at your racket. All high spec rackets will have a recommended tension range from the manufacturer typically visible on the inside throat of the frame. It’s usually a range of 10 lbs. For example, 55lbs +/-5 would mean 50 to 60 lbs.
Once you have ascertained the recommended tension, consider which string you’ve selected. If you’ve opted for poly, it's advisable to start on the low end of the recommendation. For a synthetic gut, start on the mid to high end of the range provided. Because some strings naturally provide more power and others emphasize more control, you can control these factors by how tweaking tightly you string your racket. The physics to remember are quite simple when it comes to string tension: lower tensions have a subtle trampoline effect which propels the ball with more power while tighter strings require you to generate the bulk of the power yourself.
If you don't break strings while playing, you should consider cutting them out when they’ve lost their tension and playability. Once strings stretch out, they never snap back to their original form and each time you play, you lose a modicum of tension. The classic mistake that most (beginner and intermediate) players make is waiting for their strings to break before replacing them.
There’s a simple rule of thumb about how often you should get your racket re-strung: the amount of times you play per week should be the amount of times per year you’re due for a re-stringing.
Even if you are meticulous about stretching and strengthening, tennis can be tough on your body. If you've had tennis elbow in the past (a repetetive strain injury where small tears develop near the bony lump - the lateral epicondyle - on the outside of the elbow) you know how debilitating it can be. One avenue of warding off this ailment is to choose softer strings because offer increased shock absorption. Natural gut is the softest string of all but comes with a hefty price tag attached. If you're more inclined to go the synthetic route, look for a multifilament option because the composition of tiny filaments seeks to provide a very close second to the comfort and feel of a natural gut string. Some highly touted options include Wilson NXT Soft, Head Reflex MLT and Technifibre TGV. One downside of selecting a string option that is optimised for comfort is that spin generation is somewhat compromised. The enhanced elasticity adds power so consider increasing your tension with your new set up.
Most professionals use polyester strings. The only question is "how much"?
Rafa Nadal uses polyester strings and a thicker gauge than most other pros. Why? The amount of power and topspin generated when he strikes the ball would result in strings breaking constantly if he choose thinner gauge and finer material.
Roger Federer unsurprisingly takes a different approach to Nadal. He uses Natural Gut on his mains and Luxilon Alu Power Rough on his crosses. His target tension is 26 / 24.5kg (57 / 54 lbs) with pre-stretched strings.
Serena Williams uses Luxilon 4G and Wilson Natural Gut at 29 kgs (64 lbs) on both crosses and mains, which is about 5kg (11 lbs) tighter than Madison Key’s go-to tension on a mix of Luxilon Alu Power Rough and Natural Gut.
Frances Tiafoe chooses Polyester strings with 22kg (49 lbs) on both crosses and mains.
To understand the huge impact Poly strings had on the professional game, check out this great article.
Different court surfaces, ball properties and variable temperatures are major factors in how pros string their rackets at a given tournament. Hot conditions cause the strings to loosen, so adjustments need to be made to help the player adapt to their environment. On surfaces where shotmaking gives players an edge, (for instance, grass as contrasted with clay) they might consider subtly lessening the tension on their rackets to add a bit of extra pace. Tennis fans can see the just how important players consider their strings to be when they hand over multiple frames to get strung during a match.
In summary, considerations around string largely distill down to individual preferences (and alignment with your game style) as well as willingness to invest money in strings. If this blog post merely whetted your appetite to find out more about string options, the Tennis Warehouse is the best resource we've come across. The extremely detailed analysis and review of strings has quite the rabbit hole potential for those wanting to learn more.
The more tennis you play at a higher level, the more often you break strings. It’s as simple as that. The better you get, the more nuanced your setup will be, so simply grabbing any substitute racket when you’ve broken your strings is a non-starter for intermediate and advanced players. Recognising this, we’ve designed the Epirus racket bag collections to hold at least 2 rackets in each bag style. This way, you always have a back up when you need it and you can finish your match or practice without skipping a beat.
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