Tennis strings are the soul of the tennis racquet just as an engine is the soul of a car. Knowing how to choose tennis strings is just as critical as your racquet choice. The type of strings you choose will greatly affect the playability of your racquet. As it relates to choosing tennis strings, each player has different needs and preferences. When you have chosen properly—the right racquet, the right strings for your tennis game—magical things will happen when you strike the tennis ball.
Where to Start Choose Tennis Strings
I’ve heard many tennis players say, I wouldn’t know the difference; but, the strings can’t make that big of a difference? The reality is that tennis strings can and will make THAT a big of a difference in your game. Deciding upon the right one, though, can be a daunting task. The first thing to comprehend is that there are several types of tennis strings available and a myriad of companies making them:
- Natural Gut– unsurpassed in feel, resiliency, and playability, this string has long been the top choice of professional tour and elite amateur players for decades. As the name infers, gut strings are made from animal intestines. Many of today’s ATP and WTA players opt for a hybrid mix of gut and polyester strings. I think every player should experience the sublime feel and touch of gut strings in their racquet at least once. Natural gut strings also maintain tension the best. I don’t recommend it to recreational or weekend warriors, however, due to its expense and poor durability. A gut is the best choice if you suffer from tennis elbow or other arm issues. If you’ve got the extra funds to spend, gut is the crème de la crème of tennis strings.
Virtually every major tennis company makes natural gut strings. Babolat, Gosen, Prince, and Wilson are among the leaders.
- Synthetic Gut– affordable and durable while offering gut-like superior feel, playability, and power. Ideal for club and recreational players, synthetic gut strings are created by wrapping multiple filaments of nylon strings (Multi-filament) into a single string. Multi-filament synthetic gut string, much like natural gut string, snaps back quickly when the ball impacts it and is also exceptionally arm-friendly. A solid core with an outer wrapping (Mono-filament) construction is a popular all-around performer that delivers a light, crisp feel, and excellent durability. Leading brand name synthetic gut strings include: Angell Halo 3, Babolat X-Cel, Technifibre NRG2, and Wilson NXT.
- Polyester — this string is highly durable and best suited for advanced players who demand ultimate control for their fast and hard swings. Polyester is a very firm string that meets the demands of strong, string-breaking players, but it lacks the playability of gut and synthetics and can be harsh on the elbow. The latest innovations in polyester strings are multi-filament and “softer” polyesters that feature better playability and enhanced vibration dampening. Babolat Ballistic and Luxilon strings among the popular brands.
- Kevlar — the strongest of all tennis strings, Kevlar is an aramid material used in bulletproof vests and is best when paired with a more flexible, softer string in a hybrid combination. This string is surely not for finesse or touch players but is by far the most durable on the market. Ashway, Fortsen, Gamma, and Head are some of the leaders.
Like playtesting various racquets, I strongly recommend experimenting with a few different string brands once you decide which type of string best suits you and your game. Not all gut strings are created equally, just as synthetic gut, polyester, and Kevlar construction can vary from company to company. The addition or omission of special materials can change the way the string behaves when it contacts the tennis ball.
Once you decide on the type of string, your next consideration is string gauge or string thickness. Simply stated, thinner strings provide better playability, and thicker strings offer up more durability. Tennis strings are listed on a scale of 15 (about 1.35 – 1.49 mm) to 19 (about 1.00 – 1.10 mm). Hence, playing with a 19-gauge gut string will give you heavenly playability (more power, enhanced ability to create spin, and splendid touch), but is more susceptible to wear and breakage. Playing with a 15-gauge gut string will last and maintain tension (due to less stretching) longer, but not deliver as much feel. Beginning players may not have the experience to notice this difference, but most advanced players will feel the difference in gauge almost immediately. I strongly recommend to my advanced players to choose the thinnest polyester or Kevlar string available to them.
