Have you ever picked up a racket and thought it felt identical to the previous model in your hand? Has the word "string tension" or "grommet size" created a puzzled look on your face? If so, you're not alone—the world's best tennis players have the exact same problem.
The struggle of finding a consistent and appropriate frame for the world's best players can often times become a tedious process. Adding lead tape to balance out the swing-weight of a racket, or applying an extra grip to ensure that a forehand on match-point lands in the court instead of in the stands, takes years of fine-tuning.
Speaking to numerous professional players throughout the years, I often found it amusing when they referred to their rackets like a second child, instead of a finely molded piece of graphite. Could a players' racket really be that important? I mean, with the skill-set the pros render, couldn't they just pick up any old racket and win a tournament?
German great Boris Becker once said that his "racket was like his right arm." That to change his racket would result in a decrease of his results.
Becker was nothing short of a powerful and smart player, using his wit and powerful arsenal to capture six Grand Slam titles. I guess his Puma Estusa 1990 Wimbledon Limited Edition ProVantech PB was quite an important tool after all.
The great Pete Sampras viewed his Wilson racket under a similar set of circumstances to Becker. Playing with the same ProStaff 6.0 Original throughout his career, Sampras sacrificed a bigger sweet spot for continued control.
Winning 14 Grand Slams with his same Wilson frame proved to be an optimal choice for Sampras, even though he later admitted that he could've performed better throughout the latter stages of his career—a stage where he went title-less for two years between the summer of 2000, and the fall of 2002—had he switched to a larger racket face.
Even the current king of the court, Roger Federer, has decided to keep a similar frame to his junior days. Federer has increased the head-size of his racket from 85 to 90 square inches in order to generate more power, but that's the only change he's made.
Regardless of the head-size differential, Federer uses an identical racket to the one he used to win Wimbledon in 2003. Can anyone say paint-job?
Often times, though, players sacrifice their performance, and perhaps legacy, for an increase in income.
Take Spanish heart-throb Fernando Verdasco. Playing his best season to date in 2009, the 26-year-old Madrid native recently switched to a Yonex RDiS 200 racket after playing with a Tecnifibre TFight 325 VO2 Max throughout his rise to the top 10.
Even though Verdasco won the title in San Jose last week over Andy Roddick, one would have to think that the abrupt switch to a new racket manufacturer will cost Verdasco in the long run.
Remember Ivan Ljubicic? The wily veteran took a fat contract from Head rackets a few years back, opting to concede the Babolat frame which taken him to No. 3 in the world. Ljubicic has stumbled around the Tour the past few seasons—recording minimal success, but never reaching the heights that he did with his previous racket.
The most high profile racket change in recent years took place between Wilson and Novak Djokovic. The current world No. 2 changed to a Head racket to begin the 2009 season, and struggled throughout the year. Admitting that he needed "time" to get used to his new frame, it was clear that Djokovic was in search of a more lucrative contract.
Can we blame Touring pros for their ritualistic bond with their racket of choice, or should we point fingers at those pros who change frames for added economic incentive?
Drawing parallels between the players mentioned, I think it's safe to say that the better players (Federer, Sampras, Becker) had the luxury of sticking with their desired frames because they made a higher annual salary, as well as other endorsement fees.
The argument could also be made that the aforementioned players would have continued to play with the weapon of choice regardless of their success, because of their style of play and their on-court morale.
When speaking of Djokovic, Verdasco, and Ljubicic, it's evident that their off-court earnings have never, and will never, resemble the previous three players mentioned—excluding Djokovic, who may record a number of Major titles during his playing days, and who receives substantial appearance fee money.
It would be interesting to determine how a player of Federer's caliber would have reacted if he was never a Grand Slam winner and hovered around the top 10 with average results. Would the Swiss great have shopped around his options for various rackets, or continued to believe in his trusty stick?
The debate about players, rackets, and their desired choices may linger for the rest of eternity, resting on whether or not a player is in search of comfort, or a beach house in Malibu.
Whatever the case, the truth remains that racket changes, and ritualistic racket belief, will remain a constant in today's game.