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YOUR TENNIS RACQUET AND YOU - A FRIENDLY GUIDE OF TENNIS RACQUET TERMINOLOGY
Tennis Racquets, like most things, are simple tools that, in the hands of a master of technobabble, can suddenly become complex weapons of engineering ridiculousness. I recently overheard this line at a tennis conference: “By overcompensating for the polar moment of inertia with increased elasticity and beam width this racquet possess the best torque and rotational velocity on the market”. I stuck my head in and said “Yeah, but can it help me hit the ball.” Needless to say, I was asked to leave.
Sure, some terms are worth knowing, and depending on how deep you want to go into the technological pool, racquet terminology can get pretty intense. For starters, let’s look at the tennis racquet itself.
Head & Headsize- If you want to play tennis, you’ll need a Head on your tennis racquet, without one you are pretty much playing cricket. This is the round part, where the strings are, where most of the technology is, and it's what I blame when I biff one into the net. Headsize, the size of the head, is measured in square inches and is a big deal - yeah, size matters, especially if you are looking for power. The equation here is pretty simple: Want more Power? Get a bigger Headsize. Looking for more control, then you guessed it, go for a smaller Headsize.
Contact Point & Sweetspot Contact Point is the point where, you guessed it, contact is made. The Sweetspot is the location in the head of the racquet that hits the ball the best. Have you ever hit a crosscourt winner that miraculously went exactly where you wanted it to go? And you said “Sweet!” right? You hit it in the Sweetspot. Knowing if your Contact Point is missing the Sweetspot can be a motivating factor in going to a larger Headsize in your next tennis racquet. The larger the Headsize the larger the Sweetspot.
Natural & Synthetic String. If you plan on hitting the tennis ball, you’ll need some strings on the head of your racquet. Strings come in 2 basic types, Natural, which means organic material as in guts, as in actual guts, as in intestines, mostly from cows, occasionally from sheep and never from cats, despite the other term often used for natural gut: catgut. The other basic type is Synthetic String, which encompasses a multitude of string types - check out our Tennis String page for the nitty gritty.
Tension. Tennis Strings are importantly set to a specific Tension as specified by a range given on the tennis racquet itself. Stringers and Stringing machines create a certain measure of tension in the strings, usually measured in pounds per square inch (or just Pounds, as in “I had my racquet strung at 65 pounds”) It's good to note that Stringing Tension, the tension set at the stringing machine, is usually a little more than what will be the Actual Tension once you get your racquet. Strings relax once you put them on the head of the racquet, they put their feet up have a glass of wine and lose some of the tension they originally had. Good for them. If you are looking for more power in your swing, have the stringer use the highest value of tension for your tennis racquet, but be ready for more vibration. Want control, go with the lower value.
Grommets. Helping the strings stay in place when you play are the grommets, the little short plastic tubes that the string passes through along the edge of the racquet. They help keep the mains (the strings that go up and down the head) and the crosses (they go across the head of course) in place after you hit the ball. Thank your grommets every once and while - they are often overlooked but keep everything neat.
Bumper. At the top of the racquet you may have a Bumper - something that protects the tip of the tennis racquet when scraped against the ground - a necessary item for teenage boys and people with the dropsies.
Dampener. Simply a device that decreases vibration in the racquet. Sometimes the dampener is internal and built in to the racquet itself. However, not all racquets have internal dempening so you might want to add one to your strings. External Dampeners are synthetic devices placed along the strings that decrease vibration in the grip. These come in two types, ones that work well and cover most of the mains at the bottom of the racquet and then there are dempeners that are cute. You can easily tell the difference.
Shaft. As we move down from the head, we enter the Shaft of the racquet, and that’s where you find the Throat, Grip and the Butt and it’s usually around this time where we question which freudian adherent named the pieces of the racquet. The throat is the y-shaped area off the grip - I think we all know what the Grip is, and the Butt is the end of the tennis racquet.
Balance, Headlight & Headheavy. At the start, this seems pretty logical. Balance meaning exactly where the balance point is on the racquet. For example, if you were to balance a perfectly balanced racquet lengthwise on the tip of your finger, we would expect the balance point to be right in the middle. If the tennis racquet is headheavy then the balance point would be closer to the head of the racquet and the head would drop when our finger is in the middle. Headlight racquets have the balance point closer to the butt. Logical right? Good - let's make it complicated. To measure balance we measure from the butt to the balance point. So, on a perfectly balanced 26 inch tennis racquet, the balance point would be at 13 inches. On a headheavy racquet the balance point will be closer to the head, maybe at 13.5 inches. Make sense? Good. Let’s make it more complicated. So, first, when we measure where the balance point is, we’re going to use “points” as a unit of measurement (having high school chemistry flashbacks?) - what the heck is a point? Good question - its ⅛ of an inch. How come we don't just say ⅛ of an inch? Feel free to write the USTA. Now, were gonna use those points to say how far away the balance point is from the exact middle of the racquet. So, on our 26 inch racquet, the middle is at 13 inches. If the racquet is perfectly balanced, the balance point and middle are the exact same and have no difference - and we would say it is “0 (zero) points Balanced”. Now, on another 26 inch tennis racquet, let's say the balance point happens at the 12 inch mark, so closer to the butt, and also meaning that the racquet is headlight. Since the balance point is 1 inch from the middle, we could say it's 1 inch headlight, but again that would be forgetting we use Points - there are 8 points in an inch, so the tennis racquet is “8 points headlight”. Make sense? I didn't think so. The real thing to remember is to look if the racquet is headlight, balanced or headheavy. Headlight racquets help with control and stamina, headheavy racquets give you power and feel heavier when you swing them. Balanced racquets give you the best of both worlds. Now, the more Points something is headlight or headheavy, for example 8 points headlight vs 2 points headlight, tells you something in comparison. That 2 point headlight racquet will feel a lot like a balanced racquet compared to the 8 points headlight one.
