Nothing may be more critical to your tennis game than the string you use on your racquet. After all, it is what makes contact with the ball each time you hit it, but most of us who play this great sport tend to take this for granted. Instead, we outsource the task of stringing a racquet to a tennis pro or a friend who has their own stringing machine. We might tell them the amount of tension we want, but some of us don’t even do that much, and many of us certainly don’t specify the tennis string we want to use.
One of the best ways you can improve your game without setting foot on the court and going through a strenuous practice session is to become more knowledgeable about your tennis equipment, and that includes the string you use on your racquet.
‘Gauging’ The Thickness of Your String
One important attribute of tennis string is its thickness, which is is not measured with typical units of measurement like millimeters or fractions of an inch, but is instead defined by its gauge (pronounced ‘gage’). Gauge is nothing more than a number from 15 to 18, with 15 gauge being the thickest and 18 gauge being the narrowest.
Each gauge of string also has a ‘light’ version which is designated by the letter L and is slightly thinner than the standard gauge, but not enough to be the next gauge thickness. For example, 15L is slightly thinner than standard 15 gauge string, but not as thin as 16 gauge.
Thick gauge string is best for beginner level players who are still developing their swing mechanics and do not hit the sweet spot consistently. These strings are more durable and less likely to break, making them ideal for players who are starting to learn the game.
Thin gauge string reacts more with each strike, providing better feel and spin. It is better suited for higher level players, but there’s a catch. This type of string is going to break more often, resulting in the need for more frequent restringing, so make sure your budget can handle it. If you still want better performance and feel without having to restring more often, then the intermediate gauges, 16-17 may be more preferable.
Setting The Tension of Your String
It is very important to have the tension of your tennis string set properly for several reasons. One important rule to follow is to stay within the racquet manufacturer’s recommended range. Any tension outside this range will either cause the racquet to perform poorly or possibly damage it. This range will vary depending on the size of the racquet head. For a smaller racquet head, the tension range will be lower, about 55-65 pounds, while a larger racquet head will have a higher tension range, about 65-75 pounds.
Assuming you will be a good customer and stay within the manufacturer’s recommended tension range, the question now becomes whether or not you want more power or control when you strike the ball.
If you want more power, then choose the lower end of the range. Looser strings will have more of a trampoline effect, causing the ball to go further. The downside of looser tension is the reduction of control. If you like to shoot closer to the lines, looser strings will put you at a disadvantage when trying to hit the ball to a precise location.
On the other hand, if you need more control and accuracy, higher tension is more preferable. This causes the ball to spend less time in contact with the strings. You will not have as much of a trampoline effect, but since the string has less effect on directing the ball, your shot will go closer to where you directed it. One thing to be careful about is that higher string tension can be harder on your arms and lead to tennis elbow.
Choosing The Right String Material
Natural gut tennis strings come from animal intestines. They provide the best feel and have especially good energy return, resulting in more power. They also put less stress on the arm, making problems like tennis elbow less likely. These strings are more expensive and less durable than other string material and can be adversely effected by weather conditions and moisture.
The other end of the spectrum would be Kevlar strings. This synthetic material is well known for its strength as it is commonly used to make bulletproof vests. Although it is second to none in its durability, Kevlar is more stiff at high tension and can put more stress on the arm, resulting in tennis elbow.
Nylon may be the most common string material available. It is more durable and less expensive than natural gut and has a better feel than Kevlar.
Many players like to use a hybrid of strings on their racquets. In this configuration, one material is used to string the mains and another material is used to string the crosses. This technique has a ‘have your cake and eat it too’ philosophy as it increases the advantages of tennis string materials while minimizing their disadvantages. On the mains you would use stiffer material like Kevlar, because the mains take more of the abuse. On the crosses you would use a softer synthetic fiber or gut.
For many tennis players, the strings on their racquets may be something that are often taken for granted. This oversight is not good practice for those who want the best performance from their racquet. The more you learn about tennis string and the proper configuration for your style of play, the more the racquet will be able to help you play your best game possible.
Christopher Mohr is a freelance writer from San Diego, Calif. who is interested in covering subjects including sports and tennis equipment such as product reviews on tennis string , racquets, court equipment and bags. Before becoming a writer, he worked for several years in IT and customer service.