Frame up

The strung weight of Jim Courier's racquet was more than 13 ounces. — Pic. ADAM PRETTY/GETTY IMAGES-

Many blame racquet technology for today's wham-bam power game. They're pointing the finger in the wrong direction. By JAY SCHWEID.

ONE of the biggest complaints about pro tennis, particularly the men's game, is that players hit with too much power, turning matches into slugfests devoid of touch and point construction. The culprit? For years, people have blamed the racquets. They say today's high-tech monsters have given the pros the ability to knock the felt off the ball.

But it just isn't the case. I've been stringing and customising racquets for the pros for more than 20 years, and I can say that the rise of the power game has much more to do with the evolution of tennis players — each generation is bigger, stronger, and faster — than changes in racquet technology.

When I worked with Martina Navratilova in the 1980s, she made the switch from a wood racquet to a graphite Yonex R-7. It wasn't long before she became a more powerful player. Was it because of the racquet? Partially. But she also got into better shape than anyone on tour, and it was her superior strength and fitness that really pumped up her game. Fast forward to today. The pros are stronger than ever; they eat right and train hard. When Andre Agassi and I get together at tournaments, he makes me tired just talking about his fitness regimen.

What about the racquets? People think pros use the light-weight frames that constitute the bulk of what you see on the pro-shop wall, but in reality they play with significantly heavier racquets that many mortals would have trouble swinging for an entire match. While most recreational players hit the court with a racquet weighing between 9 and 10 1/2 ounces, the pros — men and women alike — typically prefer a frame of over 12 ounces. The strung weight of Jim Courier's racquet, for example, was more than 13 ounces, and Agassi, Marat Safin, Jennifer Capriati, and Alexandra Stevenson (to name just four) all wield weapons between 12 and 13 ounces.

For the most part, you can't buy such hefty racquets. That's because virtually every pro uses a customisation service like mine, or even asks the manufacturer to tweak a frame's specifications — to increase the weight, change the grip size to perfectly fit his or her hand, or modify the balance for more manoeuverability. With their long swings, the pros can generate plenty of pace; what they need out of a racquet is control.

While racquet companies have developed new materials to increase power, these advances are reserved mainly for recreational-player frames. The pros' racquets are essentially the same as the graphite ones of five, 10, even 15 years ago. Critics blame high-tech advancements for ruining the game, yet Pete Sampras won the 2002 U.S. Open with a Wilson Pro Staff that was introduced in 1984.

We even hear cries for a return to wood. True, wood racquets usually are a tad heavier and have a smaller head than what today's pros use. But going au naturel won't turn the clock back to an era of long, slow rallies. In 1996, Nike held an exhibition in Madison Square Garden during which Sampras and Courier hit with wood racquets. Sampras still blasted serves at 125 mph, and both players blistered their groundstrokes. And in 1997 TENNIS Magazine served up evidence that power is more about size and technique than material: Mark Philippoussis served with a wood racquet and his regular graphite frame, both of which my company supplied. Scud's average serve speed with the woodie was 122 mph. With the graphite?124.

The fact is, today's pros are big hitters, though I hardly think the men's game has been ruined by power. Sebastien Grosjean has an amazing drop shot; Roger Federer can do anything with the ball; and as hard as Lleyton Hewitt hits, what he beats you with is tenacity and athleticism.

If you still think power is the bane of pro tennis, blame the players, blame the trainers, but don't blame the racquets.

From Tennis Magazine 2003 � By Miller Sports Group LLC. Distributed by the Los Angeles Times Syndicate International.