Wednesday, August 24, 2011

Racket technology outpaced the strings... not anymore

Racket technology outpaced the strings... not anymore

More than anyone, Toni Nadal has always understood the subtle weaknesses of his sublimely talented nephew.

Which is why several years ago, chatting with Jean-Christophe Verborg, Babolat's international tour director, Uncle Toni asked for some assistance.

"Rafa is going to get older and older," he told Verborg, "so we have to help him a little bit."

Rafael Nadal already had won four straight French Open titles, plus another at Wimbledon. He was 22. But he had been playing with the same old-school polyester Babolat Duralast 15L strings for nearly a dozen years.

Verborg first approached Rafa with the company's red Revenge string, but because Nadal was the No. 1-ranked player in the world -- and famously superstitious about virtually every element of his game -- he said he didn't want to change anything. In 2009, pushed by Toni to come up with a little more "pump, a little more spin," not to mention a few more free points on the first serve, Verborg's engineers created a new, sleek black string.

When the ATP World Tour came to Paris, in November 2009, Verborg invited Rafa and Toni to Babolat's headquarters in Lyon, France.

"Come out to the factory," Verborg said. "Give me one hour. Let's try it. If you no like, OK. You like, could be interesting."

String is the (new) thing

Verborg, lounging at Babolat's hospitality site at Roland Garros, laughed. Wearing stressed jeans and a gray jacket, accented by a scarf, Verborg clearly enjoyed telling this story. At the time, though, he wasn't sure if there would be a happy ending, much less a global marketing phenomenon.

"The string," he insisted, "is as important as the racket. If you have a good racket -- and bad strings -- it's still bad."

This is true of concert-quality violins, and it's true of the modern sticks tennis professionals carry into battle. These days the string, many agree, is quite the thing.

Although the graphite racket technology has flattened, rather like the world economy, recent advances in strings have utterly changed the game. They have names such as Luxilon ALU Power, Technifibre's Black Code, Prince's Poly Spin 3D, Head's Sonic Pro -- and, of course, Rafa's black string: Babolat's RPM Blast.

Back in the day of wood rackets, natural gut was the string of choice. With today's synthetic polyester strings, which players can combine with gut for a hybrid string arrangement, they can hit shots that Borg and McEnroe never dreamed of. Athletes are stronger than their predecessors, and that strength is rewarded. Instead of the gentile, one-foot-forward, weight-transfer-from-back-to-front classic forehand, players now open their stance and hit the ball nearly as hard as they can; their follow-throughs can actually wind up behind them. Employing an extreme western grip, they can impart severe torque, causing the ball to spin ferociously. Elite players play a more vertical game than club players, so their aggressive swipes maintain unprecedented speed, yet still manage to find the court.

In other words, power and speed have increased without compromising control.

"When you have the ball in the string bed, there is a very good flexibility," Verborg said. "You have a feeling of the ball. You are thinking, 'I know where I am sending the ball.' "

Sounds like a deal with the devil, doesn't it?

"The players tell us they can swing with everything they have and, in the last 25 percent of the flight, the ball disappears onto the court," said Ron Rocchi, Wilson's global tour equipment manager. "[Roger] Federer and Nadal can create angles from the baseline that didn't exist four, five years ago. They can hit a ball three feet off the service line and see it bounce into the stands."

Tennis, at a distance, is a lovely, lyrical dance. Up close, though, the collision between ball and racket is disturbingly violent. Not unlike the gruesome slow-motion shots of gun fights by western director Sam Peckinpah.

Viewed at a few frames a second, you can see the flexed wrist and arm muscles of the player absorbing the blow -- while moving aggressively through the ball -- the racket head bending, chattering tremendously, the ball (typical groundstrokes for professionals average between 70 and 90 miles per hour) diving into the string bed, deforming and compressing into an astonishingly small yellow bit of rubber, the strings giving way until they reach their limit and snap back, spitting the ball out like a cannon.

It looks a lot like anarchy. The Babolat cameras used in research were actually developed for ballistics tests. The whole exchange takes about four-one-hundredths of a second. And yet that brief kiss between string and ball defines the entire arc of the shot.

Eric Babolat is the fifth-generation CEO of Babolat. He learned the business from the bottom up, stringing rackets at Grand Slams. His great-great grandfather founded the company that invented gut strings in 1875.

"The string is part of the racket and the racket is an extension of their body," he said, smiling. "There is lots of psychology involved."

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