An interview with Head Stringer at Merchant of Tennis and ATP/WTA Tour stringer, Tomas Stilwell.
Tomas is certified by the ERSA (European Racquet Stringers Association) as a Pro Tour Stringer Level 2. Currently, there are only about 20 of these certifications in the world and it can only be attained after 5 years of stringing on the tour. This makes Tomas a member of an elite group of racquet technicians.
View more information about Tomas and our stringing services here: Racquet Stringing
When and why did you start stringing?
In my mid to late teens I had dropped out of school to join a tennis academy and play full time. Unfortunately after six months I had to stop playing because of injury and had to get a job. In January 2008 I started working for Wigmore Sports, a tennis shop in London UK, because they needed someone to train to be the stringer in their small store in Harrods department store and it all moved on from there.
What was your first major tournament stringing job?
The first tournament I did was Rogers Cup in 2010 for the Merchant of Tennis and that led to me joining the newly formed Babolat Stringing Team in the UK.
What brought you to Merchant of Tennis?
Originally it was because I was working with Rob Thomas, former general manager for Merchant of Tennis, in London and he was asked if there were any stringers who might be able to help out at Rogers Cup in 2010. I travelled across and ended up doing the next five editions of it and became very close to the Horwood family. In 2016 a permanent job was found for me and I moved across the pond.
What tournaments have you strung at and which might be your favourite?
So far I have strung at Australian Open, French Open, Wimbledon, Indian Wells, Toronto, Cincinnati, Queens, Eastbourne, Tokyo WTA and Challengers in Glasgow, Surbiton and Calgary. Wimbledon is the obvious answer when it comes to picking a favourite, there really is something special about the place, an aura, but outside of that I think Indian Wells is the one I look forward to most.
What is an average day like stringing at a major tournament?
Very hard work. The early days at any event are non stop work from early in the morning until very late at night. At a tournament with night sessions, like the Australian Open, you would expect to start at 7am and finish, if you have a player in the last match to go on court, after midnight with another early start the next morning. You would expect to string somewhere in the region of 30-40 racquets, sometimes even more. The day can normally be split up into a three parts - first you have to get the racquets that came in the night before for that day's matches done, this will normally be in the range of 8-14 racquets, the second period comes when the matches start, there are fewer racquets coming in but those that do are generally very quick turnarounds, 30mins to an hour or even from a match that is going on, so the pressure is more on time than quantity. The third part comes in the evening when the order of play for the next day comes out and players flood in to drop off racquets for the next day and suddenly it's 6pm and you have to get another 15 racquets done before you can leave. Once the busiest days are over the next challenge starts which is sitting around doing nothing for hours on end and trying to stay awake and alert for when racquets do come in.
Do you have any favourite moments or highlights from stringing at tournaments?
I have been fortunate enough to be able to string for two Grand Slam singles champions with Caroline Wozniacki (2018) and Naomi Osaka (2021) for their Australian Open wins. The Wozniacki win was particularly special because it was her only slam victory after so many attempts, she became world number one again and also because I am half Danish. She was the first player that took me on as their chosen stringer so there is personal angle to it as well. I was also invited to her family and team dinner to celebrate her retirement in Melbourne in 2020, stringing is often a pretty thankless task so that was a very big deal for me. Up until that point I think stringing for Jo-Wilfried Tsonga during his win at Rogers Cup in 2014 where he beat Djokovic, Murray, Dimitrov and Federer had been the highlight.
Approximately how many racquets do you think you have strung?
Doing a quick, rough calculation it's probably not too far off 40,000 racquets.
Do you enjoy teaching people to string and what do you think makes a good stringer?
I do enjoy teaching. Putting strings in a tennis racquet in the correct order is quite a simple thing to do but actually doing it to a good standard takes a lot of effort so there is a lot to take on when first starting out. Trying to simplify it and work out how each person learns and then try to work with that is quite interesting and a fun challenge. I find it also helps me because I'm always looking to improve but am so often on autopilot when stringing, that having to actually break down what I'm doing and answer questions on why things are done can result in tweaks and improvements. I think I am quite demanding as a teacher because I want all of the stringers that work at Merchant of Tennis to be able to provide tournament level service. I don't just want our staff to be people who put strings in racquets, I want them to be stringers. I always want it to be the case that it doesn't matter who strings any racquet that comes in, it's going to be done to the highest of standards.
The main things that every stringer needs, no matter where they are stringing, is consistency. Tied into that is a high attention to detail, basically you have to be a bit of a perfectionist. You have to be able to do the same racquet, same string and the same tension over and over again with the exact same result. Beyond that your environment comes into it to determine how fast you have to be and how much stamina you have to have. Working at a tournament is massively different to working in a shop. For tournament stringing you have to be capable of producing a consistent product, at minimum three racquet per hour pace even with full polyester strings in a dense string pattern, perfect presentation (straight strings, no crossovers on the outside of the frame, knots the same type and length, no burns on the strings), have the stamina to keep that up for days and weeks on end with minimal sleep and be able to cope with great deals of pressure whether that be time, quantity or even just knowing who it is you are stringing for. You also have to be able to get along with people, you spend a lot of time with your fellow stringers so you have to be a real team player.
Lastly, what are your favourite aspects of your job?
There are probably three main aspects that I really enjoy. First, I love the travel. I don't get to see as much of the places I go as I would like I still get to go all over the world. Even in this year of lock down I have been fortunate enough to work on four different continents. Then I have always loved being part of a team. In this job I have the benefit of my teammates being the best in their profession. There is always something new to learn, no matter how many years you've been working, and generally we have a good time getting through the work. Thirdly, I have always enjoyed the pressure. Knowing that it is going to be hard work and there is a lot riding on every racquet that is strung certainly gives me a kick.