String Tension

String Tension

The point of  these guides is to keep things simple. In the case of string tension I would argue most amateur players make this way more complicated than it has to be. This article goes beyond what you need to know to help you make simple yet informed decisions moving forward.

The Professionals (Not Just Tension)

If you’re reading this I think it’s safe to assume you’re not a professional tennis player. However, when you’re trying to figure out what tension to string your racket at the go-to research question tends to be…”Well what does (insert favorite tennis player here) do?” I’m certainly guilty of this and a repeat offender at that. Here’s a list from 2016. The irony is if we were to look at a guide from 2014 or 2010 or 2006 we’d actually notice different trends. Picking up on, or following, professional trends isn’t important for the average player but it is something we’ll briefly touch on.

What we can conclude from this data are 3 important  things.

  1. The tensions vary a lot despite the fact that nearly all the players (listed) are using either Polyester, Natural Gut, or a Polyester/Natural Gut Hybrid. Some players string in the 40s, some in the 50s, and some in the 60s. As an aside I think James Blake used to string his racket in the 70s.
  2. A good number of players fall well below the “recommended” tension range that you see on you’re racket. Many in the 40s… For reference Babolat’s AeroPro drive recommends between 55 and 65 lbs. (60=”Optimum”)
  3.  A large % of players string their mains and crosses at the same tension or within 1 or 2 lbs.

I think it’s important to understand the logic of the professionals first. Number 1 is that professionals tend to have their rackets restrung everyday (or every other day). Many strings have a slick layer or coating on the outside of them that the professionals wear down very quickly. Unless you take massive cuts at the ball or leave your racket outside in a massive thunderstorm you don’t have to concern yourself with restringing everyday. You will wear out the material of the strings as well; it just takes longer (based on your swing and how much you play). So when you do finally get your racket restrung it’s actually the freshness of the strings that feels so good (it’s not all about tension). It’s a lot like going to a bakery and getting a fresh loaf of bread. The first day it’s amazing but after 5 or 6 days it starts to get a little hard and chewy. It’s still bread and assuming it’s not turning green (equivalent of a broken string) you can eat it but it’s nowhere near as good as the fresh loaf.

The point I’m trying to make is the professionals take the element of material wear completely out of the equation. They do this by restringing their rackets so frequently. Instead what they focus on, and can tinker with is tension. Therefore most amateurs think the thing to really focus on is tension. While finding your reference tension (what’s most comfortable for you) is important it means very little if you’re playing with extremely stale (wore down) strings.

But quickly here’s the theory with tension…

Higher Tension = more control and less power

Lower Tension = more power and less control

But this still requires a reference point. What’s considered high or low is different for every player. Just think about those charts. For some players the reference is 68 for others it’s 45. The real point of this article is to help you find that reference point and talk about why you would consider varying from it.

Tension Variations

Let’s imagine you are a professional with 6 rackets in your bag for a match. 4 of them would probably be at your preferred tension… 1 of them is slightly tighter and 1 of them is slightly looser. And when I say slightly I’m literally saying 2 or 3 pounds.

Depending on how extreme the conditions are  you may need to adjust the reference tension. For example if you’re playing in 50 degree weather in Maine one week and then playing in 100 degree weather in Florida the next you’ll more than likely need a reference tension adjustment.

When the Pros Change Rackets (Typical)

In most cases when the players change rackets it’s for the sake of consistency (prevent string wear down and noticeable drops in tension). As I’ve been stressing over and over again one key to improving your tennis game is gear consistency. The professionals take this to the EXTREME. As an amateur it would be crazy to change your racket on every ball change or every other ball change. But for the professionals it makes sense and here’s why.

The ball changes come on a consistent and predefined schedule. After the warmup and the first 7 games and subsequently every 9 games after that. The warm-up is calculated as 2 games plus the 7 gives you 9. Of course ball wear varies for different reasons but for the most part we’ll assume that the balls wear down to “around” the same point before the ball change occurs. So if you have a fresh racket at the start of the match with fresh balls it makes sense to try and replicate those conditions on each new ball change or thereabouts (some players prefer to change at different times). In order to keep what you can control (gear) as consistent as possible you’d want fresh strings (same tension) on each and every ball change. Therefore the balls and the strings are wearing down at approximately the same rate every time. It’s repetition and it’s consistency… probably also a little overkill (but at the professional level any edge is worth it). Thus why it’s the norm for a player in the top 50 to change rackets on every ball change.

