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HOW TO BUY A TENNIS RACKET - PURCHASE RECOMMENDATIONS 2003©
By TennisTom
5/2/03 rev.


In today’s year-2003 market a “decent” – meaning better than just OK – racket will cost you $50 to $250, or more. Here are some real life general recommendations for beginners or intermediates. I will be as concise as I can but it is complex and racket choice varies considerably from person to person depending on their swing style. At the end of this condensation you will find a “cheat sheet” that you can use on your racket buying excursion.

When you go to a sport or pro shop, notice how the tennis racket manufacturers create names that imply aggression, power, stealth, and the like. (Wilson: Hammer, Hyper Hammer, Surge, Nitro, etc.; Prince: “Thunder, Attitude, Hornet, Bandit, Scream, Vendetta, Warrior, Rebel, etc.) This is pure sales pitch. In the real world where the rest of us non-pros live, virtually all beginner or intermediate players need more CONTROL rather than power. In other words, don’t believe the power-aggression hype. Hitting the ball softer and IN is infinitely better than hitting hard and OUT (Tennis Course 101).

WHICH BRAND? Brandwise, it’s different strokes for different folks. Your choice of brand is not critical. Wilson and Prince currently make up 90-some percent of the entire world market! Most racket sellers have a “loaner” or “demo” plan which means that they will charge you a nominal rental fee for a few days so that you can actually play with several rackets for comparison. You’ll have to leave a security deposit or credit card number. If you are brand new to tennis, you can forget the demo because you have not developed a sense of “feel” yet. Otherwise, take at least three demo rackets out to the courts and see which racket feels the best. Usually one will feel better than the others when you hit with them. When demo-ing a racket, play-test it at least 15 minutes or more. It’s musical rackets., which can be fun.

You will find in general that people who work in a private club pro shop will know their equipment well. They usually can offer reasonable advice. When you go to an average sporting goods shop you may not get a knowledgeable sales person. As you walk into the store or into the tennis equipment area, ask to speak to someone who strings rackets as they are more likely to play tennis and to know what they’re talking about.

Hopefully they will have some demo rackets that fit into the following list of recommendations. Manufacturers attach big oval pieces of printed cardboard to each racket and if you try to swing it that way it’s like swinging an open umbrella. If you find a racket that you might potentially buy, take the cardboard off or get the sales person to do it. If you like the way a racket feels, take it out for a weekend demo.

RACKET MATERIALS. Choose a racket frame that is a “graphite composite.” Thermoplastic or fiberglass resins in combination with graphite are fine. A small amount of titanium is OK. Stay away from aluminum, Kevlar, ceramic or boron. If a frame is too stiff it will tend to make your arm sore or eventually cause tendonitis unless your arm muscles are pro-level tough.

FRAME (SHAFT) STIFFNESS OR FLEXIBILITY. Most beginners or intermediate beginners have a slow-to-moderate swing speed, and their racket head speed increases as they achieve better control. The best compromise is to choose medium flexibility.

HEAD SIZE. Choose an “oversize” head – between 110 to 125 square inches. With the larger head you have more area to hit the ball in, the racket is more forgiving on off-center shots, and you have a larger sweet spot area (the “center of percussion”) where the ball rebounds off the strings best). The abbreviation for oversize is “OS.”

RACKET HEAD FRAME WIDTH. Most rackets these days have “widebody” head beam widths (24 to 26 mm). When faced with a choice between widebodies, choose a narrower beam width which generally produces more control and somewhat less power.

RACKET FRAME WEIGHT. This is still an area of controversy among theorists. The current trend is to go to the lighter frame which is 9 to 11 ounces. Many pros usually use rackets which are heavier, around 13 to 14 ounces. A heavier frame tends to vibrate less and therefore is less likely to eventually cause you arm problems. I recommend getting a medium (10 oz.) or slightly heavier frame weight, but the jury is still out on this one. [Exception: IF you and your opponents almost never really hit the ball hard, you can probably get away with a light frame. A lighter weight racket is more maneuverable, meaning you can move it quicker.]

RACKET LENGTH. The standard length has been 27 inches for years. Choose a racket that is 28 or 28 ½ inches long. These are sometimes called “stretch” or “extended” rackets. The extra length won’t hurt, and it might help a little. Most players seem to have little problem transitioning from a shorter to a longer racket, but it’s better to start off with the extra length.

RACKET BALANCE. The balance point of a racket frame is halfway between one end and the other (14” on a 28” frame for instance). When faced with a choice, choose either a neutral balance, or if buying a lighter racket, slightly head heavy balance.

VIBRATION DAMPENING. If the manufacturer claims increased vibration dampening due to frame design, go for the frame with the vibration control engineering. Less shock to your arm is better. Duh.

GRIP SIZE. Pick up a racket and put your hand around the handle. Place the index finger of your opposite hand in the space on the handle between your finger tips and your palm. If your index finger fits comfortably, that size grip is right for you. Look on the handle butt or on the frame near the handle and you will find a number, usually in inches. Most women use 4 1/8” to 4 3/8”. Most men use 4 ½“ to 4 5/8”. (Some European equivalents are: 2 = 4 1/4”, 3 = 4 3/8”, 4 = 4 1/2”, 5 = 4 5/8”.) If your grip is too small then your racket may twist in your hand on off-center hits, which, if it happens too often, will put strain on your elbow tendons. If you are a player subject to hitting off-center hits very often, a slightly larger diameter grip is better than a smaller grip.

STRINGS. If your racket comes pre-strung from the factory, it will be strung in the middle of the manufacturer’s string tension span (which is given in pounds and typically is in the 60 pound range for oversize rackets). The recommended string tension span is usually printed on the frame shaft near the handle. If you need to get the frame strung, choose a 16 gauge synthetic string and have it strung “in the middle.” If you suffer from tennis elbow, have it strung two pounds on the looser side. (Trivia: Two of the world’s better players - John McEnroe strung his rackets at 45 pounds, and Bjorn Borg strung his at 85 pounds! Go figure.)

RESTRINGING. Have your racket restrung at least once a year. It’s generally recommended that if you play twice a week, get your racket restrung twice a year, three times a week, three times a year, yada-yada-yada.

Remember that many of the recommendations in this instructional are indicated for beginner or intermediate beginner tennis players. Some recommendations change for more advanced players, particularly racket head size, shaft flexibility, and racket weight.

Racket storage. Keep your racket in a dry, moderately cool place. NEVER store your racket in your car in the summer time, as the temp inside a car on a 90-degree day may reach 140 degrees. Woooah.

THE RACKET BUYERS CHEAT SHEET. 1) Brand: any; 2) Materials: graphite-composite; 3) Stiffness: medium flex; 4) Head Size: oversize; 5) Weight: medium or heavier; 6) Head Beam Width: narrower is better; 7) Length: 28” or 28 1/2” 8) Balance: neutral; 9) Grip Size: see text; 10) Strings: 16 gauge synthetic, strung in the middle of the manufacturer’s recommendation.

You may want to cut out or copy the above cheat sheet and take it with you when you go racket shopping. The sport of tennis is a comparatively inexpensive sport to play, so choose a decent quality racket rather than a cheap one.

If all of this sounds too complicated, see if an experienced, knowledgeable tennis person will go with you to look at rackets. If you have some playing experience then choose the racket which falls within the above recommendation and feels the best to you. The only way to do this is to go out and hit balls with two or three demo rackets.

If you’ve never played tennis at all then you probably will not understand or appreciate “feel,” and you can just go with the recommendations.

Tennis Tom

You may email me at tennistom@earthlink.net

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