Light or heavy racquet?

Think this has been covered quite a few times by now, but I'm still seeing and hearing even better players talk about light or heavy racquets, and with that referring to static weight.

However, except for block volleys the racquet is usually in motion, and the measure for how heavy that feels is swing weight- one could argue the most important spec! Tennis-Warehouse e.g. measures and then lists this on their racquet pages (e.g. 2019 Head Radical Pro @ 325). This key measure has been MIA on other websites like Tennis-Point, but I wouldn't be surprised if we start to this popping up in 2019...

To get a quick sense for values and range here, check out my post about the racquet spectrum. You'll also see that lightweight racquets are usually head-heavier, which brings the swingweight back closer to the heavyweights.

It is true that heavier racquets are harder to get into position and to get going - you're basically lifting more weight. For example I still struggle sometimes when pushed around and/or having to quickly change direction. Conversely, I also sometimes feel like lugging around 350+ grams slightly changes the way I move, even compared to 330 or so.

But once in motion those heavier racquets can actually feel easy to swing. Examples would be Wilson's heavy Pro Staffs over the years, especially the stock versions of the small head / thin beam 85 that Sampras, Courier, and Fed used as a base frame. If you pick up a true to spec (or even lighter and/or head-lighter version) of a SixOne or even an RF97 and start swinging you can still sense that just describing them as "heavy" is not sufficient.

There are also flipsides to having a light and maneuverable racquet, e.g. what happens to the swing paths. Your racquet should both support and guide your natural swing paths, in other words help and develop your strokes. If it feels like there's next to nothing in your hand there won't be much support or guidance!

In addition, if you fiddle around too much there's increased risk of repetitive stress injuries. Plus lighter racquets are usually stiffer and lose most of the impact battle with the ball, so extra shock occurs.

I'm a big proponent of playing with all sorts of racquets, balls etc - to make things easy, interesting, and/or build skill. However for your "normal" play, I would strongly advice against just going out and getting the lightest racquet that you can find.

As an experiment and experience, these days I would actually try to find the heaviest stick possible, stay loose, and see what happens to strokes and the resulting shots...

In general, try a few different options along the spectrum, and take along a few dampeners to play around with weight, balance, and thus swing weight, as suggested here.

For some guidance on how to choose a tennis racquet, there's also a post for that!

New balls, please!

[BETA POST to get the content out there, will brush up if there's interest]

TL;DR: In 2019, still can't go wrong with the Wilson US Open Extra Duty or Slazenger Wimbledon. You know how to shop...

Since a friend asked me about this the other day, here are some quick thoughts on the state of tennis balls in 2019. There surely are a lot of options on the market - but subjectively, tennis balls seemed to have been getting worse for some time...

Mainly, I'm thinking this because of my fond memories playing with the original Dunlop Tournament ball in Germany, e.g. back in the 90s. It felt and still feels like the only "normal" ball you needed. It played great and lasted pretty long. Size, weight, felt, and pressure felt just right.

Overall it had a very solid but still comfortable feel to it. It took on spin (i.e. it would land in the court when it should), you could hit winners with it, and after a short break in during warmup in wouldn't degrade much over the course of a long match. In other words, it wasn't limiting your play and experience.

In comparison, apart from different feel, I thought some other recent kinds of balls would consistently fly long. And these days, you often need to pop open a new can for the 3rd set! In some tournaments that's even mandatory... Other balls are so hard, it literally hurts.

As for the Dunlop Tournament, it was just unfortunate that it was so expensive. In your local sports shop it would cost the equivalent of up to $5 / 5€... per ball! When assessed in "cost per enjoyable contact" the ball would get a bit more price-competitive, but still you really had to think hard about when and how many to purchase. One of the successors, the Dunlop Fort Tournament, has gotten a tad cheaper for all the common reasons (e.g. online, competition), but it's still expensive.

