What racquets do the pros really use?
"These are professional tools which are used to make livings—not playthings to be gotten rid of and switched frequently whenever your corporate overlord insists that you jump."
21 Jul, 2020

“I want to use the same racquet that Novak uses!” “I want to play with Serena’s racquets!” How many times have junior players uttered sentiments like this? How many times have tennis parents across the globe been told by their kids that they want to use the same racquet that their idol uses? Even adults clamor to get their hands on the supposed frames of their favorite players. “If Stan Wawrinka can annihilate his one-handed backhand with that Yonex Vcore Pro, maybe I can hit a little something like him as well if I use the same racquet!”

For a fourteen-year-old me, showing up to the courts knowing that I had the same frames in my bag that Roger Federer used was a source of pride.

Federer. And me. Using the same racquets!

That’s what all the online retailers were saying—that I could purchase the same frames that he used. That’s what the guy at the tennis shop had said, too.

Little did I know that I was being lied to.

The pros don’t use the racquets you or I can purchase from online retailers and tennis shops across the world. No. That’s rarely the case.

So what do they really use?

Spend a little time talking to stringers who have worked at professional tournaments, and scouring forums and various gear-nerd websites, and you’ll run into people who’ve held, measured, and played with the pros’ racquets.

They’ll tell you that professional tennis players usually use racquets from their developmental years which have been painted to look like the current versions of the models they endorse.

Or, they use specially made Pro Stock racquets. Pro Stocks are racquets made by manufacturers which are based on the molds of older, popular frames or sometimes even newer ones. Professional players then take these molds to customizing services and change their grip shapes, lengths, weights, and balances.

Why would players use old racquets? What are the advantages?

You would think that tennis technology is advancing rapidly. Every 18 months, manufacturers duke it out on the advertising field, trying to sell consumers their latest technology-infused frames. But the technology is mostly gimmicks.

Javier Ronchietto is a qualified United States Racquet Stringers Association Master Racquet Technician (MRT), meaning he has passed a comprehensive written exam and detailed practical exams with respect to all facets of racquet service. He has strung the racquets of the pros at the US Open and at the Miami Open. Ronchietto told Tennis inbox that:

“The technology hasn’t really ‘changed’ that much in the last two decades. There have been some small changes but nothing groundbreaking. Design and profiles have shifted but essentially the materials used have not changed drastically.”

Jonas Eriksson, who is a self-described ‘tennis nerd’ and runs the popular website tennisnerd.net, where he writes on racquet technology, agreed. He reviews racquets available to the general public all the way to the exact frames that professionals play with. To date, he has played with Novak Djokovic, Marin Cilic, and Juan Martin del Potro’s actual racquets (to name a few). Eriksson confirmed for Tennis inbox that, “The technology has not changed a lot compared to most other industries.”

This lack of technological advancement is one of the reasons that pros stay with the frames that they have grown up playing with. Andy Murray reportedly still uses a customized version of the Head PT57A. The PT57A is a Pro Stock model which is over twenty years old. The PT57A is also used—or has been used at some point in their careers—by Andreas Seppi, Alexei Popyrin, Robin Haase, Robin Soderling, Tommy Haas, and Gilles Simon. Clearly it’s one of Head’s most popular molds.

Andy Murray’s Head PT57A, which has been painted to look like a Head Radical. Source: tennisnerd.net

Stan Wawrinka’s racquet story is also one of commitment to a particular frame. Wawrinka made the switch from Head to Yonex in 2011 and since then has been using the Yonex VCORE 95D (a model from 2011), customized to his preference. Wawrinka applies a leather grip and lead tape to dramatically increase the frame’s weight to around 372 grams. It’s no wonder Wawrinka can really thump the ball when he chooses to—his frame is 60–70 grams heavier than the ones that sit on shelves around the world. All that mass has to account for something.

