Hybrid Stringing for Tennis
Please read my articles on string technology and string tension before continuing on with this article. There is some basic information on hybrid stringing in those articles that will serve as a nice primer before embarking on this theoretical, and hopefully practical, deep dive.
Poly = Polyester String
Multi = Multifilament String
Syn or Synthetic = Synthetic Gut String
Trial and Error
All I or anyone can do is make a recommendation based on your previous experiences. A lot of times people ask the wrong questions or don’t necessarily explain in the best terms what they’re looking for out of their string setup. When you’re planning to change your strings here are the things to know and ask.
What strings (and tension) are you currently playing with?
If you don’t know that’s fine but it will be hard for anyone to give you a recommendation until they can look at your racket and see the strings in the frame. That way when you say you need “more power” the stringer will be able to recommend a more powerful string than what you’re currently using. In most cases it really is that simple and easy.
Why do you feel the racket needs to be restrung?
In most cases it’s because the strings went DEAD a long time ago (very true with synthetic gut). When someone brings me a racket with synthetic gut strings that have been in the frame for a couple of years it really is like starting over.
In other cases the strings have broke (although for most intermediate players odds are the strings also went dead at some point in the past).
In rarer cases (usually with more advanced players) there’s a very specific reason… arm pain, no control, no feel, feels bad on serve, can’t control groundstrokes, etc. As mentioned previously the stringer needs to know what strings were in your frame to better determine the new string for you to try. When you have a specific reason it’s really easy to know whether or not the new strings are better or worse because you know what you’re looking for. That being said it’s very common to try a new string and revert back to what you had before. I remember there being a lot of hype around Luxilon 4G when it came out so I tried it and subsequently hated it and went back to the string I was using at the time (Babolat Revenge).
How fast is your swing and/or how much of a “low to high” motion do you have?
I’m pretty lucky in that in a lot of cases I restring for people I teach. In these cases it makes my life very easy because I already have an idea in mind of what string setup I think will work best. If I’m stringing someone’s racket for the first time and they don’t know what they want I’ll have them do a shadow swing or two. A lot of times that makes my job about 80% easier.
Descriptors Aren’t That Useful
Saying you want more power or more control is actually REALLY confusing when it comes to strings. It makes more sense to explain what you’re happy with and what you’re unhappy with. For example are you having a tough time hitting past the service line or are all your balls flying long? Does it feel like your hitting a brick when you serve or does the string bed react more like a trampoline?
Explaining your performance makes life a lot easier for the stringer than using adjectives that could possible be misconstrued. I’ve had people insist they need more “POWER” when in reality what they needed was a stiffer string to help with control. Or people will swear they need more “FEEL” when really it’s repulsion power that’s lacking.
Once adults reach that 3.5 wanting to go to 4.0 level they start to get particular about strings. Same thing can be said for intermediate to advanced intermediate juniors. That’s when you’ll actually start to feel the nuances and differences of one string setup to another.
It would be great if I was a wizard and could get it right on the first try but the reality is everyone responds to strings differently. I’ve read completely contradictory reviews to the strings I’ve personally reviewed. And, almost every time I read user review on tenniswarehouse or wherever there’s one person who says the string changed their life and another who says they cut it out after 20 minutes.
The racket and string pattern plays a role (some strings pair well with certain rackets). But more often than not it’s really just a personal taste thing. More or less akin to your favorite flavor of ice cream. What feels great for me in my racket may not feel great for you in your racket. So when you start to get into tinkering with your string setup you have to be willing to experiment a bit.
There’s also no such thing as the “perfect” string setup. There will always be a little give and take. With my preferred string setup I sacrifice some power and feel on serve for consistency on groundstrokes. I’d love to have a full poly that felt as crisp as natural gut does on serves and volleys… but that’s just simply never going to happen. That being said we can use the hybrid stringing technique to try and find as good a blend as we can.
What is Hybrid Stringing?
When you string a tennis racket you have 2 options as far as strings are concerned; 1 piece or 2 piece.
