Dec 2 2013

It's All Babolat's Fault

Babolat | Equipment | League Tennis | NTRP | Technology | USTA       Clif Render      

Today is December 2nd, 2013. The 2013 year end Ratings just came out and, because of my brilliantly above average play this past year, I just got bumped up a rating level. "Yaaaay", you say? Yes, "Yaaay" and "Boo", all at the same time. You see, I've played at the same NTRP rating level since I first started playing six years ago. That's a LONG time! In that time, I've been a player, captain, co-captain, partner and adviser, and I have loved every minute of it! I know all the other captains at my level around town. I played with many of them on multi-club teams, and I've grown comfortable with my place in the Birmingham tennis ecosystem. Unfortunately, that place is no more. I have just been pushed out of that place of comfort, and now I have to learn how to fly all over again before men's leagues get started back up in the Spring. My entire tennis life has just changed and whom do I have to blame...I mean...thank for all this? There is no question in my mind who is responsible. It is Babolat's fault plain and simple. So, thank you, Babolat. You've turned out to be a great big pain in my butt cap!

Prince Extender Synergy

I have enjoyed playing tennis since I started six years ago - the spirit of competition, the challenge, the camaraderie - It's what makes USTA League Tennis the greatest sport on earth. As a beginner, the racquet you are using doesn't make a huge difference - at least it didn't for me. When I first started, I used my old Prince Extender Synergy. Remember that one? It had an extra long string bed back when that was the trend. It was supposed to give you greater stability and a larger sweet spot. It never worked any miracles for me, though, and eventually that trend died out entirely but, apparently, it's coming back. Asics' new line of racquets is attempting to bring back that longer string bed design for a new generation. It'll probably catch on again just like flat bill hats. Do you kids have any idea how hard I had to work to un-flatten my bill as a kid? No, of course you don’t because now you can just buy them that way. Unbelieveable. So, all you kids out there wanting to use this new "longer string bed technology," go ahead and give it a try and then let me know when you're ready to try out a real racquet. And, since it appears that I am rapidly becoming a grumpy old man, you can just "get off my lawn" while you're at it, too.

Babolat Pure Drive Plus Cortex

Well, it wasn't long before I purchased my first "real" racquet. I ended up going with a Babolat Pure Drive Plus. I had demoed a number of different racquets at the time but, since I had no idea what I was looking for or what I needed, I just picked the one that looked the coolest, and that was the Pure Drive. A couple of years into the tennis thing I was taking a lesson with a pro who made me try his racquet. I was really struggling at the net and had very little touch at all. He swore that my racquet was a huge part of the problem, so I tried his racquet - a Wilson K Six-One Team. There was a huge difference in what I could do with the ball. I had never really "felt" the ball like that before. All of a sudden I could do things with the ball that I had never done before. I could feel the ball for the point of contact till the time it left the string bed. It was awesome! This would be my racquet of choice until early last February when I decided it was time for another change.

Prince Extender Synergy

Having improved a great deal since I first switched to The Wilson K Six-One Team, I began to notice that, while I had lots of spin, touch, and feel, I had very little power. Every serve was spinney and curvy and my groundstrokes - while moderately consistent - were just too weak. I felt reasonably sure that my strokes would still allow me to generate a good amount of spin, but I wanted a racquet that would help me by producing more power. I missed the big flat serve that I had with my old Pure Drive and wanted to get some of that back. For a number of years, I had wondered if I should have gone with the AeroPro Drive originally instead of switching to the Wilson but I had never taken the time to demo one. Because of this, the Babolat AeroPro Drive was on the top on my list to racquets to try. Also on my list was the Prince EXO3 Tour 100, the Donnay Formula 100, the Wilson Juice 100 BLX, and the Wilson Juice Pro BLX.

Another thing that I wanted in a new racquet was a larger sweet spot. The K-Six-One Team is a great racquet, but I found myself hitting off center a bit more than I would like. While 95 inches isn't tiny, it was a bit too small for my game (and bad habits). There were many times at the net when I would catch a volley off center and the vibration would spin the racquet around in my hand leaving me completely vulnerable for that second volley when it came. Sure enough, when I played with the Wilson Juice Pro (at 96 inches), I had some of the same problems. Off center strikes were an issue. I liked the Juice 100 pretty well, though. It was much more forgiving, had a good bit of control and spin and was very similar in playing characteristics to the Donnay Formula 100 and the Prince EXO3 Tour 100. In fact, there were only minor differences between these three. The Donnay seemed a bit cumbersome at the net but was more forgiving than the others overall with slightly more power when serving. The Juice 100 had, by far, the best paint job and was the best all around but still had just a touch too much heft at the net. The Prince was lighter and more maneuverable at the net than the others, was solid in other areas and was on sale. Also, since Prince sponsors our local pro, going this route would support him. Because of this, I was leaning either toward either the EXO3 or the Formula 100. My final racquet to demo was the 2013 AeroPro Drive. While I initially suspected that this would be my favorite, some of the reviews that I read led me to believe that the Donnay might be more my speed. I had become skeptical. From my first ball strike, however, I was blown away.