By far the new ball racket change is the most common reason professionals change rackets in a match (fresh strings).

When the Pros Change Rackets (Atypical)

With ball changes the professionals have a schedule for when they’re going to change rackets. Ideally they would stick to this schedule to the T and in many matches that’s exactly what happens.

But there are other reasons a professional (or amateur for that matter) would change rackets in a match. Remember when I say rackets I mean strings because all the rackets are identical.

1) The String Break

String breaks are not very common on the professional tour. It’s very difficult to break polyester strings if you’re hitting in the sweet spot for just 30 minutes. Natural gut breaks more often and multifilaments and synthetic gut more often still. It’s just a testament of the durability of the string type. Of course there are always outliers and sometimes strings will break within 5 minutes but for the most part we don’t see like 6 string breaks in a match.

But when strings do break you have to change rackets and that can throw the pros off their normal ball change racket change schedule. One thing you’ll often see on a string break (especially if a ball change is just around the corner) is a player going back to a racket they’ve already used. Again, it’s all about consistency.

2) Wrong Tension

Conditions do make a difference and players have to make adjustments to their reference (preferred) tension to get as consistent a feel out of their racket as possible. Again, it’s  actually pretty rare to see this happen in match (or the player is looking for an excuse). However, when it does happen it could be at any time (mid game). But normally the player may only have a couple of rackets with varying tensions…thus if their tension is way off they’ll send a racket or two off to get restrung during the match.

In theory the player should get a feel for the conditions and make any adjustments to their reference tension before playing their first match but you can’t always predict the weather. In general the tension adjustment won’t be more than a few pounds one way or another.

Tension Drops (Fact or Fiction)

Rackets lose tension almost immediately after they’re strung (without ever hitting a ball). Here’s an experiment some tennis mad scientist did with different string types (specifically focus on the chart). This is showing tension loss of different materials in a “controlled environment.” I don’t think his experiment would hold up to the scrutiny of the establishments “scientific method” but from my own experience I trust his results.

The Polyester results are the most interesting and I can definitely attest to the feeling of shear randomness when you play with a full bed of Polyester everyday for a month or two.

Why is this important?

People hear that rackets lose roughly 10% of tension immediately and think they need to be stringing tighter. WRONG. This is just a feel thing. It’s completely built in to the system! If you like the feeling of 55 pounds don’t change it because it’s “technically” not 55 pounds. So what if 55 is technically 52…that 52 is technically 48 etc. All this data proves (at least to me) is that your gear decisions should be based entirely on FEEL and OBSERVATION (judging how you play).

Yeah it’s interesting to see the data but that’s not going to change your game or make you a better player.

The Approach

If you’ve been following these guides and you’re new to playing tennis I’m sure you know by now my methodologies are incredibly simple. Yet again you’ll be making your decision based on an educated guess and beyond that adjusting to taste. You have to be willing to go through a little trial and error. It’s impossible to guess the “perfect reference tension” right off the bat.

The professionals routinely string outside the “recommended range” because they’ve gone through the trial and error to find what feels the best to them. We see a lot of professionals with VERY low tensions on polyester strings. The theory would be since these strings aren’t very powerful on their own you need to string very loose to emphasize the trampoline effect and add more power. That would be the logical conclusion but the reality is different. When you go really low with polyester strings you can actually increase the spin potential (more snap back with the string) and therefore get more control. Filipo Volandri whose known really as a clay court player strings his racket at like 25 pounds. If you did that with a synthetic gut it would be unplayable.

The point I’m trying to make is this is a very personal decision and one that can take some time. In the meantime remember that you’re not a professional and the recommended tensions ranges are designed for you not the professionals. If  it’s you’re very first time having your racket strung I recommended starting right in the middle and then observing the results. Let’s assume you’re using a synthetic gut and are struggling to get the ball past the service line. Next time you get the racket strung drop 5 pounds. Now all the balls are flying just a little long. Next time you get the racket strung increase the tension by 2 pounds.

