Picking the Right Strings
In my opinion string selection is a lot more important than racket selection. You can have the greatest frame in the world but if you’re strings are old, frayed, or just not the right material the racket can’t save you. It’s the equivalent to working in a world-class kitchen with stale or expired ingredients.
Along the same line of thought, no technology (racket and string combo) can instantly make you a world class player. You may have a great racket and a great string job but if you don’t have the strokes it won’t matter. Strokes Strings Racket (in that order) is way I like to look at it. A great artist can work with any material and a great tennis player should be able to “play” with any racket. Granted, you may not play your best but if you have the strokes and enough practice you should be able to go out there and figure out a way to be competitive. Do I recommend you just pick up any old frame and play? Absolutely not. The point of these guides is to help you with the technology so you can set yourself up for success. Consistency with your gear is a key to success. There are a lot of things you can’t control on the tennis court but strings and racket that’s 100% up to you.
Just as an FYI we’ll talk exclusively about string tension in a separate article.
We are going to keep this very simple like we did in the article on picking a racket, it’s very easy to over complicate things just for the sake of it. There are a TON of string brands but the technology itself isn’t as diverse as one may initially be led (or misled) to believe. For example every string company will promote some secret formula to making the “highest spin potential” string mankind has ever seen. But at the end of the day it’s just some kind of shaped polyester and if your stroke doesn’t lend itself to spin to begin with the string isn’t going to change that (stroke first). If you’re more of a tech geek or a gear junky by all means go deep. The information is out there and you’ll find many people online with a serious passion for string technology. But before you follow that rabbit into wonderland you need to know the basics. The point of this article is to teach you what you NEED to know in order to make an informed string decision.
A Word on the Specific Examples
Most of the strings I’m referencing are strings I have on reels. Of all the strings I’ve tried in the different material families these are the ones I like the best. This does not mean they are the best and this does not mean you need to use or even try them. They are just the ones that I prefer and/or in the case of hybrid stringing I find compliment each other nicely. What’s more important, if you’re a beginner, is to find the right material. When you find that material you can try out all sorts of brands and models to find what “feels” best to you.
A Little Reading
Tennis warehouse provides a really good primer on strings and an interesting article on natural gut. I encourage you to read both, as I’ll end up reiterating some of the same ideas. Until you actually experience playing with different strings these articles are as useful as any advice you’ll be given at your club or in a proshop. More often than not you’re encouraged to go with the most expensive option or with a string they want to get rid of. Not all clubs are like this but sadly many are. I recommend educating yourself so you can pick a string on your own without the sales pitch. But as I said before it’s actually really easy to figure out what material will suite your game and from there it really is trial and error.
Hybrid Stringing Definition
Hybrid stringing will get mentioned a lot in the upcoming sections so I think it’s best we define what hybrid stringing is first.
Basically there are two parts to stringing a tennis racket. The mains (up and down) and the crosses (left and right). You string the mains first and then weave the crosses through the mains. There are different ways to accomplish stringing a racket but in the case of hybrid stringing you use two pieces of string (1 for the mains and 1 for the crosses). You could very easily use the same type of string for the mains and crosses…but what’s to stop you from using something different? Nothing, and that’s what hybrid stringing is. I think Roger Federer may have been the first professional to really popularize this technique and like anything the Fed does it becomes super popular. For most players (especially adults who play doubles) hybrid stringing is recommended. The theory is that you can get the best of both worlds ie. Spin Potential from a polyester and Feel from natural gut (that’s just one simple example).
Mono Filament (synthetic gut)
Often referred to as the budget string or house string. What makes this string a “monofilament” is that you literally have just one material (just one core). Typically this material is a single core of nylon. 90% of the time this is the what you find in pre-strung rackets (for cost). Don’t let the name “synthetic gut” confuse you. This string is not a substitute for natural gut and plays/reacts nothing like the real thing. Simply put it’s a cheap string that works totally fine if you’re a beginner and/or have arm problems (natural gut will always be the best solution however). It’s a relatively powerful string. Meaning, the ball doesn’t stick to the string surface for very long creating more of a trampoline effect. For this same reason the spin potential is relatively low. If you have a slower swing this isn’t necessarily a bad thing.
In terms of control and feel aka playability it depends on who you talk to. Personally I think synth gut gives you a decent amount of feel on serves and volleys and therefore isn’t a terrible option for a beginner or an intermediate doubles player. It’s a very popular (budget friendly) option when used in a hybrid combination with a polyester (best of both worlds).
The downsides are it’s not very durable (especially if you’re trying to generate a lot of spin) and doesn’t retain tension well. If you hybrid string your racket it’s virtually a guarantee that it will be the synthetic gut breaking on you. There was a time where I would use a synthetic gut in the crosses of my racket and it would break without fail within a week. But if you’re not hitting with a ton of spin and want something that’s cheap and gives you a decent amount of feel it’s not a terrible option.
