Life on tour as a stringer
Have you ever wondered what it's like to be behind the scenes at the world's biggest tennis tournaments? Or, what it takes to be a racquet stringer for the top ATP and WTA players? Our Tomas lets you in on life on tour.
It is often an overlooked part of a tennis tournament, but at every professional event around the world there is a team of stringers that maintain the players’ racquets, ensuring they are ready for every match. The stringers arrive before the players and remain long after they leave, spending up to seventeen hours a day on their feet during the busiest times. Meals will be missed, sleep is a luxury, and the stringers’ fingers take a battering, but for me, it’s all worth it.
It requires a special breed of stringer to be able to perform at this level. The ability to string large numbers of racquets in a shop does not necessarily make you capable of stringing at a tournament. Everything from the type of strings used, the racquets, the unpredictability of the schedule, and the added pressure of whom it is you are stringing for makes it a completely different scenario.
Support team at Wimbledon stenciling and bagging strung racquets
Every tournament will work in a similar way when it comes to stringing, but the thing that varies is the number of stringers present. At the bigger events there is also the addition of support staff to book in frames, cut strings, stencil, bag, and check out the racquets.
On arrival at a new tournament the players immediately make their way to the stringing room to drop off one or two racquets. These will be testers, as for the first couple of days they are working out what tension is going to suit them for the week (or two, in the case of a slam). This tension will depend on factors such as court surface, air conditions, temperature, and even stringer and machine. This can vary drastically from tournament to tournament. There was a player who last year requested a tension as high as 70lbs in Australia, but that dropped to 46lbs when he turned up in Eastbourne, England for the grass-court season.
Once a player finds a comfortable tension it generally won’t fluctuate too much, maybe a pound or half a kilo depending on the weather on any given day.
It is around match time when the players become pickier. On average players will drop off 3–4 racquets for a best of three-set match with that number jumping to 5–6 for the men in a grand slam. There are a few who will drop off as many as 7–8 racquets and that might not be the end of it for that player on match day.
When dropping off the racquet the player will specify the tension(s), if they want any pre-stretch (machine or manual), if they want a logo stencilled on and how (position, colour), when they want to collect (could be as vague as look at the match schedule), and when they want it strung (night before, the next morning or even a specific time they want you to begin). The racquets are then handed to the assigned stringer and it is up to them to work out how best to manage their workload.
The other main thing to contend with is on-court racquets (the restringing of a racquet while the player is on court) as they really can throw a wrench in the works. It is a regular occurrence—for some players more than others—for racquets to be sent in to the stringing room in the middle of a match. This is due to unforeseen condition changes, the way the player is performing or just out of habit. These racquets have to be turned around quickly and can make an already busy day that much harder to schedule.
Tournament stringers tend to get asked the same questions by those whom are interested in what we do—how many racquets do you string in a day, in a tournament? How long does it take to string a racquet? What are the most important traits to have as a stringer? What is the key to a good string job?
How many racquets?
Racquets waiting to be picked up in the stringing room at Wimbledon
It depends on the size of the tournament and the draw. At the Australian Open it is well above 5000, at Wimbledon we passed the 4000 mark for the first time last year, Indian Wells is over 3000, and the last year we did the Rogers Cup it was just over 500. Normal ATP and WTA events will be 300–400 and the Challengers and ITFs around 200. The biggest individual days at the grand slams will be as many as 500 racquets.
From an individual stringer’s standpoint, the busiest days will entail stringing 30–40 racquets, possibly more. That is pretty standard across all tournaments as the team size will be proportional to the expected number of racquets.
How long does it take to string a racquet?
Tomas kicking it into high gear stringing an on-court racquet at the Australian Open
This is probably the most popular question and the stock answer is twenty minutes, however, it is necessary to be able to go up a gear or two during the busiest times or when a racquet comes in during a match. There are frames that take longer (like those of two successful American sisters, for instance) and others that aren’t as taxing. Personally, when organizing my work I’ll do it on the basis of stringing three an hour and that normally keeps things ticking over nicely.
