Going Out on Top

Nostradamus

A year ago, in May 2017, after Wake Forest’s men’s tennis team lost too early in the NCAA tournament, I concocted a plan. The plan was to string for the team for a 10th and final year, win a National Championship on our home courts at the Wake Forest Tennis Complex, and go out on top.

I only told my wife, Sandy, and a couple of friends of my plan. When Wake Forest won the team title, the reality of my impending retirement set in.

My son, Paul, who has been deeply involved with the stringing business from the start, actually strung most of the Wake Forest rackets during the tournament (as he had during the season). But I wanted to make sure the last rackets I strung for the team were memorable.

Petros Chrysochos and Borna Gojo gave me the perfect memory when they made the Men’s Singles final. The last four rackets I strung as the head stringer for Wake Forest Men’s Tennis were two for finalist Gojo and two for NCAA Men’s Singles Champion Chrysochos.

NCAAs with Pete and Goj

Delivering Gojo and Chrysochos their rackets for the NCAA Singles final, my last four rackets as head stringer for Wake Forest Men’s Tennis.

I couldn’t have scripted my exit any better. 10 years and several thousand rackets leading up to the NCAA National Championship as a team, capped off with my very last racket: Petros Chrysochos’s racket #13, the racket he used to win the NCAA singles title.

Last Racket for Pete

Last racket on the machine: Petros Chrysochos’s championship-winning #13.

I’m happy to be able to leave the responsibility of head stringer to Paul. The team is in good hands.

WSJ Story Picture

Photo credit: Walt Unks/Winston-Salem Journal

And I will be around to customize and consult, and to cheer for whoever is playing Court 6 for the Deacs, as long as I have my day job.

#bigtime #GoDeacs

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2018 NCAA D1 National Champions – Wake Forest University Men’s Tennis

10 years ago, All-American tennis player Cory Parr (WFU ’09) facilitated Big Time Tennis becoming the official stringers for Wake Forest University’s men’s tennis team.

Except when they were on the road, my son Paul, my wife Sandy, and I have strung every racket for the team since then. Through Tuesday, May 22, 2018, the racket total was 8,555.

No one associated with the day-to-day operations of the tennis team has been with the program longer than Paul, Sandy, and I. So, we were as proud as anyone to be able to hold the NCAA Division 1 National Championship trophy last Tuesday night.

Of course, we were just one part of a complex operation that makes winning championships possible – coaches, trainers, strength and conditioning coaches, SIDs, and others.

But most importantly, the players. This team is composed of such a diverse set of personalities, I often refer to it as the team from the “Island of Misfit Toys.” A Croatian Oak, a Magician, a Dancer, a Veteran, a German Engineered Man of Steel, and others.

An amazing part of the experience was seeing how many Wake Forest University tennis alumni returned for the final. Many of them got on planes Tuesday morning to be at the match. Every player — those who attended and the many who could not — played a part in the building of the program to its current status.

Photo Credit: Brian Westerholt/Sports On Film

As an observer of the team, I have been impressed at how they handled being ranked #1 in the country the entire year, and winning every major title possible: ITA National Indoors, ACC regular season, ACC tournament, and NCAAs.

Photo Credit: Dan Wallace/Wake Forest University

Wake Forest’s tennis program has not always been well-funded. In our 7th year stringing for the team we were paid the same as in our 1st year; our first raise was in our 8th year. The feeling that something special was happening with the program made it easier to stay on despite being more underpaid with every passing year.

During the lean years and continuing through this championship, Pacific has been a consistent sponsor of the Demon Deacons on court. The “X” you see on the rackets is a visual representation of that support.

X Rules the Court!

2017 ITF Pro Circuit Wake Forest Futures at Wake Forest University

The USA F19 Futures, the first of two back-to-back $25,000 ITF Pro Circuit Futures tournaments, is being held at the Wake Forest Tennis Complex this week. As with the previous two years, we are providing the stringing. And already some notable differences are emerging.

The stringing so far is down considerably. Last year we did 22 rackets on site Friday, in advance of the first round of qualifying, and held over 9 rackets to be strung Saturday morning ahead of play. So, 31 total rackets before the first round of qualifying. This year I did only 14 rackets Friday with none held over, and 3 rackets came in Saturday morning for matches. So, 17 total rackets.