A close up of Wawrinka’s frame. Pay attention to the strips of lead tape applied to the hoop at the 3 o’clock and 9 o’clock positions (the strips at 9 o’ clock are obscured due to the angle of the frame). These help to increase weight, stability, and plow-through

One of the ways that we can tell Wawrinka is still using the Yonex VCORE 95D as opposed to the Yonex VCORE 97 Pro 330 is because of the string pattern on his frame. The 2011 VCORE 95D has a string pattern of 16 mains x 20 crosses. If you look closely, you can count 20 cross strings (marked by the orange dots). The Yonex VCORE 97 Pro 330, which Wawrinka endorses, has a string pattern of 16 mains x 19 crosses.

Odd though the idea of pros painting racquets to make them look like current models may be, it makes sense if you think about it. If you’ve spent years of your life getting accustomed to one type of frame, building your game around and through it, it would be a strange choice indeed to switch racquets every 18 months because the racquet manufacturer which sponsors you is releasing a new line. Given that there has hardly been any technological change, why not stick with what you know and what you’re comfortable with?

These are professional tools which are used to make livings—not playthings to be gotten rid of and switched frequently whenever your corporate overlord insists that you jump.

Higher swingweights

A general trend among professionals is to use racquets that have higher swingweights. This increase in swingweight is achieved by applying strips of lead tape to the frame, and by injecting silicon into the handle (and sometimes also the frame). In layman’s terms, swingweight is the measure of how heavy a frame feels when a player swings it. If you want to be technical, Tennis Warehouse University defines it as:

“A measurement of a racquet’s resistance to being rotated about an axis going through your hand. A low swingweight makes it easy for the player to swing the racquet (maneuverable). But it also makes it easy for the ball to move the racquet, resulting in loss of power.”

Both Ronchietto and Eriksson had interesting comments on the swingweights of the racquets of the pros. When asked why pros use frames with higher swingweights, Ronchietto said that it “stems from them being elite athletes. They train everyday to be in top condition. They are stronger than recreational players and have developed their games to use heavier equipment.”

Eriksson provided a more detailed answer as to why professional players use heavier swingweights. He informed Tennis inbox that most pros use a frame that is low-powered and control-oriented. “They then add a bunch of weight to it to increase the stability, plow-through and power. And thanks to their superior technique and timing, they can still control a racquet that would be a nightmare to swing effectively for most club players.”

That is not to say that every professional player uses a hefty frame these days. Commenting on the evolution of the game, Ronchietto added that many pros are moving to frames with lower swingweights as “generating more racquet head speed is essential for today’s game.” Eriksson agreed on that point, saying “statistics show that in general, swingweights are going down somewhat across the board on both tours.”

Even given this trend towards lighter swingweights, the pros’ racquets are substantially heavier than the ones we can buy off the shelf. For comparison’s sake, the best-selling Wilson Clash 100 has a strung swingweight of 312 grams. Now compare that to the swingweights that professionals use:

Higher swingweight is one of the reasons that pros can hit the ball so hard without swinging their racquets at absurdly fast speeds (which, granted, in many instances they do). Skill and training obviously account for a lot, but the additional mass on their frames helps to propel their balls at much higher velocities. A paper titled, “Effects of swing-weight on swing speed and racket power” by physicists Rod Cross and Rob Bower in The Journal of Sports Sciences confirms this concept. In the introduction, they write, “A light racket will generate a lower ball speed than a heavy racket if both rackets are swung at the same speed.” In other words, one of the reasons that pros hit consistently harder than recreational and club-level players is because their racquets are, on average, heavier.

Poor quality control

Another thing to keep in mind is that most racquets that you or I can buy from stores suffer from poor quality control—meaning that they’re not really the same. The specifications on the side of the frame might say that the racquet weighs 300 grams, but it’s rare to find a racquet that actually matches up to its billing. It’s not unheard of for players to purchase three of the exact same frames and then find out that they vary wildly in their static weights, swingweights, and balance points.

When asked about quality control, Phil Colin, who has been in tennis retail since 1992 and runs a tennis store in Sydney, Australia called Strung Out, said that racquet manufacturers had gotten a little better over the years at ensuring the quality of frames as they left the factory, but some were better than others. “Wilson is all over the place—they’re probably the worst. Their swingweights can vary quite a bit. Yonex are pretty close. Volkl is good, too. Tecnifibre seems to be pretty good these days. And Babolats are getting a lot closer. They used to be all over the place but they’re a lot better today.”