Very rarely will someone “recommend” that you string with synthetic gut. Personally, I’m not that opposed to the idea if you’re willing to restring your racket somewhat frequently (maybe every other month if the strings haven’t broke). Of course it means that you’ll still incur a decent cost (labor) but for some people the feel of synthetic gut is what they’re comfortable with. If you go through a beginner clinic with a prestrung racket (synthetic gut) it can be a really tough transition if you elect to buy a new racket and string it with something drastically different. For the first string job I actually think it makes sense to go with synthetic gut (it’s what you’re used to).
What I string with…
There are tons of multifilament designs and formulas (see TW article). The main idea is that instead of just one core and one material you wrap a variety of fibers together and bind them (possibly multiple cores and multiple materials). In theory the result is supposedly a lot closer to natural gut. I’ve played with a lot of different multifilament designs and have for the most part hated them (personal opinion).
Because multifilaments are so diverse it’s very difficult to make any generalized claims or assumptions. But one thing that most multifilaments promise is increased comfort and durability (compared to synthetic gut). Tension retention is again iffy but tends to be better than synthetic gut. Since a binding material has to be used to hold all the different fibers together the ball will typically stick to the strings a bit longer (pocket the ball) meaning there is more spin potential.
If you are a frequent string breaker (with synthetic gut) you should consider making the switch to a “durable” multifilament. Personally I’m partial to TNT (what I have on reel) because it just feels like a nice upgrade from synthetic gut but feel free to experiment.
One other completely different feeling multifilament (more $) that I think works well as an all around string for beginners starting to learn to hit with topspin is Babolat’s Xcel. You can generate a decent amount of spin on the ball without sacrificing much in the realm of comfort or feel.
But again I have to STRESS the multifilaments I like many people despise. I would honestly recommend trying something like TNT ($10) and analyzing how you play. If you’re missing a lot of balls long I’d then recommend trying something on the other end (like the Technifibre X-One BiPhase $20). If that’s too stiff than we’d back track to something like Xcel ($20)… Don’t forget there is also the option of Hybrid stringing different multifilaments.(BiPhase Mains/TNT crosses is something I’ve recommended in the past).
Polyester (or co-polyester)
Many people associate polyester with power, but in fact it’s the exact opposite. These strings require the PLAYER to be powerful as they offer little inherent pop or feel. If you take a big cut at the ball and have an aggressive low to high swing trajectory polyester strings are the way to go. This is what many of the top pro’s do therefore polyester strings. (Although the new trend is to hybrid with natural gut.) These strings are spin machines and are incredibly durable but the tension management is wildly inconsistent (more on that in the tension article).
There are basically two classes of polyester strings… aggressively shaped and rounded (smoother shape). Aggressively shaped polyester strings (like barbed wire) offer the greatest “spin potential” but are absolute arm killers and offer virtually no feel on shots other than ground strokes (in my opinion). The word soft cannot be used as an adjective. I used to use a shaped string called twisted razor when I was in college and while it offered crazy amounts of spin from the baseline…It literally felt like hitting a cement wall on serves and attempting to hit drive volleys in doubles felt “brickish.” It was pretty good for drop volleys and drop shots though (lots of spin). I only recommend this type of string if you have a very live arm and strong shoulders (rotator cuff). It’s pretty easy to dead arm yourself with aggressively shaped polyesters but they do offer the greatest spin potential.
I decided to sacrifice some spin potential (for my arms sake) and transitioned to a softer less aggressively shaped polyester. I tried a few different things but found myself preferring Luxilon ALU Power and Babolat’s RPM Blast. Ultimately I felt that Blast offered a touch more feel so that’s what I went with and that’s what I have on the reel. It’s pretty soft as far as polyesters are concerned which makes it a suitable string for a variety of players (high school, college, professionals). Many adults (USTA doubles league players) will use Blast as part of a hybrid combination (usually in the mains) with a synthetic gut, natural gut, or multifilament (usually in the crosses). The theory is that you get the spin from the blast but the added feel and comfort from the gut or multi. This setup would also work nicely if you’re a singles player who possesses more of an “all around game.”
For most adults (singles and doubles) hybrid stringing is recommended. Instead of going all out with the modern polyester (potential arm problems) you can dial that back and get the increased feel of a multifilament…or even natural gut. Natural gut is insanely expensive so this hybrid stringing technique will actually save you some $. For anyone playing mostly doubles (includes high schoolers) a hybrid combination makes a lot of sense. You just don’t get a great feel on volleys with a full string bed of polyester so having something to help cut through that goes a long way. Believe it or not in college I actually tinkered with using a hybrid setup in doubles and then would switch to the full poly for singles (not recommended for consistency sake). That didn’t end well but I certainly preferred hitting volleys (and serves) with the hybrid frame and if I was exclusively a doubles player I would have opted for the hybrid setup.
