A racket shopper’s odyssey

A new racket is a possibility. Maybe this is the frame that will vanquish my shortcomings.

Or so I think as I read through Tennis magazine’s racket reviews and consider the feedback at TennisWarehouse. I kill time in pro shops, handling the merchandise while a sales clerk hovers nearby. He’s praying for a sale. More often than not, I leave empty-handed. I’ve found a stick I can live with.

My racket-shopping odyssey began when I decided to get back into the game after a 15 year hiatus. During my time away, tennis had entered the age of oversize frames and space age composites. My lacquered wooden Chemhold with the candy-cane-striped strings wasn’t going to cut it.

I went to a big box sporting goods emporium to pick out a new weapon. I wound up with a Wilson Hyper Hammer, a sledgehammer emblazoned on the electric-blue frame. Feather light with an enormous racket head, the Hyper Hammer was a marvel of engineering and avant-garde aesthetics, more sculpture than sporting good.

I scheduled a lesson at a local club. “Let’s start hitting short,” the pro said. I removed the Hyper Hammer from its sheath, ready to pound groundstrokes like Thor. “What kind of racket is that?”

“A Wilson Hyper Hammer.” I possessed an easy confidence in my weaponry. He fed me a ball. I swung lazily. The ball exploded off my racket. The frame vibrated in my hand, emitting a low buzz.

The pro took the racket, gave me his. He fed me a ball, and I tapped it back to him. He raked the Hyper Hammer’s enormous stringbed up the back of the ball. It wobbled mid-air like a defective gyroscope, then hit the har-tru and kicked to my left. “This is a spin racket,” the pro said, shaking his head.

He walked to his bag, returned, and handed me the Wilson Hyper ProStaff 5.0 MidPlus, an intimidating black carbon frame with flaming licks of red. Whoa!This had some heft. I backed up. The pro fed me a few balls. The racket felt solid through the contact point. I was getting decent power on my groundstrokes while still keeping the ball inside the lines. “Where can I get one of these?”

So began my long association with Tweener frames, rackets with a little more power than player’s frames, but a lot more control than “game-improvement” granny sticks such as the Hyper Hammer. Some pros such as Rafael Nadal and Andy Roddick use Tweeners (the Babolat AeroPro Drive Cortex and Babolat Pure Drive Roddick GT Plus, respectively). Roger Federer’s weapon of choice, the Wilson BLX Six.One Tour, is the consummate player’s frame.

I played with the Hyper ProStaff 5.0 for a couple of years, then switched to the Volkl Quantum Tour 10, which was a little lighter. The brand’s hard-to-pronounce string of consonants and its commercial obscurity gave it a certain cachet. When you pulled the Volkl out of your racket bag, your opponent knew he was in the presence of a player, not some hacker who’d picked a prestrung Wilson off the wall at Sports Authority.

I played with the Volkl for a few years. When its replacement, the DNX 10, was released, I bought the new model. The old model’s dull rubbery finish had been upgraded to a high gloss. But the racket had put on a few ounces during its evolution. I was playing a lot of ball on a fast indoor court, and I was consistently late on my forehand. I needed something lighter.

I started ordering demos from Tennis-Warehouse, including Nadal’s Babolat; a re-release of John McEnroe’s Dunlop Maxply, complete with old school aesthetics; the Wilson Surge, a more powerful, lighter successor to my old Hyper ProStaff 5.0. Some were lighter than my Volkl, some more maneuverable, but they lacked its solid feel.

And then I found it. The aesthetics were dubious–burnt orange with streaks of silver. The stick came pre-strung, and it was dirt cheap, inauspicious signs to most tennis fiends. But the weight was right. It felt solid at contact, and it had good feel, carving under drop shots like a razor. I’d found my racket, the Head Liquidmetal Radical. My odyssey had ended.

For now.

–A. Clarke


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