There’s also the possibility that you’re using the wrong type of string. If you’ve tried an array of tensions with a particular string and still don’t feel comfortable you need to make a change. Routinely the issue for beginners transitioning to intermediates is the ball starts flying long. This is happening because you’re being taught to take a full and fast swing. If you’ve been using synthetic gut now would be the time to try a multifilament, polyester, or some hybrid setup. Refer back to the article on picking a string type.

Here are my EXTREMELY generic recommendations.

Synthetic Gut (low spin potential)

If you’re a healthy teenager or adult capable of taking a full string with no prior arm problems go ahead and string slightly high within the recommended range you see on the racket. For example if the racket recommends between 50-60…go with 57 or 58.

Multifilament or Natural Gut (mid spin potential and in the case of Natural Gut very good tension retention)

If you’re a healthy teenager or adult capable of taking a full string with no prior arm problems go ahead and string right in the middle of the recommended range you see on the racket. For example if the racket recommends between 50-60…go with 55.

Polyester (low power high spin potential)

If you’re a healthy teenager or adult capable of taking a full string with no prior arm problems go ahead and string a little low on the recommended range you see on the racket. For example if the racket recommends between 50-60…go between 50 and 55 depending on how aggressive of a swing you take. More aggressive the swing (more inherent power) = higher tension on the scale. As you continue to drop tension (into the 40s) you’ll actually notice power decreasing and spin potential increasing. So if you’re stringing low 50s and still need more power you’ll definitely want to consider a hybrid setup not additional tension drop.

It Takes Time

If you’re more of a beginner or intermediate player you’re strokes are developing and hopefully your technique is improving. As you’re strokes change your strings and tension may need an adjustment. This is the time when you should ask your instructor or your tennis friends for help especially if you notice significant changes with your game. Like I mentioned before a common issue is the ball starts flying long. But when you’re not restringing every month the reason for this may not be as simple as tension. It could be the material wearing down, the tension dropping, or you’re using the incorrect string. So finding that perfect reference tension is actually a lot harder for the amateur versus the professional. There’s has to be some compromise built in. It might take you a couple of years to finally settle on something (despite knowing all the information it took me several years to find my preference). The information can only take you so far because at the end of the day it’s about feel.

Tension Adjustments

The most common restringing mistake of the amateur tennis player is to over adjust based on conditions. Everyone seems to know that when it’s hotter the ball tends to fly a little more and when it’s cooler it’s more difficult to get pop on the ball (what’s described as a DEAD feel).

Again you are probably not a professional restringing everyday. Therefore the tension adjustments you make have to be logical and calculated. Let’s imagine you play 12 months out of the year and plan to restring 4 times (that’s a pretty good number). Let’s assume you live in a region where you experience all 4 season. I’ll assume you’re playing indoors from November to March at a facility that’s somewhat temperature controlled.

For fall (September) and Spring (Late April) go with your reference/preferred tension).

For winter (Late December or Early January) drop tension by 2 or 3 pounds. In theory the indoor conditions shouldn’t be too much different from the outdoor fall season but going inside means no wind…therefore you should have more success controlling the ball and thus you drop tension (more power).

For Summer (July) increase tension (from reference) by 2 or 3 pounds. Here in dc with the brutal summers you may need to restring a second time if you notice the ball flying after a month. Typically people play in the most in the summer since court time (on public courts) is free. If you’re playing a lot more in the summer an additional string job is a good idea.

Very rarely is it advisable to adjust your tension by more than 2 or 3 pounds. Beyond that you may jeopardize consistency or have to alter your stroke. The idea is that you’re compensating for the weather so that you’re stroke can remain as consistent as possible…. Aka the feel of the ball on the strings remains the same.

Final Thoughts

I still believe in strokes first and strings second. Don’t use gear consistently as an excuse. It’s ok to do it once in a while (sometimes strings go dead in the middle of a match) but if your gear consistently frustrates you, change it. In fact it’s a good sign if you can recognize strings going dead or you start to notice the “trampoline effect.” This means you’re at a point with your game where you can feel that something isn’t right and an adjustment needs to be made. Obviously everyone has a budget and sometimes sacrifices need to be made but ultimately you’re in control of your gear. I hope you’ve learned something new and can use some of this information to help you out in the future.