It's worth a quick mention that there are also some regional (continental?) differences. While balls in Europe seemed to have been built to last, most balls in the US would be OK for one hit. Pricing was set accordingly - 1 ball in Europe = 1 can of 3 in the US. (So when your US court time is expensive, don't show up with just 3 balls!)

So now, how to pick a ball in 2019? First, thinking of the main use cases, I guess those would be match practice, live-ball practice, dead-ball practice (with partner / coach or ball machine. The more hits, the more wear of course, with a ball machine adding a multiplier there. Ideally there'd be one ball for everything, same or similar to the ones you'll be handed at competitions.

Especially for practice, the more balls the better. Well - at around 200 it might get a bit crowded on court... But still, apart from being enjoyable to hit, they'd need to be somewhat affordable and lasting. Even though I'm still reminiscent of the Dunlops, the better ones are still twice as expensive as pretty good alternatives.

In the US, my favorite ball after trying most used to be the Pro Penn ATP Extra Duty. Another 5.0 tennis friend used to describe them as "friendly", which stuck with me as fitting. You could have a great hit and still put them in a basket for a few more practice sessions. Currently it's not clear to me if they have an official successor after losing the ATP sponsorship to Dunlop. Haven't done much research here since the following 2 meet my current needs:

I've also always liked the Wilson US Open Extra Duty. They're not as light and shaven as some of the other hard court balls. While they can be a bit rocky for the first ~100 contacts, they become enjoyable and stay that way for a comparably long long time. PBI for example uses that one as worldwide practice ball, even on clay, which inspired me to follow suit. I tried them for ball machine use as well, and they seem to manage that much better than the mix of other balls in there. Even though they're officially designed for hard court, they've worked well for me not only on clay, but also on carpet. Guess for cross-surface compatibility it mostly comes down to having enough friction, so that the ball doesn't slide as much on bounce...

In addition I've been enjoying the Slazenger Wimbledon, which is a similar-playing half-priced alternative to the good Dunlops. For ~3 sets they hold up pretty well. Then they turn a bit slow-playing but maintain their size and felt, so generally still good and comfortable for practice. At times these characteristics could actually be exactly what you want - for example for practicing longer rallies at the beginning of the clay season. Or making things more comfortable for beginners. I've also found the Slazengers very if not most enjoyable on hard court - which goes counter the Wimbledon branding's association with grass.

Other balls I had recently tried after shortlisting were

  • 2019 Dunlop ATP balls - seemed a bit too soft, at least in Europe.
  • Balls Unlimited Black Code - liked them for a while too - initially somewhat comparable to the Slazenger, however they went flat pretty quick.
  • Head Championship - hard as stone at first, then become OK for X months / hours, then suddenly die. They smell really bad, so don't leave them in your car or in a room where you spend a lot of time.
  • Tennis-Point branded Premium - felt a little harsh and are not really playable after their first use

Bottom line, the above-mentioned Wilson and Slazenger balls seem like good all-around options. If money is less of a consideration, you could also try the high-priced Dunlops or the second-grade Dunlop Trainers (1 out of 4 tends to go flat pretty quickly). 

Finally, if you're about to play competitively, don't forget to pick up the kind they'll be using there for at least one hit before your first match!

Prince Phantom 100 line roundup

Alright, so I've put on record before that subjectively, TeXtreme is so far the nicest playing material of the millennium. Well done Prince!

Also, I felt the last couple generations of Prince's lineup were well thought out - nice specs, good range of racquets. Personally I've just been missing a replacement for the somewhat hefty but friendly Speedport Tour that I've played for a few years. The racquets in the current Tour series are all a bit too light for that (see e.g. my review of the heaviest Tour 95).

While the Tour racquets already addressed the - what would you call it - maybe "classic competitive player" market, the Phantoms took a step further by offering even more a) of a classic design (at least at first sight), b) plusher feel. So how did that line turn out then?

(I know there's a Phantom missing here, didn't test in one go...)

Over the course of 2018, I've spent some court time with all the Phantom 100s. Most recently I had a chance to try number 3 of 3, the Pro. After the playing impressions, I think the line deserves a shot at a roundup...