1 piece requires approximately 40 ft of string and 2 knots.
2 piece requires 2 pieces of string (approximately 20 ft for each piece) and 4 knots.
Typically when you buy a pre-strung racket off the shelf the method used is one piece (just look at the racket and count the number of knots) whereas when you get your racket restrung at a proshop more often than not the method used will be 2 piece. When you go 1 piece you can use less string if you’re cutting off a reel (save a little $) and that’s really the main advantage. Some people will argue the overall tension throughout the racket is more consistent (and some professional do request 2 knots) but for about 95% of the tennis playing population 2 piece/4 knots is the way to go.
Most, if not all, racket manufacturers recommend 2 piece stringing because it puts less strain on the frame (less likely to warp the frame during stringing). I recently ordered a racket online and it was strung via the 2 piece method and I wasn’t hybriding. When you string a racket via the 2 piece method you start by stringing and tying off the mains (vertical strings) before moving on to the crosses (horizontal strings).
The “fun” part with 2 piece stringing is that you can either use the same string for both the mains and crosses or, (hold for dramatic pause) you can use different strings. When you mix and match strings in a racket you are hybrid stringing.
The variation in strings can be as extreme or subtle as you choose. For example you could use Pacific Prime Natural Gut ($27 a half set) in the mains and Gamma Poly Z ($2 a half set) in the crosses. Or on the other end of the spectrum you could use Babolat Synthetic Gut White in the Mains and Babolat Synthetic Gut Pink in the crosses. Yes different colors of the same string would technically still be considered hybrid stringing since the dye used to color the string will slightly alter said strings performance. I know that’s overkill but for understanding hybrid stringing it’s relevant (to be honest if you were doing the White/Pink it would be for aesthetic reasons not playability).
Why Hybrid Stringing?
Typically the explanation is you’ll get the best of both worlds (strings). That’s not necessarily untrue but I would say that’s oversimplifying things a bit. For example a Natural Gut/Polyester hybrid isn’t going to give you the raw power and feel you’d get with full bed of natural gut and it isn’t going to give you the control and spin potential you’d get with a full bed of polyester. What really happens is you get some kind of blend of the two and for a lot of players that blend is preferable. For example there may be too much power in a full bed of natural gut and not enough control. A full bed of poly is too hard on your arm and you have no feel or power on serve. But combine them together (we’ll talk about putting strings in mains vs crosses later) and you get what you’re after… hopefully.
I like to think of hybrid stringing as more of a tempering and less of a “sum is greater than its individual parts.” Almost like mixing a drink or making a well balanced sauce, everyone’s taste is different. The following analogy may seem a little silly but I think it’s very useful in understanding hybrid stringing and/or strings in general.
Shaken Not Stirred
Let’s imagine that polyester strings are like vodka. There are all different types of vodka just like there are all different types of polyester strings. You can go cheap and classic or expensive and flavored. Same thing is true with polyester (or really any material) strings. Some are $20 and shaped others are $1 and smooth.
That being said, remember that cost is not necessarily going to reflect performance or personal taste. Some people are fine drinking straight vodka but others won’t be able to pallet it. I used to use a string called Babolat Revenge (no longer being manufactured). That string was BRUTAL on the arm but really unmatched when it came to spin potential from the ground (at least for my game). I definitely wouldn’t recommend that string for most players but for what I needed at the time it worked (and subsequently my arm and shoulder paid the price). A lot of professionals and elite college players are using full beds of Luxilon ALU Power or Babolat RPM because it matches their style of play but just because the pros are using it doesn’t mean it’s going to be suitable to your game or how you play.
The only time I use full poly is when I’m playing with REALLY good players who hit with a lot of spin and pace. The reason is I can’t keep the ball in with any other setup (probably due to a weakness in my own technique). The modern player who takes huge cuts at the ball really won’t have a lot of options when it comes to stringing. For most a full bed of poly makes the most sense and/or will be the only thing that performs well enough for a prolonged amount of time.