2016 Day 2: I strung another 22 rackets. 2017 Day 2: 10 rackets.

So, through the first two days in 2016 our total was 53 rackets. Our two day total for 2017 is just 24 rackets.

In 2016, 15 of 52 players in the first round qualifying had rackets strung on site (29%). This year, a smaller number in a larger draw (13 of 64) had rackets strung for the first round (20%).

The success rates of those who had rackets strung this year is not what it was last year either. In 2016, 11 of the 15 guys who strung for the first round of qualifying won (73%). Only two players who had rackets strung for their matches lost to someone who did not have a racket strung on site.

In 2017, the record of the 13 players who had rackets strung on site for their first matches was 7 wins and 6 losses (54% success rate).

Of course, these are only two data points and even then they only tell part of the story. Players can have their rackets professionally strung at home or off-site, of course. But as someone who believes that stringing matters, I like to see what the data (even if incomplete) show.

One additional variable this year is an increase in our charge for stringing. For the first two years of the tournament, we charged $16 a racket, which I thought was more than fair for the quality of service we provided. Especially hearing players complain about the poor quality of stringing at other Futures events where they were being charged for $20 a racket. In respect of our own time and effort and the quality provided, we went to $20 this year. Once the main draw players arrive, we’ll see how elastic stringing prices are. I hope we didn’t shoot ourselves in the foot economically!

2016 Big Time Tennis Year in Review

It’s hard to believe that 2016 was the 9th year in business for this hobby-gone-mad, and between racket stringing and customization our busiest year ever.

Thanks largely to our work for the Wake Forest men’s tennis team and professional tournament stringing, we crossed the 2,000 racket threshold for the second time and for the first time since 2013:

  • 2016: 2,095
  • 2015: 1,974
  • 2014: 1,759
  • 2013: 2,149
  • 2012: 1,467
  • 2011: 1,265
  • 2010: 1,171
  • 2009:   750
  • 2008:   251

All told, we’ve strung nearly 13,000 rackets since 2008, in our spare time, which is hard to fathom.

Highlights of the year begin and end with the Wake Forest men winning their first Atlantic Coast Conference championship. So much hard work by so many people went into that championship and we are so proud to have played a part.

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We also did the stringing again for the ITF Pro Circuit Futures of Winston-Salem, which was upgraded to a $25K event for 2016.

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And the ATP World Tour/WTA Tour Citi Open in Washington DC.

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Last, we always enjoy working as the part of the MOZI Tennis stringing team at our hometown ATP World Tour Winston-Salem Open. 2016 was special because we were given the responsibility of managing the stringing service.

wso-team-2016

We learned recently that the Winston-Salem Open was voted by ATP Tour players as 250 Tournament of the Year!

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In my 2015 Year in Review, I concluded by saying it was hard to imagine 2016 being as great as 2015, but I do believe we were able to exceed our own expectations. I won’t make any predictions or promises for 2017, but just say CHEERS! to a great year.

cheers

Testing the Pro Stringer Portable Stringing Machine

Professional stringing is all about accuracy and consistency. The strings need to be installed in the racket at the desired tension, and that needs to be repeated racket after racket after racket. This allows players to have confidence that when they hit the ball, they will get the result they expect over and over and over.

Professional tennis players must contend with different stringers and stringing machines every week, introducing some natural variation into the consistency/accuracy equation. But the differences are magnified because some of the stringers on tour use questionable techniques and some of the machines pull questionable tensions.

This is especially true of – though not limited to – the lower levels of professional tennis. It is a sort of insult to injury situation when players are not even earning enough to cover their expenses and are receiving inaccurate and/or inconsistent for their hard earned money.

So, even though I get paid as an “on site” stringer at professional tournaments, I completely understand why some players would look for a better, more affordable “off site” option. As I noted in a previous post, Rubin Statham and his brother spent some $17,000 on stringing in their first year on tour, and found the quality of stringing, especially in Asia, abysmal (my term, not his).

Statham’s need for good quality, consistent, and affordable stringing led him to design and bring to market the Pro Stringer Platinum, a 4 pound, electronic, constant pull stringing machine that fits in a small travel bag.

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I was fortunate to meet Statham at the ITF Pro Circuit Winston-Salem Futures last month and he was nice enough to allow me to test his machine.