Here's what I think all Phantoms have in common:

* Simple design (in a good sense)
* Thin and flexible beam
* Plush feeling (due to flex and material)
* Straight forward string pattern
* Proven spec combos

So what sets them apart?

1) Phantom (310g, 310mm unstrung) - friendly playing, but relatively low power ceiling. The swallowing effect of the relatively light, thin, flexy beam gets a multiplier with the big Speedport grommets. (Put a loosely strung Cyclone Tour in there and the ball will probably just drop off the racquet after impact... :P) I had enjoyed these wide grommets for a while in my Speedport Tours, but ended up replacing them with traditional grommets for more power and a more direct response. This Phantom could be for you though if you're after comfort first - coming back after injury could be one scenario. Think it would be a good coaching stick as well.

2) Phantom Pro (305, 315) - slight difference in spec, but almost the Phantom with normal grommets. Still very plush. If you're looking to compete, attempt to rip a winner here and there, and are looking for more precision, this might be the better buy of the two.

3) Phantom Pro 100P (315, 315) - specs and the boxy design are even more of a nod towards a traditional player stick, with a tad more weight and a more head light balance compared to the other two. I had expected to like this one best, but somehow the Pro felt a bit better. The Pro was also nicer to touch for the supporting (!) hand. Players who are missing "the good old frames", or those who are curious to try something other than a Babolat power racquet, would likely enjoy a demo. Even just as an experience, and/or for comparison.

Overall, all Phantom 100s are very nice racquets, of which any come with the potential to help most folks play better AND improve their craft (e.g. play more creatively, or generate power by hitting all out but doing so cleanly).

My one knock about the lineup, and what's keeping me from switching, is that there's not a hefty option, let's say in the 330 swingweight range. That could make quite a nice combo with the current design and plush feel, also getting closer to the way that pros like to set up their racquets. Maybe that's a gap in Prince's lineup? How about a more solid Phantom 100 with a straight 20 or 21 mm beam and 16 x 18 pattern? I guess I'm really asking for a TeXtreme version of the Speedport Tour :)

Regardless of this request, the Prince's Phantom and Tour racquets do deserve to sell a lot and be seen more at amateur and pro tournaments. Should be good for the industry to have Prince re-emerge and make some money to build on the advances in lineup and products. But please Prince, build them on-spec...

My latest 2 demos, the Pro and the 100P, were both relatively far off in terms of weight. The 100P stood out by being 9 grams too light. Even though I don't have access to a representative sample to determine whether Prince has lowered its manufacturing bar, IMO that's already way out of bounds. After finding what e.g. Wilson's seemingly +/- 5 tolerance can do to a racquet, I'd say you want to be as close to what's printed on the frame as possible.

When testing the racquets I tried to factor this in - and yes I think even with almost 10 grams more you won't end up producing a heavy ball with the Phantoms. The upside is that they're all so easy to play, they can get away with being off-spec much easier than most other racquets that come to mind.

The demos came from Tennis Warehouse Europe. Though I'm obviously thankful that they're offering the program, they currently seem to run it as if they don't care about the racquets (and the folks trying them). Apart from not picking representative (i.e. true-to-spec) demos in the first place, the frames were simply tossed in the box, no overgrips provided, base grips were quite worn out, one racquet came with a rubber band and the other didn't, no dampeners included, sloppy string jobs (very different tension on very similar racquets, strings not straightened, cutoffs long, uneven, and sharp), and their own tags not affixed well. That doesn't leave much positive to say, unfortunately!

While some folks believe in the "don't be gentle it's a rental" mantra, you'll find me in the opposite camp - respect and all that. So I was quite disappointed there, and it makes one wonder how other things are run at the shop. From TWE's perspective, it's also a missed sales and marketing opportunity. Probably better to spend some money and care there than in some other places...

Either way, the Phantoms thankfully got away with all that as well, and were still fun to hit :)