What Strings and Tension are best for Clay?
As the clay season is reaching its climax with the french open starting today, I ask the question, what strings and tension are best for clay? But before we get into it lets begin with a quick history lesson on how strings have evolved over the past few decades.
When tennis was first invented the only strings that were available were natural gut. Some people know it as cat gut (they were never actually made from cat guts in fact it is made from cow intestine). This type of string is still used today by many of the top pros. The most appealing factor of natural gut is the fact that the string is great for holding tension for long periods of time. Another attractive feature is the feel when the ball hits the strings, as it is more elastic, the ball sits on the strings for longer and comes out faster leading to more powerful shots. With all strings of any type there is always a downside and for natural gut the main issue is its durability. As the string is made up of multiple strands of material the string will fray and get thinner and thinner until it snaps. This can become expensive as depending on the amount of spin you use the shorter it will last.
The Poly Revolution
In 1997 Gustavo ‘Guga’ Kuerten of Brasil won his first french open, an unlikely winner that year as he had not made a great mark on the tour up to that point. He went on to win 2 more french opens, one masters cup and became no.1 in the world. Now he was a great player and a player who played almost all of his tennis from the baseline, hitting with massive amounts of spin allowing him to play at volleyers toes and passing players at the net for fun. It is official that Guga was the first tennis player to win a Grand slam using a polyester string, Luxilon Original to be precise. The reason Guga chose to use this string was because of the style of play he had. The string is designed almost purely for durability, allowing players to take huge cuts at the ball with long strokes and as much topspin as they like. Polyester strings have developed over the years with the spin players in mind, so strings like Babolat’s RPM blast now have a more slick surface to them, meaning the strings slide about more which then enables players to effortlessly add more spin on the ball. Again with poly there are some compromises that will have to be made just like natural gut. The downsides are a little different though as the poly string is very durable but because of the make up of the string it doesn’t hold tensions as well as natural gut. Poly strings are also stiff so there is a potential for arm issues after prolonged usage, especially after the strings have gone dead.
The Tense Finale
Professional tennis players are highly tuned athletes and the slightest drop in tension of their racket is extremely noticeable for most. A famous story has been told that when Greg Rusedski was playing he was so fussy about his strings that when the stringer had done the re string job Rusedski asked him to call him up and hit the rackets together so he could hear the sound, he was so in tune with how his racket should sound, he then said “restring them again” as he could tell they were a little out. Boy, I would not want to string his rackets full time! A higher tension will provide a player with more control as the strings will not move or bend as much on impact. And a lower tension will provide a player with more power for the same reasons, a trampoline effect we could say. The string tension coupled with the string type and set up are very important for a pro player to execute the shots they need to win matches.
Clay Court Strings and Tension
So when it comes to the clay court season what tensions and strings are best? The top pros are still using natural gut and poly but almost all of them use it in a hybrid set up, using a mix in the racket. Pros may differ in the sense that some of them will put the poly in the cross strings (horizontal strings) with the gut in the main (vertical strings) and visa versa. The main strings are taking the majority of the playability of the shot, the cross strings are for more control, most players are using the gut in the mains these day to allow the maximum amount of power and having the poly in the cross to allow for the maximum amount of control. The reason that these guys are using this set up is purely down to the feeling that the strings give the player.
The next addition will be the tension. This will again differ for each player, the weather conditions and the speed of the clay court. Rafael Nadal for example, has the same tension on every racket he has in his bag, where as other players will have different tensions in their bag depending on how they are playing or for the potential change in the playing conditions. The weather could be warm at the start and colder towards the end, some players like to use lower tensions towards the end of a match as they get can tight when finishing off the points and power, some players will do the opposite and go for a higher tension when they are serving for matches in order to play with more control. As a general rule players will lower their tension when playing on the clay, the softer surface will mean that their will not be as much pace on the ball like a faster hard court. The low tension will provide that trampoline effect within the racket allowing for more power and depth in the court. The tension may also change depending on the temperature, if its a warm day the ball will fly faster through the air so a higher tension will be needed for more control. If the weather is cold or it has rained in the day, the court may be slower than normal, then the tension should be lowered in order to give a bit more easy power.
The way in which strings, rackets and tennis balls have been developed over the past decade or so has meant that players have had to tweak there racket set ups constantly. There is no simple and easy way to set up your racket as its a personal thing and for each player and its different because each player plays different. With each player having a style that is unique to them so too is their set up. A generally rule for playing on clay court would be to string the tension a little bit lower than normal with your preferred mix of poly and gut.