The lack of consistency from off-the-shelf racquets is another reason why pros elect to go with Pro Stocks or have their frames heavily customized and ‘matched’. Poor quality control is also why racquet technicians around the world offer matching services, where they match the swingweights, static weights, and balances of a set of racquets to each other.

Experienced players know the importance of having a couple of the same frames in their bags. Now think about it from the point of view of a professional who makes a living on the court. Imagine popping a string in the third round of a Grand Slam and reaching into your bag not knowing whether or not the swingweight of the frame that you’re grabbing is close to what you’ve been playing with.

Customizing your own frames

So now that you have the racquet specifications of some of your favorite pros, does this mean that you should start ordering reels of lead tape and a silicon injector gun to beef up your own frames? Not necessarily. If you’re a recreational or club-level player, MRT Ronchietto advised against making your frames too heavy. “The pros have been playing with their racquets’ specs most of their pro careers and have built their bodies around using it.” But he suggested that any player can benefit from having frames which match each other. “I do encourage recreational players to ensure that their racquets all match in terms of swingweight, balance, and static weight.”

So then, why are we told that pros use the newest frames?

There’s a simple answer to this question and you’ve probably figured it out by now: So that racquet manufacturers can sell more tennis racquets.

If racquet manufacturers and retailers were honest and told consumers that star players haven’t changed their racquets in more than ten years, it probably wouldn’t be the best for their sales. Part of the allure of purchasing a new racquet as a tennis player is the understanding that you’re playing with the same frames that the pros use.

This tactic of saying that the pros are using frames available to everyone is commonplace in tennis retail. For example:

Pardon my french, but there’s no f*cking way that the 6’6” Daniil Medvedev plays with the Tecnifibre T-Fight 265, which has an unstrung weight of 265 grams. A T-Fight 265 is better suited to a twelve-year-old girl—not the fifth-best male player in the world. Medvedev’s real frame of choice is close to a 100 grams heavier than the T-Fight 265. I don’t mean to call out this particular retailer. I only mean to point out that this type of advertising is routine when trying to sell tennis racquets to consumers.

If it was made explicitly clear that pros aren’t updating their racquets every time the company that sponsors them releases a new line, manufacturers might struggle to sell racquets.

This has always been one of the most fascinating aspects about tennis equipment to me; that there exists this unspoken understanding among true fans and fanatics that the pros are really using something different—even though racquet manufacturers often neglect to mention it. But most casual tennis fans aren’t even aware. They often erroneously think that what they have access to is what the pros have access to.

At least the next time you hear your friends tell you that the new frames they’re going to buy are going to help them hit their strokes like their favorite pros, you can burst their bubbles and tell them: “Well, I don’t think that’s actually the case.”

*An observant reader, Raj, asked me to confirm whether swingweight is measured in another unit. He is correct. Swingweight is measured in kg/cm^2, not grams. Kg/cm^2 is “kilogram-force per centimeter square.” Machines that measure swingweights of frames output their results in kg/cm^2, not in grams. When I asked Jonas Eriksson to clarify this discrepancy for me, he told me “but nobody mentions that [kg/cm^2]—they just write the number [that shows up for swingweight].”

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2 Comments

  1. Avatar

    What a great topic! I thoroughly enjoyed reading it. Just had one question: what range of ranking divides the pofessional players that still use of the shelf racquets vs. specific orders from the manufacturer. The latter assumes testing and holding the mold of your racquet of choice which you would think its not a service that companies offer for a large group of players

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    • Avatar

      I would say it’s different for different racquet manufacturers. For example, I know that Wilson has certain molds that they give to their sponsored players (if the players want them). But I think in terms of testing, only the top of the top get to work with manufacturers to create something. Others might get the molds from manufacturers and then have to customize them themselves through Racquet Technicians.

      Reply

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