Choosing the Right Tennis Racquet

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An article guiding newer players on how to choose a tennis racquet. It describes the different head sizes, string patterns, materials and technologies of modern tennis racquets, as well as the unique selling points of different racquet manufacturers. Some

Tennis racquets come in different shapes and sizes. To the undiscerning eye, they may seem all the same, which is a common fallacy. When I was first starting out with the sport, I picked up a $50 racquet at my local Wal-mart equivalent and wondered why anyone will anyone pay up to four times the price for essentially the same equipment? I was a believer that skill mattered more than the gear.

Yet, as I started to treat the sport seriously, I realised that having the right gear was as important as, say, having the proper technique and footwork. Just like a proper-fitting baseball glove, choosing the right racquet will greatly help in complementing your game.

This article is catered more at people who are starting to pick up the sport and interested in taking their game to the next level, i.e., people looking to buy their first proper racquet.

If you're content with just tapping balls over the net, any racquet would do about fine. On the other hand, if you're a more experienced player, you probably know what suits your game best by now.

So, let us start by examining the materials and technologies used in racquets today.

Materials and Technologies

Racquet evolution has come a long way. From the 1890s to the 1970s, wooden racquets were what everyone used to play tennis with. Then, came along materials like aluminium, fibre glass, Kevlar and finally, graphite composite, which is used by virtually everyone on the ATP or WTA tour today.

If you visit your local sporting store, you usually realise that at the low-end of the price spectrum, you can find racquets going for as cheap as $20, while at the other end, there are racquets priced as exorbitantly as $400. This is mainly because there are fundamental differences in the material used.

Racquets in the $20-$50 range are usually made of aluminium (which is sometimes marketed with a 'titanium' composite), and usually have outright cheesy names (like the 'Federer Signature 110' which is nothing like what Federer uses). While to the first-time, budget-conscious buyer it seems like a good choice, aluminium racquets are way too flexible (you may notice your frame distorting after a while), and being the lightweight nature they are, you are at high risk of suffering from tennis elbow (contrary to popular belief, when it comes to tennis racquets, lighter isn't always better!). Aluminium racquets always come pre-strung, and at a very low tension, as the frame tends to warp at even 'normal' tensions used by most players. While low tensions give lots of power, eventually you will find yourself having trouble controlling your shots.

I strongly recommend avoiding such racquets, as they will do nothing good for your game and may cause you injuries in the process. Rather, look for a graphite composite racquet, which can sometimes cost below $100 especially during clearance sales. You can easily tell a racquet is made of graphite just by looking at the recommended tension usually indicated on the racquet--they usually have a recommended tension range of around 50 to 60 lbs.

On the other hand, getting a $400 racquet doesn't mean you're buying the best racquet of them all. If you notice, such racquets usually advertise themselves as having some unique 'space-age' technology that 'enlarges the sweetspot' of the racquet and is extremely 'light and powerful', which are not necessarily good points, as I will explain later.

Many racquet manufacturers advertise their racquets as having some unique technology in an attempt to differentiate themselves from the rest. While some of them are of value, like ProKennex's Kinetic technology, which many people with chronic tennis elbow swear by, more often than not, they are more of a marketing ploy to get people to play with the latest and greatest. One should bear in mind that even professional players often don't use racquets with such technologies; rather, they paint over their usual stick with the paintjob of the model their racquet sponsors want them to endorse. 

In conclusion, a $100-$150 racquet will probably serve you well for the next few years or so!

Head Size

Now that price is out of the way, an important consideration to make is the head size of your racquet. They are usually classified into mid-size, mid-plus and oversize. Mid-size heads generally have a square area of around 85-94 square inches, mid-plus from 95-100 and oversize racquets are anything beyond that. The biggest head-size allowed is actually 125 square inches.

While racquets with bigger head sizes have a larger sweetspot, it comes at an expense of having less control. Smaller racquets are more 'laser-like' in nature and offer better control. Smaller racquets are usually more stable (able to absorb the impact of the ball more), as the mass is concentrated in a smaller area. Logically, they are also more demanding to use; a shot hit with a 85 square inch racquet on the frame may actually be a ball right in the sweetspot of a 110 square inch racquet.

As a game improvement player, a racquet head size of around 100 square inch should offer a good mix of both traits.

String Pattern

Within a particular headsize, different racquets may have different number of main and cross strings on them. Main strings are those that run parallel to the length of the racquet, and cross strings those perpendicular. Most common string patterns nowadays are 16x18, 16x19, 16x20 and 18x20 patterns. A racquet with a less dense or 'open' string pattern, such as the 16x18, offers more spin potential at the same string tension than a denser or 'close' string pattern like the 18x20. However, denser string patterns offer more control at the same tension and has the added advantage of the strings being less likely to snap, as they tend to move about less easily.

As an improving player, perhaps this will not matter much to you; in which case, you may want to opt for a denser string pattern as this means that your strings will likely last longer.

