Rafa’s new strings have the tennis world abuzz. From Brad Gilbert to Martina Navratilova and Darin Cahill to John McEnroe the strings seem to be the one of the favorite topics of US television announcers during the 2010 French Open.
What are these strings? What’s so special about them? They are a new string product from Babolat called RPM Blast. A new generation poly-based string extruded with an octagonal profile. They have captured the attention and imagination of the tennis world. The announcers would have you believe they are one of the greatest innovations of the sport. Players are apparently falling over one another to get their hands on “the newest string that Rafa uses.”
Before we get caught up in the RPM Blast hysteria and hoopla, let’s take a critical look and see if we can make objective sense of it.
Toward the end of the Sampras era and just before the dawn of the Federer/Nadal era a polyester based string from Luxilon was introduced to the pro tour. The Luxilon ALU was first made popular by Guga Kuerten and it caught fire among the pros. The ALU was seen as a string with magical properties and was adopted by Agassi, Federer, Roddick and a stable of pros. It allowed players to take huge cuts and realize greater control and spin than ever before. These strings helped usher in a new era of power baseline tennis. All the top pros used them, well almost all. The notable exception was Rafael Nadal who used Babolat Duralast.
The Luxilon ALU was actually first developed in the early 1990’s. Players flocked to this technology because they did not want their opponents to have an equipment advantage. Both the Luxlion ALU and Duralast can be described as very stiff and dead strings. Ironically, the lack of inherent power in the string allowed the overall power of the game to increase. Using Luxilon ALU type strings players were able to harness and control the power of the new powerful frames . When the dead strings and frames were combined with their strength players could take huge cuts at the ball and still keep it in play. Basically magic occurred. However, there was a trade off in terms of feel, comfort and touch. Also, the strings lost playability rapidly and it was necessary to keep them fresh. This was unfortunate for many of the recreational players who wanted to play with the equipment of their favorite pros. While the Luxilon ALU is almost magical when fresh, it tends to fade quickly. In the context the pros use it, however, it rocks. In the context of recreational and tournament players, not so much.
Rafa’s string was even more puzzling. The King of Clay used a very thick Babolat Duralast. While I admittedly do not know when that string was first developed, I have read it was a poly string with very few additives. Early generation. Stiff and dead. God-awful stuff, but hey, it worked for Rafa.
I never understood why the professionals stuck with the early generation strings when much newer technology was flooding the world inhabited by recreational and tournament players. The newer technology offerings such as those from WeissCANNON, MSV and Signum Pro made use of smaller percentages of polyester while incorporating strong chemicals and additives. These strings offered much better feel, touch, and longevity. They were clearly better for recreational players who could not afford to restring every 9 games. For reasons I will never understand, ALU was firmly entrenched in the professional ranks and very few were apt to switch. They apparently did not want their opponents to have an
equipment advantage. Strange. Pros are just creatures of habit I suppose.
A few years ago MSV introduced a hexagon shaped poly-based string with all the advantages of newer generation strings plus a profiled extrusion method for an extra helping of spin and control. Again, terrific innovation and it was hard to fathom why it was not something the pros were jumping all over.
For reasons I will never understand the pros continued to ignore the livelier, spinnier, fresher and newer poly based offerings in favor of the old school strings. They continued trundling around the courts with blinders on for years. Then in early 2010 Rafa made a well-publicized switch to a newer generation poly-based string and an avalanche of pros followed. Suddenly everyone in the inner world of the professional tennis establishment was taking note of this new product. In actuality, the new Babolat RPM Blast is really Babolat’s effort to produce a string with similar properties to those that have been in existence for the past couple of years. However, to pros who have previously ignored these innovations, the RPM Blast represents a quantum leap forward. Softer, greater dwell time and texture to increase spin.
When I think about it, I find it strangely ironic that the professional who was perhaps playing with the most rudimentary poly string has been thrust into the spotlight as the poster-boy for the newer generation poly-based strings. A stroke of genius by Babolat who will be able to play on Rafa’s celebrity to promote and market this string to the masses.
There is no question in my mind that the RPM Blast will be a huge selling string this year. I like that it will hold onto desirable playing properties longer and be much more arm friendly for recreational and tournament players than the Luxilon ALU type strings. Guts and Glory Tennis will have the Blast available for local stringing customers on June 8. It is not an inexpensive string, costing a whopping $19 per set. In our opinion the RPM Blast is dramatically overpriced. There are many textured and twisted alternatives that will give similar or better overall performance at a fraction of the cost, but the Blast will be what customers are asking for. Afterall, it is what all the announcers are drooling over and it comes with the inherent marketing promise that all 3.5 – 4.5 level players who install this string in their stick will magically hit like Rafa. 🙂
(Photo credit to KARIM SAHIB/AFP/Getty Images for the image of Rafa that appears at the top of the page)