Generally, 15 gauge is the standard for tennis, with 16 gauge winning the popular vote because of its optimum level of durability and power. A 17- and the 18-gauge string will deliver the best playability but will break faster. Half gauges are available from some manufacturers and are identified with an L (15L, 16L, etc.), which represents Light. Ultimately, your playing style will factor heavily into your string decision:
- Heavy spin creates more friction and fraying across the strings, leading to more breakage. You may want to consider a slightly thicker string for added durability while maintaining the playability and feel you need (e.g., a 16L instead of a 17-gauge)
- Flatter shots wear on strings very little but require more precision than heavy topspin shots. You can benefit from a thinner string that provides more feel and comfort without worry of breaking strings quickly
Stringing Tensions Guidelines
Now that we have chosen a type of string and gauge, it’s time to think about the right string tension. What is string tension? It is simply how tight the strings have been pulled by the stringing machine during the stringing process. This creates the string bed or surface of the racquet face. String tension is measured in pounds and kilograms.
The mains of the string bed are strings that are aligned vertically in the frame (running from the top of the frame toward the bottom). The crosses are as the name implies; they are aligned from left to right or horizontally. Beginner racquets are typically sold pre-strung by the manufacturer. All other racquet frames are sold unstrung.
Each unstrung frame comes with its own specific tension range (displayed in the technical specifications of the frame), usually between 50 to 65 pounds (22.6 to 29.5 kilograms). The popular tension for most players is midway, about 55 pounds of tension. Most stringers will suggest 1 or 2 pounds over midway, or whatever your chosen tension is, due to tension lose after the first few times you play. After some trial and error, you will find the desired string tension that suits you and your type of game—either tighter or looser than midway.
In general, higher string tensions (55 pounds and above) yield more control, but less power. Players report a “feeling” of more control due to the decreased velocity on shots and increased spin potential:
- The string bed will feel more solid, and contact with the ball will feel cleaner
- Tighter strings don’t help propel the ball forward simply due to the shorter length of time the ball is in contact with the strings. Therefore, it can’t travel as far
- You experience more confidence to swing up, across the back of the ball faster, producing more spin
On the other hand, lower string tensions yield more power while sacrificing a bit of control. At lower string tensions (55 pounds or less), the tennis ball “dwells” or remains in contact with the string bed longer before being propelled forward. Think of this as a bow being pulled back before launching an arrow. The farther back you pull the bowstring, the farther the arrow will travel when released.
The looser string bed will feel “mushier” because the strings will stretch or expand more at contact with the tennis ball. This results in:
- A larger sweet spot (the ideal area from which you receive the maximum transmission of energy into the ball at contact)
- Reduced amounts of shock and vibration transmitted to the hand and elbow, which help prevent tennis elbow
I and other finesse/all-court players perceive this as experiencing more control because we don’t have to swing as hard to produce more spin or power. Too aggressive, hard-hitting baseliners, this would feel like hitting with a wet noodle.
If you lower the tension too much, the string bed will become trampoline-like and you will have a significant loss of control. It is strongly recommended that you reduce your normal string tension by 5 to 7 pounds when using polyester or Kevlar strings because they are stiffer than natural and synthetic gut strings.
There are a vast number of different types of tennis strings available. Just as the right type of engine in the body of your car will significantly boost the car’s performance, the right type of strings in your racquet will greatly enhance the playability of your frame. Don’t settle for someone else’s recommendation or just because your doubles partner uses a certain string. You should educate yourself on how to choose the tennis string that will suit you best.
Selecting the right string tension for you boils down to knowing your game—what’s the ideal blend of power and control for you. If you’re not presently getting enough control, increase your string tension by 2 pounds. You might lose a little length on your shots, but you’ll gain the control you’re after. If you’re not experiencing enough pop on your shots, go down by 2 pounds on your string tension.
Another approach is the Hybrid stringing, which is simply using two different types of strings or two different strings tensions (one tension for the mains, another for the crosses). The classic example of this is Roger Federer, whose Champions Choice strings consist of a strong poly and natural gut. Hybrid combinations come pre-selected from some suppliers or you can choose your own.
There will be different string decisions to make at each level, as you improve your skills and hone your game. Having proper knowledge and being able to make an intelligent decision on an important piece of equipment are vital, and could make a huge difference in your game. Knowing how to choose tennis strings can make the difference between winning and losing.