With the exception of string reviews and playing with very strong players I always go with a hybrid setup of some kind for a variety of reasons and/or to suite a variety of teaching/playing situations. It’s a lot like your mixed drinks. Do I want vodka with orange juice or vodka with redbull and what sort of ratio am I looking for between the two? But of course I don’t need to just stick with vodka, I could have a rum (lets say Rum is a multifilament) and coke instead, etc. But typically the idea with mixed drinks, like the idea of hybrid stringing, is to try and temper down the flavor of the raw alcohol. As we go forward with hybrid stringing examples you’ll find it’s very important to determine what you are either trying to enhance or temper.
Mains vs Crosses
About 80% of the playability comes from the mains (the strings that go from top to bottom) and how they snap back/rub against the crosses (friction). If you put a polyester in the mains the polyester is doing most of the work. Aka it’s like you’re playing more with the polyester. It’s not a 50/50 balance thus why the “best of both worlds” descriptor isn’t “technically” accurate.
Now what’s REALLY important is not to confuse playability with feel. Playing with a full bed of a stiff polyester versus playing with poly mains and a synthetic gut cross will feel like a lot more than a 20% difference even though the poly mains are doing most of the heavy lifting as far as your shots are concerned. I love putting a higher end synthetic gut in the crosses for the “pop.” Obviously durability isn’t great but it’s a cheap option that feels really good with a lot of stiffer polys.
Another popular option is to put a higher end multifilament in the crosses along with a poly in the mains. Depending on your budget unless this setup FEELS really good I would probably recommend keeping your cross string to around $5 because the benefit of a really fancy cross string (playability wise) is not that great. Interestingly there is a string by Gamma (Gamma Glide) that’s designed just to be a cross sting. It’s very slick and cuts down on friction. This string costs $10 for 20ft (aka the length of the cross). I haven’t tried this string but would be interested to do so with a textured/shaped poly in the mains.
A lot of professionals (Andy Murray comes to mind) will put a slick polyester in the mains and pair it with a coated higher end natural gut. I’ve played with this setup and while it feels really nice you have to ask yourself if it’s worth paying $20 for a cross string given the relative lack of playability you’re getting from it. One thing you shouldn’t do if you’re hybriding with natural gut is to use a shaped or “rough” textured polyester. The poly will chew through the natural gut pretty quick. If you are hybriding with a shaped/textured poly I’d recommend using a synthetic gut or durable multi… something that you’re OK breaking every couple of months.
When to Consider a Hybrid?
Performance – You want to play better right? For a lot of players (not all though) a hybrid setup really does make the most sense. Most adults and younger juniors will not be able to handle a full set of polyester because of the stiffness and lack of “repulsion power.” Therefore going poly mains/synthetic or multi crosses tends to be the setup that I recommend for the majority of intermediate to advanced intermediate players. However, in the past 5 or 6 years a lot of the newer polyester strings have gotten softer (more power less arm strain) so this trend may change.
A lot of professionals play with natural gut mains by slick poly crosses (Federer being the most commonly cited example). Personally I find this setup feels and plays the best of anything I’ve ever tried. The polyester tempers the power of the gut and the slick surface on the poly allows the gut string to snap back without issue. This imparts a lot of spin on the ball without putting too much strain on the arm thanks to the inherent characteristics of the natural gut. For the intermediate to professional level player this is an obvious recommendation but the cost and risk need to be considered. If you use a high end coated gut (say Babolat VS Touch) and a high end slick poly (say Babolat RPM) the string cost alone is like $34 (price listed for a hybrid pack on Tennis Warehouse) and usually stringers will charge even more for the “risk” of stringing natural gut. All in all you’ll probably end up paying closer to $60 to have your racket restrung. This is a lot of money and the reality is natural gut is a natural product and could break on you for a variety of strange reasons but with the higher end coated guts (Babolat, Wilson, Pacific, Luxilon, etc) it’s pretty rare to have a premature breakage.