The package consists of a swiveling mount that attaches to a table top, a tensioner, two flying clamps, and a power supply that is convertible to be used anywhere in the world.

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The Pro Stringer is easy to set up and get the frame mounted on. Because it clamps to a table top, I actually ended up stringing the racket sitting down because it was too low to stand up and use. This took a bit of getting used to, but could also be a benefit for the player stringing their own rackets at the end of a long day.

The two point mounting system held the racket securely. For most professional stringers a 6 point mounting system is preferred to reduce stress on the frame, but let’s not forget that the Prince Neos has been used to string millions of rackets over the years with a two point mounting system.

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Rubin Statham demonstrating how to mount the frame using my Pacific X Feel Tour

My test racket was one I have strung many times in the past year on both my Babolat Star 5 and Wilson Baiardo machines: A Wilson Pro Staff 97 RF with Pacific X Cite 1.25mm string at 55 pounds. I have a good idea what the stringbed should feel like after installation: 39 units of dynamic tension measured using an ERT 300 tennis computer.

I first used my scale to test the calibration of the Pro Stringer’s tensioner. I found that it initially pulled to the 55 pounds reference tension, but then quickly feel back to 50 pounds. That is not optimal, but if it consistently pulls to 50 pounds when set at 55 pounds reference tension (which it seems to do), then I could easily adjust for that.

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A unique aspect of the Pro Stringer is that you move the tensioning unit itself, setting it up against the frame and then running the string into the rotary tension head and pressing the tension button. Because the tensioning unit has to be as tall as the racket, the Pro Stinger has only 180 degree not 360 rotation (like the Prince Neos and unlike the Star 5 and Baiardo). So, I had to get used to swinging the racket back and forth to string. Statham also showed me how to make the process faster by not only swinging the racket but also tilting and moving the tensioning unit at the same time. With some practice, I think that would really speed up the process.

Using my own starting clamp in addition to the supplied flying clamps I was able to install the mains in just under 9 minutes. I never use flying clamps so this was a bit cumbersome for me but I got better with them as I went.

Stringing the crosses also took longer than normal (about 15 minutes) because of the need to set the tensioning unit against the frame and also because the cross-beam on which the frame mounts sit is so close to the string bed. There is less than an inch of clearance so you have to weave to the middle of the frame and then make an awkward (for me) transition through the middle mains and then you can continue onto the other side of the frame.

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I practiced once on the machine with my Pacific X Feel Tour before doing my test

I took a couple of additional minutes to tie off the crosses and use my setting awl to straighten the strings, both of which were harder because the frame mount is naturally not as sturdy as on a 150 pound machine.

In the end, the dynamic tension of the stringbed as measured by the ERT 300 was 31. Although the conversion from DT to pounds of tension is not perfect, the DT of 31 suggests that the stringbed came out about 10 pounds looser on the Pro Stringer than on the Star 5 or Baiardo. As already noted, about 5 pounds of this was due to the tensioner’s calibration being off. The other 5 pounds was likely due to the quality of and my clumsiness with the flying clamps.

Overall, I liked the Pro Stringer a lot. It does what it does – provides players with a portable electronic, constant pull stringing machine — as well as any machine I know. At a cost of US$790, it will easily pay for itself in a year’s time or less for a serious professional who restrings as often as they should. If I played tennis for money and had to travel a lot I would definitely get one. It’s also a good option for traveling junior tennis players as well as underfunded college teams.

That said, there are a number of improvements I would like to see to the Pro Stringer. Setting the tension on the machine uses an analog dial (like the Neos) rather than a digital display (like the Star 5/Baiardo). That was tough to use with my old, bad eyesight. Better clamps would be great – something like the well-regarded Stringway flying clamp. More room between the cross brace and the frame would be very helpful with weaving the crosses. There is no table lock, so I don’t know how hard it would be to string a Prince O Port racket. I guess you would use the banana/boomerang tool, but I have never had to do that with my other machines’ table locks. Non-essential but convenient options on the tensioning unit would be a pre-stretch option and a knot over-tension option. We use those frequently during ATP Tour events.

I don’t know the status of the project, but in discussing these issues with Statham he indicated that a new version of the Pro Stringer is in production which will incorporate many of these changes. I look forward to giving the new model a try when it is available.