One thing that people coming in to the business don’t think about is that it is possible to string a racquet too fast. I was probably guilty of that when I started. Even if you’re not making big mistakes, you’ll be losing tension and possibly burning strings as you will be taking shortcuts and not allowing the string to reach its full tension. These errors might seem insignificant, but they will be become evident when stringing for the pros.
What are the most important traits to have as a stringer?
Dealing with the pressure of being a tournament stringer at the Australian Open when all eyes were on him
The main challenge is that you have to be able to deal with is the pressure. I have seen good stringers crumble at tournaments because they aren’t used to the workload or become star struck by the players. There are times when the racquets are building up and at it looks like you’ll never get through them all. It is crucial to stay calm during these moments.
As an example, at Indian Wells in 2018 I had a morning where I knew I had one racquet for 9:30 am, three for 10 am, four for 12 pm and another four for 2 pm. I had my schedule set, but I also suspected that another player would drop off four racquets early in the morning. He did just that, coming in at 8:30 am, wanting those four racquets strung for his 11 am match. Then another player dropped off four racquets an hour and twenty minutes before his 2 pm match, and then sent in two on-court racquets. That is a pretty standard start to the day and you’ve got to be able to deal with that even when you’ve barely slept for days.
It is, of course, a huge attraction for any tennis fan to be paid to be at a tournament, go behind the scenes and be around the players, but you have to be professional. Being around the players is great, and it is even more amazing when you start to build relationships with them, but you can’t go running around like a crazed fan. You are generally in restricted areas and you have to act accordingly. Something else to bear in mind is that you won’t get to watch a huge amount of tennis; I have seen three sets live in a stadium in the eight years I have been on tour and all of those were at the 2018 Australian Open.
To do this job you do need to be a little crazy. I once spent thirty-six straight hours (minus bathroom breaks) in a stringing room because there wasn’t enough time to go back to the hotel during the night.
What is the key to a good string job?
A batch of racquets for a top ATP pro waiting to be strung. Each of these racquets will need to be strung identically to ensure consistency is achieved
Stringing is all about consistency, and you have to be able to do the exact same tasks over and over and over again. Players at the highest level will be able to feel the slightest of differences in the tensions of their racquets. If you’re only getting your racquets strung every few months or years, you will not be sensitive enough to the differences even if there is a big change in tension from one restring to the next. The pros, however, have multiple racquets strung every day and will change their tensions by tiny amounts to compensate. Many also carry an ERT Tennis Computer that provides a dynamic tension reading, so if a stringer is not hitting the player’s tension numbers they will know about it.
Presentation is also something that can be overlooked by an inexperienced stringer. It was drilled in to me from the moment I was taught to string that a racquet is not finished until the strings are straight. You see the players straightening their racquet strings between every point so a stringer has to ensure the strings are that way when a string job is complete. Additionally, there can be no “crossovers” on the outside of the frame, no burn marks, and stencils have to be in the exact same place on the string bed each time. This all has to be done properly because having to do too much straightening at the end has a big affect on the final tension.
Some of these experiences may sound negative, and while it’s certainly not an easy job, it has given me the chance to travel the world, meet and work with the best stringers the world has to offer, and learn plenty of new techniques that allow me to continually improve. To be able to watch and work with stringing teams around the world is pretty amazing. It is something I never thought I would be doing, but I feel very fortunate to be able to say that this is my job.
Tomas Stilwell is the Head Stringer at Merchant of Tennis. He has strung at numerous ATP and WTA tournaments including Wimbledon, the Australian Open, Indian Wells, and Eastbourne. He was the head stringer at the Toronto Rogers Cup for five years. When he is not on tour he can be found at the Bayview Avenue location of Merchant of Tennis, or at a Toronto Blue Jays game.