Swingweight is a term that can be derived from the balance of the tennis racquet. Take a moment and go out to your garage and swing a few mallets around. I’m sure you have tons of different mallets, so try an iron one, a rubber one, and also use that inflatable mallet you have just for fun. Ill wait. **surreptitiously makes sandwich** Oh! You’re back...okay. So, what did you learn? The Iron mallet that is 400 Points headheavy is really heavy to swing and we would say it has a high swingweight. If you were able to hit a tennis ball with the iron mallet it would go all the way to Matt’s house. Now that inflatable mallet, which is say 100 points headlight, you could swing that all day. The inflatable mallet has low swingweight and is probably good at dinking tennis balls for your neighbor’s elderly poodle. Swingweight is really handy for things like judging power (heavier) and endurance (lighter) and is lousy for judging things like apple tarts and stamp collecting.
Gauge is one of those annoying inverse relationships we were warned about in physics class. See Gauge is a measurement of String thickness. The range of gauge is from 15 to 18, and while you might think that 18 gauge string is thicker than 15, you would be wrong. 15 Gauge String is the thickest. 18 gauge is the thinnest. Inverse relationships - what fun! What is gauge measuring exactly? Well - manufacturers aren't entirely consistent about how many millimeters makes up a certain gauge, but basically 15 gauge is about 1.35mm thick and 18 gauge is about 1.20mm. 1 gauge = approximately .05mm. You want to know if they have half gauges? Like 15.5 or 17.5? Well, they do. But hey don't use “.5”, instead, in the name of all that is confusing, they use “L”. With the letter “L” meaning “half”. So, let's say you are liking your 17 gauge string, but it breaks a lot (the thinner the string, the more the break) but you don’t want to lose the spin the string is giving you - so maybe drop down half a gauge to a 16L. 16L is a little bit thicker. by .005mm or so, and will last a little longer.
Torque - Torque is the force generated by circular motion and is all over tennis like a cheap suit. For example, swinging a tennis racquet is a more or less circular motion that generates a force, or torque, that you transfer to the ball when you hit it. The faster you swing your arm the more torque is generated, and therefore the more force. Torque can also be increased by things like length of the arm that is moving in a circle. For example, if you grip your racquet closer to the butt you will increase your torque when compared to gripping your racquet closer to the throat. By the same token, longer tennis racquets increase the torque and therefore increase the force exerted in your swing while shorter racquets do the opposite and help with control. Also, when you serve, you fully extend your arm and body creating a long lever that maximizes your torque when you strike the ball. Torque can also refer to the twisting of a racquet when it is struck off-center. For hacks like myself that never hit the Sweetspot, this is an important consideration and is a type of torque we should strive to keep to a minimum.
Impulse. Impulse is basically a combination of Time and Force and has a lot to do with how we transfer the force of our swing into the ball when we strike it. To increase the amount of force applied to a struck tennis ball, we basically want the ball on our racquet for the least amount of time. Let say you used a paddle style racquet, no strings, just a solid piece of wood. When you struck the ball, it would spend very little time on the paddle and almost all of the force of our swing would be transferred to the ball - and it would take off! Zoom! Now, lets strike the tennis ball with a loosely strung badminton racquet. As we strike the ball we can feel the strings almost catching and cradling the ball before it flies off with noticeably less momentum. All that time it spent on the strings decreased the transfer of force to the ball. A lot of what is changed in a racquet, especially in regards to strings, is about decreasing or increasing the time the ball spends on the racquet and thereby decreasing or increasing the relative force on the ball. Want more power, then tighten up your strings, go for thicker gauge, and stiffen up your racquet - make it more like a piece of wood so the ball spends as little time on your strings as possible. Want more control, then do the opposite. Soften up the strings, use thinner gauge, play with more spin and you’ll decrease the force on the ball and increase your control. The best straight up example is a slice backhand vs. a standard backhand. The slice floats through the air, the standard pops, the difference is all about how much time the ball spends on the strings of the tennis racquet.