I haven’t played a lot with natural gut (not even in a hybrid combination with a poly) so most of what you’ll read is purely anecdotal. From what you hear nothing compares to it. Even though many multifilaments claim to emulate natural gut people who’ve been playing with the real thing their whole life will say it’s not even close. Almost everyone agrees that if you suffer from tennis elbow or other swing related arm problems natural gut is BY FAR the best string solution for you. Interestingly if you don’t break strings a lot and take really good care of your racket, natural gut may end up costing you as much as synthetic gut. It holds tension better and is more durable (debatable with modern strokes)…which means fewer re stringing jobs throughout the year. Of course if you do breaks strings regularly… well you’re dropping a lot of $. Even though a string may claim to be more durable it does not guarantee that it won’t break on your first time out. It’s incredibly frustrating when this happens but it does happen (it’s happened to me a lot in college).
The process of manufacturing natural gut is very labor intensive which is why it’s so expensive. And yes cows are harmed (3 cows for 1 rackets worth) in the manufacturing process so if you’re an animal rights activist you’ll need to avoid it. But again if you elect to go the hybrid route you can save a little money.
As an FYI (video correction) natural gut tennis strings are now made exclusively from cow gut which apparently works better (that and cows are by far more plentiful).
Simply put gauge is thickness. Lower number (16) = thicker gauge. Thicker gauges offer increased durability while thinner gauges offer increased “playability” and spin potential. If you were clicking on the links to the reels I offer you’ll notice how with the synthetic gut and multifilament I go with 16 and for the polyester 17. In my opinion for most players this is the most logical compromise. Polyester strings are the most durable to begin with and for a lot of players a thinner gauge offers them better performance. Rafael Nadal (or just a very powerful, aggressive swinger) would go with 16 but for most people 17 makes more sense. I still use 16 just out of habit but will more than likely be making the transition to 17 in the near future.
Synthetic gut and multifilaments aren’t as durable and have a lot more inherent pop thus why 16 gauge just makes more practical sense. If you elect to invest in natural gut 16 or maybe even 15L would be the safest bet. If you never break strings you may want to consider experimenting with a higher gauge and seeing if you can genuinely see or feel a difference. At the end of the day it’s not that huge of a deal and something you don’t need to spend a lot of time contemplating.
Picking a Brand
Unlike rackets I’ve never noticed a consistent “feel” across all the string offerings from a company (ie similarities between Babolat’s RPM, Xcel, and Synthetic). That’s probably because the manufacturing process (and where they source their materials) for different types of strings is so different. For example I’m a big fan of Technifibre’s Pro Red Code but can’t really stand any of their other strings. So it’s actually more important that you know what “type of string” you’re looking for as compared to what brand you tend to support. You could be a Wilson person through and through but hate their strings. Most bigger companies offer every type of string (synthetic guts, multifilaments, and polyesters)…so it’s really just a matter of picking one and seeing what you think. But it is important that you find something quick and stick with it. Consistency with your gear will help you develop much quicker than if you constantly tweak and change things. Knowing what to expect from your racket and strings is really half the battle.
The Lesser Knowns
I’m all about supporting the smaller, lesser-known string companies out there but there’s a reason big companies are so popular. Most players flat out prefer the feel of those strings. If a small company made a string that was THAT GOOD or THAT MUCH BETTER the professionals would use it. In some cases (Nadal and RPM Blast) it’s sponsorship but in many cases it isn’t. Wawrinka uses blast even though his racket sponsor is Yonex. I remember 5 or 6 years ago it seemed like everyone was using Luxilon; but now everyone is getting into the hybrid thing. Feel free to experiment with the lesser known brands (I used to do that a lot) but be prepared to come back to the one of the well-knowns if you’re not feeling the connection. Aka don’t force it.
At the end of the day (like with a racket) it’s about feel. You might stumble across a totally random string that you absolutely fall in love with. If that happens go with it! Sometimes a pro shop will get “demos” of strings that they’ll put in your racket free of charge (they’ll still charge you for labor). If you want be to a risk taker ask and see what they have…see if anything is the right material for your game, and give it a shot.
A racket can last you upwards of 5 years…strings simply can’t. Even if you’re an infrequent player I would recommend restringing your racket no less than one time a year (in the spring at the start of the outdoor season April or May).
If you play all 12 months of the year then the bare minimum is 2 times. When you make the transition to playing indoors (November or December) and when you transition back outdoors (April or May).
If you’re a high school player the 2 times mentioned above and additionally 2 more times…once before the start of the season and once midway through the season.
College players (and elite juniors or adults) I’m sure you already know but you have to restring all the time. If you take huge cuts at the ball (like I used to) it would mean restringing after every 2 or 3 matches. In theory I would have liked to restring after every match but that wasn’t economically feasible. A racket that goes dead or suddenly drops tension is REALLY HARD to play with… so carrying at least one backup racket with relatively fresh strings is a good idea.
We’ll talk about tensioning in a separate article.