The alternative to this Gut/Poly hybrid is to try a Multi/Poly setup. This is actually pretty rare because in most cases the Poly makes more sense in the main unless you’re using the “highest end” multifilaments. A few that come to mind are Babolat Xcel and a couple of the Technifibre multis (X-One Biphase and NRG2). The logic here is that a full set of these multi’s would be too powerful and a synthetic gut cross wouldn’t be durable enough. But really you’re doing this to approximate the Gut/Poly setup for cheaper and with less risk. What I’ve found is that these strings just don’t snap back as much as natural gut so you’ll have to move these strings back into place a lot which brings down the durability (and it’s annoying).
String Breaker – You’ll typically find that if you’re using a full bed of any material you are much more likely to be breaking a main string than a cross string. This goes back to the 80% playability thing. The main strings move around (snap back) a lot on topspin groundstrokes and nowadays the majority of players are spending most of their time hitting groundstrokes so put 1 and 1 together. One of the first things I’d recommend to a chronic string breaker is to use a more durable main string. If you’re already using a polyester you could always try something stiffer but honestly even for someone with a “pro” type swing it’s pretty hard to break polys on a weekly basis. Typically it’s the synthetic guts and multifilaments in the mains that are breaking within a couple weeks of consistent play. So the logic would be to find something more durable for the main (material type doesn’t matter) and something softer for the crosses. Surprise we’re back to Poly main/Multi or Syn cross. Ideally you want the mains and crosses to sort of wear out at the same time. In a poly/multi or poly/synthetic setup usually the cross breaks around the time the coating and tension of the poly has worn out… for me that’s usually in a month of consistent play. So for a consistent string breaker looking for more durability the “goal” would be to break the cross string after a decent amount of play and wear.
Cost – This goes hand in hand with durability. If you’re consistently breaking your main strings you might as well experiment with something more durable in the main and something softer in the cross. In theory you should be able to find something with a similar feel that lasts longer.
We already talked about using a multifilament as a substitute for natural gut in the main but just to reiterate you can always try hybriding higher end multifilaments in the mains (NRG2, Origin, Xcel, NXT, HDX, etc) with a cheap synthetic gut or polyester in the cross. In some cases performance/playability will improve (depending on the player) and durability stays about the same. This way you pay a total of $12-15 for the hybrid versus $20 for the full set of multi.
This sounds like a sales pitch since I’m someone who strings tennis rackets but the reality is you really should try to restring at least twice a year (once before the start of spring and once at the start or in the middle of fall). If you’re playing all year round I would recommend stringing 3 to 4 times a year (around the change of the seasons). There are some slight tension adjustments you’ll probably want to make depending on where you live to compensate for the temperature.
Is hybrid stringing for everyone? Absolutely not. For the majority of advanced players a full set of polyester or the natural gut/poly hybrid will probably your best bet. The technology has improved and there are now some polyesters that actually feel and respond pretty well. I really love the way Genesis Spin-X (a “twisted” polyester) feels in a full setup even compared to some Poly/Multi and Poly/Synthetic hybrids I’ve come to love. For players with arm issues a soft multifilament or natural gut all the way through the racket may be more beneficial than any hybrid combo (although for playability you could always experiment with different multi’s… the more durable one in the main). A new trend is actually to hybrid different types of polyesters (typically the shaped or coated poly in the mains and a smooth slick poly in the crosses). I personally haven’t tried this yet but plan to do so in the near future.
Remember that hybrid stringing is really more of a tempering and less of an enhancing. You want MAX power and MAX comfort go with a full bed of natural gut. You want MAX control and MAX spin go with a full bed of polyester. You want more power than control (typically) go with a multi in the mains and poly in the crosses. You want more control than pop go with a poly in the mains and synthetic gut in the crosses. You want to increase durability go with a poly in the mains. Etc. etc. we could run hypothetical scenarios all day. Ultimately you’ll need to ask your stringer for personalized recommendations and advice but this is the general idea.
At the end of the day though it really just comes down to your personal experience and preference. Once you reach that intermediate to advanced intermediate level I do think you should take the time to experiment with your string setup. Hopefully by reading this article you’ll know whether or not experimenting with hybrids is right for you and your situation.