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Does light make right?
by Joe Sheehan
Recently a group of friends were discussing whether lightweight racquets would provide any benefits to a member of their doubles group who suffered from tennis elbow. Some of them, urging the player to go light, seemed to be making claims about the benefits of these new racquets that even the most aggressive of ad campaigns wouldn't. In light of this conversation, taking a look at the hottest selling point in racquets seemed worthwhile. Are ultra light racquets right for everyone? Even if they were, how would one find one's way through a field of new products that seem to sprout like mushrooms across the courts and pro shops of the land?
The first thing one might wonder is, "Exactly what is a lightweight racquet?" After all, just about any racquet on the market today is lighter, more maneuverable and easier on the arm than the first aluminum racquets that began the evolution away from wood in the 1970s.
Just a few years ago, a racquet that weighed 10 oz. (unstrung - most conventional strings will add 1/2 ounce) was considered to be light in weight. In 1999, most manufacturers consider an 8-oz. racquet to be "ultra light." These racquets are generally aimed at the "game improvement" market: beginners and seniors who may have lost a step or some reach recently. The trend toward ever-lighter sticks seems likely to continue, with Prince recently introducing the Thunder SuperLite, the first sub-7 oz. racquet on the market, a racquet Prince promises is the "lightest and stiffest" now available.
As for what ultra lights can do for a player, let's start with the obvious. A racquet that is lighter will be easier to swing, so even players who do not possess great physical strength will be able to swing fast and hit hard. But think twice before assuming that this will allow you to overpower your opponents. That well-known tennis theorist, Sir Isaac Newton, teaches us that velocity equals mass times acceleration. So, a player capable of swinging a conventional racquet very fast will be a player who hits very hard.
Try watching a big-hitting baseliner in action. Yevgeny Kafelnikov and Marcelo Rios are so flexible they hit themselves in the back with their follow-throughs. It's this flexibility and the swing speed that goes with it that creates power for them.
Fortunately for the rest of us, manufacturers have come up with ways to put the power back into recreational players' racquets. Since they remove mass - and therefore power - to make a racquet lighter, they have made many of the frames stiffer. This is where titanium sometimes comes into play. Although it is heavier than graphite, titanium is used sparingly with graphite in many ultra lights to provide a combination of stiffness and light weight.
Larger heads are major tools for regaining lost power. Oversize, 110-inch heads have been common for years, but check out the number of new sticks with 115- to 130-inch hitting surfaces. Some of these, like the Wilson SledgeHammers, have teardrop-shaped heads that move the sweet spot 2" to 3" higher in the head. This makes sense since that's where many recreational players make contact with the ball. The part of the head that has, arguably, the biggest effect on power enhancement is the grommet area. By using larger grommets (Prince's Sweet Spot Suspension, Wilson's Power Holes(r) and Volkl's Big Grommets), the strings become more forgiving of off-center contact so the sweet spot actually does become larger.
Another advantage of ultra lights is maneuverability at net. The lighter the racquet, the easier it is to move quickly. This effect can make one of the popular 28-or-so-inch racquets feel much more nimble in your hand. Some of the original extra longs were fine for recreational baseliners, but less than ideal for competitive net rushers. In theory, at least, an extra light extra long would be better suited for net play.
Ironically, considering the idea that set this article in motion, what the ultra lights don't do is provide extra benefits for players with injuries or sensitive arms. In fact, the act of lightening a racquet may cause it to transmit more shock to the player's arm if other steps are not taken. The traditional feel that many experienced players prefer can be another casualty of the lightening process.
HEAD, which had the No. 1, 2 and 3 best-selling game-improvement racquets for 1998 (with its' Ti S6, S7 and S5 racquets, respectively) uses its Twintube dampening technology to help restore both feel and shock absorption. They also use an anti-torsion stabilizer in the throat of some of their lighter racquets to help counter torque on off-center hits. Wilson says its new Hyper Carbon "is more torsionally stable" than graphite, imparting both strength and stiffness to their newest racquets. Several manufacturers use soft inserts in the handles and/or butt caps to help cushion shock. All of these help to make the new, lighter racquets feel like their more conventional kin.
Although the original ultra lights were intended for the game improvement market, this year the technology is available in sticks for players of every NTRP rating. Racquets are available for almost every budget, with suggest list prices ranging from under $150.00 to over $300.00.
So will all this technology make you a better player? Probably not unless you're using that new stick to take some lessons. Next time you go shopping for a racquet, look for a dealer with a demo program. Then, play test as many models as the program allows. Don't limit yourself to what looks or sounds best. Next to one of the super lights, an "old fashioned," conventional racquet like the Pro RD Tour, by Yonex, may feel like it was cast from solid lead, but try playing it and see if it doesn't swing like a light weight. Maybe "old fashioned" is another way of saying "classic." Maybe that's why top pros like Richard Krajicek (Pro RD Tour) and Pete Sampras (Wilson Pro Staff 6.0) stand by their old favorites. While the newer design breakthroughs may offer more to the less experienced player, ultimately the racquet that's right for any individual is the racquet that feels right in their hand.