Mass

An important consideration when buying a racquet is its mass. A lighter racquet may appear to be ideal for you at the start as it allows you to swing it more easily and for a new player, will give you more time to set up your shots properly. However, as you improve, you may find yourself having problems handling heavy shots, or find your arms and elbows aching. This is because your arm is actually absorbing the impact of the ball instead of the racquet. That is why higher-level players prefer playing with heavier racquets, as they already know how to generate their own power from their stroke mechanics and a heavier racquet allows them to absorb pace better.

As such, I don't recommend going for overly light racquets, especially those that advertise themselves as being 'lightweight and powerful'. For a start, try looking for a racquet between 10oz to 11oz (283g to 312g) in unstrung weight. They should be easy enough to swing for beginners, yet should absorb enough pace for your arm to feel fine through heavy hitting.

Balance

Within the same mass, the balance of a racquet may determine whether it feels heavy or light in your hands. Head-light racquets have most of their mass concentrated in the handle, which feels lighter in the hand and more manoeuvrable. Head-heavy racquets, on the other hand, feel a little heavier but for a lighter racquet, it may be beneficial as theoretically it should absorb the pace of heavier balls better.

This is all up to personal preference, but I feel that a slightly head-light balance is easier to wield than a head-heavy racquet, at least for me.

Length

Racquets also come in different lengths. 27" is considered the standard, but some racquets come in 27.25" and 27.5" plus-sizes as well. Longer racquets gives slightly more power (work done = force x distance) and allow for more reach, at the expense of manoeuvrability. However, 0.25" or 0.5" shouldn't give much of a difference, so it shouldn't concern you that much. Most improvement racquets are plus-size in length, however, so it's just something to take note of.

Nuances between Different Racquet Manufacturers

Different racquet manufacturers have slightly different racquet grip shapes, so it would be best if you could go down to your local racquet shop to get a feel. HEAD racquets have a more rectangular grip shape, Wilson and Yonex are less so, while Prince and Babolat have a rounder grip shape.

These manufacturers also incorporate their unique technologies into their racquets, as mentioned briefly at the start. Yonex racquets have a more squarish, isometric head shape which supposedly enlarges the sweet-spot. Newer Prince racquets have O-ports, which are essentially holes in place of grommets along the side of the racquet. These O-ports supposedly improves the aerodynamics of the racquet and also enlarges the sweetspot by allowing more space for the strings to move. Some of Wilson's racquets incorporate the Perimeter Weighting System, which is basically added mass at the 3-o'clock and 9-o'clock positions of the racquet. You can tell whether a racquet has PWS simply by looking for a bulge at these positions of the racquet head. Babolat racquets have a 'Cortex' system, which is basically a piece of rubber between the racquet handle and the rest of the racquet, which is touted to reduce unwanted vibrations. Meanwhile, newer ProKennex racquets have a Kinetic technology, which is basically just many micro-beads placed within the racquet itself to absorb vibrations. Having used a ProKennex Ki5 before, I have to say that it really works. The only downside, if you call it one, is that you can feel these beads moving when you swing the racquet. The movement actually feels nice in my opinion, but to each his own.

Conclusion

There is really no one-size-fit-all when it comes to choosing a racquet, if not everyone will be playing with the same stick! However, for players who are just starting out but want a stick that will still be relevant as they progress, a 10-11oz (unstrung) graphite composite racquet with a 100" headsize would be rather suitable. If possible, try asking your local tennis shop to see if you can demo some of the racquets which fits these specifications. Merely swinging the racquet in the shop won't really help much those--it is highly likely you will find the lightest racquet to be the most 'comfortable', but it is only when you take it out to court that you realise its pitfalls.

Below, I will categorise some of the more popular racquets (non-exhaustive!) into both player-improvement models and more advanced sticks.

Player-improvement ('tweener') Models:

- Head YouTek IG Extreme MP (100", 300g, 16x19, 27" length)

- Head YouTek IG Radical MP (98", 295g, 18x20, 27" length)

- Babolat Drive Z Tour (100", 285g, 16x19, 27" length)

- Babolat Pure Drive GT (100", 300g, 16x19, 27" length)

- Babolat AeroPro Drive GT (100", 300g, 16x19, 27" length)

- Wilson Pro Staff Six.One 100 BLX (100", 285g, 16x18, 27.25" length)

- Wilson Steam 100 BLX (100", 295g, 16x20, 27.25" length)

- Wilson Six.One Team BLX (95", 289g, 16x18, 27" length)

Advanced ('player') Models:

- Babolat Pure Storm Limited

- Babolat Aero Storm Tour

- Wilson Pro Staff Six.One 90 BLX

- Wilson Pro Staff Six.One 95 BLX

- Head YouTek IG Radical Pro

- Head YouTek IG Prestige Mid

- Head YouTek IG Speed MP

- Dunlop Biomimetic 200/Tour

- Dunlop Biomimetic 100

- Yonex VCORE Tour 89

- ProKennex Ki Q Tour

- Prince EXO3 Tour

- Prince EXO3 Rebel 95

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