I am home from Athens, Georgia where I spent 5 days stringing as part of the Game Set Match Tennis team. Although not the official stringers for the NCAA Division I Tennis Championships, Game Set Match was in town to provide racket service for its clients who had qualified for the tournament. In fact, Game Set Match Tennis owner Jay Lewandowski and fellow stringing team member Ken Kigongo are still in Athens covering customers who are playing in the individual tournament. Now that I am home, I wanted to offer some reflections on tournament stringing.
I noted in my last post from Athens that tournament stringing is anything but predictable. On my last day in Athens, I didn’t string a racket until 9:30pm. At 9pm, we didn’t know whether we were going to have 3 rackets or 30 to do that night. I ended up doing 11 rackets and finished up around 2:30am stringing at a casual pace and breaking for pizza and coffee. On my way out of town at 7am the next day, I woke up Ken so that he could get started on the 7 rackets he had to do for a player who wanted them strung the same day he was playing and for 10:30am delivery. So, unpredictability and doing whatever it takes to satisfy the customers are among the few constants.
The most significant aspect of tournament stringing as compared to the stringing I ordinarily do is the fact that when I work for Game Set Match Tennis I am part of a team and take direction from the team captain. The team aspect brings two key factors into play: (1) consistency and (2) humility.
Along with accuracy, consistency is one of the most important characteristics of professional racket stringing. If I string 4 rackets for a player, each of those rackets should be exactly the same (if that is what the player wants — some of course want rackets at different tensions). If I string a racket and my son strings a racket, those two rackets should be exactly the same.
On a team, the need for consistency is expanded by the number of people on the team. In Athens and at the ATP Winston-Salem Open, the team was 3 people. At the ATP Legg Mason Classic in Washington last year, the team was 4 people stringing on 4 Babolat Star 5 machines.
Installing the string at the correct tension across 4 people and 4 machines requires that the machines be calibrated exactly the same, and that the manner of installation is exactly the same. We all have to use the same techniques for tensioning strings and tying knots, and the same stringing patterns. Small details like how to mount the frame and what grommet holes to tie off in matter. Inconsistency is simply not acceptable.
This leads me to my second key factor of being part of a tournament stringing team: humility. There is more than one way to properly string a tennis racket. Anyone who has the chops to string at a major tournament (amateur or professional), knows alot about stringing and has their own opinion on the best ways to install strings. Indeed, one of the fun parts about tournament stringing is comparing notes on stringing techniques. Much of what I have learned about being a stringer has come from these discussions — different patterns for one-piece string jobs, how to avoid pulling string against the mounts on the machine, different ways of tying knots, how to handle textured strings so they don’t get damaged or burn the grommet holes, and so on. Because of this, Jay Lewandowski is not just the Game Set Match Tennis stringing team captain, but he has been a mentor to me as a professional stringer.
I truly do learn something every time I string a tournament. For example, Ken Kigongo and I were talking about one-piece string jobs. (If you use the same string on your main and cross strings, the stringer can either cut the string into two pieces and string the mains and crosses separately, or can use a single piece of string for both the mains and the crosses.) Often a player will want their racket strung one piece, with the main strings at a higher tension than the cross strings. E.g., 55 pounds on the mains and 53 on the crosses. In this case, I would typically pull the last main string at the higher tension, then lower the tension and pull the first cross string. But because the first cross string is connected to the main string, some of the tension on the main string could get lost with the lower tension on the cross. So, Ken prefers to string the first two crosses at the higher tension of the mains so as to “lock in” the tension on the last main. This is something I had never thought about. (Note: This is not reflective of the patterns/techniques used by the Game Set Match Tennis stringing team.)
But at the end of the day, humility is required because no matter our own views of the best way to string a tennis racket, everyone on the Game Set Match Tennis stringing team will string the same way. Here we have humility working in the service of consistency.