There is a small army that makes it possible for the players to play their best.
From the first qualifying game to the last match of the tournament, the official racket stringers of the US Open are working almost around the clock. In a room underneath Arthur Ashe stadium and in a room at The Chase Indoor Tennis Center just inside the main gate of the USTA Billie Jean King National Tennis Center, a multinational group of seasoned professionals are on their feet an average of 14 hours a day, stringing rackets to the exacting specifications of each player. And those specifications vary from player to player, racket to racket and sometimes within a match.
According to Richard Kong, who acts as one of the overall supervisors to the operation, the most important quality for a stringer for the US Open is not just his skill, but his physical and mental stamina. So, for the first few days of the qualifying rounds, Richard watches each stringer work. And he looks for several things. Their performance under pressure. Their attitude. Do they panic in a crisis? How do they deal with pressure? How many rackets a day can they handle? Can they be accurate and produce yet still be a good teammate and get along with the other stringers? After all, they are cooped up together in a pressure-cooker scenario for long hours and weeks – and staying in the same hotel as well. Most importantly can they be depended on each other for the quality and sheer volume of rackets needed? At the US Open, they will string thousands of them.
If a stringer doesn’t seem to have all the necessary qualities for such a critical operation, Richard will give Wilson management his assessment. If they have potential and he feels they can work on their shortcomings, they might stay on. If not, Wilson will let them go. Wilson Inc. is the official stringer of the US Open, and they can’t afford to have someone who can’t keep up -- or worse, drop out mid-tournament. The rest of the stringers are already pushed to the max, and it is important to remember that what they are working on is the most critical tool that each player relies on.
Richard knows what he’s talking about; he’s been around the circuit since the late 80’s. Back when he was stringing full-time, he worked with a lot of the top players, from Jimmy Connors to Andre Agassi, Mats Wilander, Andres Gomez, Jennifer Capriati, Gabriela Sabatini and many more, at all the major tournaments. In 2010 at the US Open, Richard strung 70 rackets for Rafael Nadal, who won the Men’s Singles title, completing the Career Golden Slam.
Not only do these athletes go through a lot of rackets, each player has very specific requirements for how they must be strung. Some want the mains strings to be one tension and the crosses another and can actually feel the difference between ½ pound and one pound of tension on them. Some players use all poly strings, a few use all gut. Players nowadays tend to play with a hybrid string, gut in the mains, poly in the crosses. Or the reverse. A typical player will go onto the court with around 5-8 rackets for a grand slam event but not all the rackets will be strung the same way. They may want several different tensions. It could be a temperature change from the previous match or their opponent’s play. And on top of that, players can be very picky about seemingly smaller things—to us. Some players are very precise in the way they want their want the grip to be wrapped, where a stencil placement is or how dark or light of a stencil they want. And lord help you if you’ve spent 20 precious minutes stringing a racket and then put the stencil on wrong! Back to the machine for you, dripping sweat and blood.
Having the player’s rackets ready on time is everything. The player says what time they need it, and they must have it exactly at that time. Some players like to put their own grips on and need the extra time for their own preparation. The Wilson stringing team prides itself for giving the players the best service available at any of the Grand Slams. (For the record, Wilson is the official stringer for the French Open as well.) Players can be superstitious about time as well. Some may bring in some rackets, saying something like, “I want them two hours before my match.” The stringer has to guess when their match time might be played. They may be 4th match on Ashe Stadium after two men’s and one women’s match, so the stringer has work backwards guesstimating who’s playing whom and how long each match may go before starting work on their rackets. Then they need to factor in all the other work that is happening at the same time, because they need the rackets off the stringing machine that’s free closest to the match. This is a daunting task, but the Wilson stringing team will find a way to make it happen no matter how much juggling is involved.
If it seems unimaginable to manage, there are a few tricks of the trade. First, there is a work order rubber banded with each racket, with just about every conceivable piece of information necessary, such as time due, tension, stencil color, type of string, four knots vs. two knots, where the stencil starts, etc. Runners are constantly going back and forth from the Ashe Stadium to the ITC locations where the work is done.
Second, Wilson keeps a computerized database of information on each player to which they are constantly adding. They know their history: what rackets and strings they’ve used, the tensions, the times, the changes they’ve made in tension, numbers, etc. in addition to their statistics. They can get a player in and out of the check in desk when they drop off their rackets in about 30 seconds or less once their initial profile has been created. And if a player sends a racket back during the match (which is called an On Court Racket) the stringers get it back on court as fast as they can without sacrificing any quality, usually in about 12 – 14 minutes.
In 2006, the first year that Wilson was the official stringer for the US Open, they had about 14 stringers for the entire tournament including the qualifying rounds, and they strung about 2600 rackets. In 2020, they had 21 stringers who completed about 5600-plus rackets. Richard thinks there are a few reasons for that; players are hitting harder. The men seem to want more rackets.
When Richard is evaluating the stringers, he’s also thinking about who will be working on which rackets. It isn’t always possible to keep a stringer with one player’s rackets the entire time, but he’ll they try to keep stringer and player together as much as possible. So he’ll know for certain players he’ll want to make absolutely sure the stringer will be available all the way through and also be the right one for that person. For example, Richard says, “If Serena was playing, you’d know she is in it to the quarters, semi or finals. You want a stringer who you know can stay that long. She strings extremely high. Her rackets take a long time, 20-22 minutes. Some rackets string patterns are dense and just can’t be rushed.” That’s a lot of days and matches with a lot of high-pressure stringing. Not everyone can handle that for three weeks.
So while you are at home, watching the play from the comfort of your sofa, or if you are lucky enough to have a ticket this year when audiences have returned to the courts, remember that for all the drama and excitement in front of the cameras and spectators watching the athletes, there is another kind of drama going on behind the scenes, without which there would be no rackets, no games, and no Championships.