Why you might not have bought Roger's racquet

Alright, good news first. The Wilson Pro Staff RF97 Autograph generally turned out to be an amazing racquet. Official weight and balance combo is spot on, head size seems right, spacing between the cross strings around the sweet spot is even (as opposed to many other PWS frames), it's got plenty of power but also provides good touch, and I like the graphic design too. And it's probably a collector's item.

Between different interviews, Roger has indicated that he has been playing his previous racquet, the Tour 90, close to stock spec. Maybe sometimes a slightly stiffer or softer frame, depending on playing conditions, but that was supposed to be it. After 127 prototypes and about a year of testing, Wilson and Roger came up with the RF97. He committed to the switch and has been playing great since. More power, better serving, less backhand framers - and maybe one can even give the racquet partial credit for the SABR :)

The RF97 was "meticulously play tested and developed by the greatest tennis player of all time", Wilson claims.  It gets better: according to the NY Times, both Wilson and Roger confirmed that the RF97 is what he's actually playing with. Amongst the top 100 players or so, who mostly use custom frames, that would be quite a rarity. And a treat for us consumers. Between the Tour 90 and RF97, weight, balance, and swing weight are actually pretty close - Roger probably wouldn't want to adjust his swings to a new racquet.

I first experienced the RF at the 2014 US Open. I didn't get a chance to hit with it, but holding and swinging it felt right. Very exciting! However, the racquet was almost impossible get a hold of after the official launch. Roger was playing well, and for the first few months it was *the* racquet on the market.

A few months later at a Wilson demo event at Stanford, I finally got a chance to hit with it. It felt rock solid, but I just couldn't get the racquet head around. Very disappointing! The racquet just seemed too heavy.

Most prominent resources found the same. Tennis.com for example tested a frame with 348 kg cm² swing weight. That's significantly higher than the ~330 I've seen resulting from the official specs (including string). Not surprisingly, the Tennis.com author wrote "Wow, it’s heavy.", "...the RF97 Autograph feels every bit it’s 12.5 oz measurement", and it was "a chore to swing". For comparison, Midwest lists 336 and Tennis Warehouse 335This guy was lucky though and ended up with 331.

After that Stanford hit, I dismissed the racquet. Fast forward a year, I took part in a PBI Camp at Stanglwirt, Austria. That gave me a chance to give the frame another go. Between coaches and participants (but not provided by PBI sponsor Wilson!), there were 3 racquets to try. And they all seemed very different...

During the camp, I got about 30 hours of demo time in. I found that I really enjoyed the lighter swinging frames. So I made a trip to the closest Tennis-Point store in Munich and sacrificed a Champion's Choice string job to get the naked specs of the racquet I liked. Turned out that it was slightly below the official spec of 340 grams and 305 balance, which result in a 299 kg cm² swing weight.

In the case of the RF97 (and similar "player" racquets), a true to spec frame does feel substantial and heavy when held, but due to its headlight balance it's supposed to whip around quite easily. With a true to spec RF97, I even find myself making contact or abandoning a swing path too early. For example, I couldn't see players like DelPo or Ana enjoying this frame - the racquet head would probably come around too soon for their long-arm swings.

Based on what I've seen, it's quite likely that folks have been demoing heavy-feeling versions of the RF97. Between the 20 or so frames I measured, the weight range was 6 grams, and balance differed by up to 11 mm. Put those 2 together, and you end up with a swing weight spectrum of over 20 points (measured in kg cm²). That basically means you could get a racquet that swings as light as the non-Autograph Pro Staff 97 or the 95S, or almost as heavy as an old-school Dunlop 200G.

All in all the situation is a bit unfortunate:
  • I probably spent more than 50 hours and more than a grand to figure all that out, just to end up with 3 racquets that match the specs that are printed on the frame.
  • In the process, I also (kindly) tortured 2 local tennis stores and put the folks at Tennis-Point.de to work. That also puts retailers in a funny spot, as they have to balance sales, customer experience, and cost on their end.
  • Many of us won't enjoy the fruits of the labor that Wilson and Roger put in to develop a spot-on racquet.
  • Wilson, who has such a winner on their hands, could be selling many more racquets and gain more excited fans and brand ambassadors. 
  • Roger, who has gone through the whole process and given his name and autograph for the racquet, probably wouldn't enjoy hitting with most of the racquets that end up on the shelves.

So what to do? Ideally the problem would be fixed at the source, by tightening up the manufacturing tolerances. If that's too costly and/or tricky for some brands, they could provide a spec range (as Technifibre does). And maybe print the actual specs on the frame, at least for higher-end models. Might also be worth thinking about charging more for more precision, and/or less for less precision. That way players who don't care can save some money, and players who do can spend a little more to save themselves a lot of hassle.

In the meantime, serious players should pay attention to the actual weight, balance, and swing weight of the racquets we're demoing, so that we make the right judgment and purchasing decision. I recommend asking for measures and/or measuring yourself. That'll educate you more about what you like, and create further demand in the marketplace for supplying racquets how they were meant to be. Your racquet should not be a blocker, but an enabler for your performance and development - right?

If you're ready to walk the walk, I have a few posts on measuring and getting matching racquets on this blog that may help you.

Keep enjoying game and gear, and try a true to spec RF97 sometime :)

Update: on a related note, here's my long-term review of the racquet.