While the AeroPro Drive (somehow) managed to allow me to serve with as much spin as the other racquets I tried, it had far more power than I was expecting. It reminded me a lot of my old Pure Drive in terms of power but still had the spin and control that I had grown to love. I was able to hit Flat serves with pop and, after a few minor tweaks to my groundstrokes, I was able to hit them with tons more power than I expected, as well. I did end up sacrificing a little bit of control and feel but in exchange I benefited from a huge boost in both stability and power with just as much (and in some cases more) spin than I had before. I found it to be a far more capable racquet than I expected. I was sold and so was the racquet.

Babolat AeroPro Drive 2013

I was delighted to receive my new Babolat AeroPro Drive 2013 in the mail (thank you, Tennis Warehouse!) but you never know if you got the string tension right or not on a first purchase. The demo that I hit with was strung with Babolat's RPM Blast string which, incidentally, is Nadal's exact string/racquet combination but I wasn't sure of the string tension of the demo racquet. Based on the Tennis Warehouse standard specs that they sent to me via email, a tension of 58 lbs or so would have been what the demo would normally ship with but the pros that looked at it swore it must have been lighter than that. I requested that my new racquet be strung at 55 lbs thinking that would be light enough, but it didn't hit the same as the demo at all. It was still pretty good, but it just seemed to lack the pop and spin of the demo. After getting it restrung at 52 lbs, though, I rediscovered the playing characteristics that I had fallen in love with. It was just as responsive and powerful as I remembered it. As with all changes like this, there was a 2-3 month break in period during which I hit more than a few double faults and put away misses as my strokes had to adjust to the feel and weight of the new frame. Also, I discovered that the RPM Blast string seems to grip much better when it's fresh. The first 4-6 hours of play after getting it restrung, this racquet/string combo is amazing. For the next few weeks/months, however, it suffers performance degradation with less and less spin as time goes on. This strikes me as a little bit counter-intuitive as I would expect power and control to continue to increase as the tension loosens, but my good friend, Bob Patterson a.k.a. The Racquet Guru who is a long time stringer on the pro circuit assures me that he's seen this kind of thing happen many times before, and I am not crazy. His theory was that because the spin is largely generated due to the hexagonal shape of the string, the edges of the hexagonal corners are getting worn down due to the friction of repeatedly contacting the ball which, in tern, reduces the string’s ability to grip even when the strings loosen and the ball spends more time on the string bed. Makes sense to me. The fix? Restring more often.

So, what does the long and winding path that took me from Prince to Babolat to Wilson and back to Babolat have to do with my getting bumped up a level? Well, you see, after 6 years of competitive match play at a single NTRP level, I was bumped up a level within 6 months of changing to Babolat's flagship AeroPro Drive frame. Coincidence? Absolutely not. No, this racquet is a miracle worker propping me up in where I am weak and enhancing my match play where I am strong. If, heaven forbid, my home were ever to catch on fire, it would be one of the first non-living things that I would go back in to save. No question. Sad, I know.

Babolat Pure Drive Play System

It drives the greats (like Martina Navratilova and John McEnroe) crazy that rec players like myself have access to this kind of power and spin and maybe they're right. Maybe it's just too much for us. After all, if I had never started using this racquet, I would still be at my old rating. I would still be able to play with all my old friends and I wouldn't have to be out scouting around for new teams, playing partners, etc... Dangit, Babolat! I really want to be upset with you for this. It would be easier for me to be upset with you for this if you'd stop innovating long enough for the disgruntlement to set in but then you had to come out with yet another amazing development: the Babolat Play Pure Drive - a brilliantly maddening combination of Tennis and Technology that I can't wait to dive into! While the $399 price tag will probably keep me away for a while, the idea of a racquet that will automatically track exactly where I'm striking the ball, what my first and second serve percentage is, and send power and spin statistics straight to my smartphone is absolutely amazing! For a technology geek and tennis fanatic like myself, this fusion of my two passions is just way too much. It's all your fault that I got bumped up, Babolat. You've taken away all my friends and playing partners and soon you will be taking money out of my wallet. Thanks a lot! Now I really hate you. What's next? A Wildcard into the US Open? Yeah, probably. Ugh.

Comments (2) -

Christy Christy says:

HAH! I understand what you mean about being forced out of a comfy level into the unknown. Half of team tennis is knowing your competition. ;)

I've never been one to demo racquets. I picked up my brother's because he was so good - I know, the logic is totally sound - and it just fit and I've been playing with it ever since. But I've always wondered whether I was playing with the "right" racquet. Your post has inspired me to start demoing them. Maybe I'll finally find a racquet that will volley! Because it sure isn't the technique. Tong

Clif Clif says:

Awesome! Glad I could inspire you to try something new, Christy! It's actually amazing that you're doing as well as you are without matching your racquet to your game. That either means that your brother's racquet is already a pretty good match for you or you're going to improve drastically once you find the right fit. Just keep in mind that you will probably have a 3 to 6 month adjustment period after switching to a new racquet. Even if the racquet seems to help a lot in practice, your muscle memory will be programmed for your old racquet so you're going to feel a little off for a while in competitive matches. Just don't give up on it! It will definitely be worth it in the long run!

As I mentioned, I've demo'd racquets on a couple of different occassions. The first time I did it when I first started playing, I couldn't tell the difference. They all felt the same. My more recent demo experiences, however, were much more fruitful. Since I know my strengths and weaknesses now, it's much easier to gauge how different racquets affect my game. I usually start off by hitting with my normal racquet until I feel warmed up. It usually takes a set or so of match play or 30 minutes of drills to get me to this point. Then I'll swap racquets for a while - maybe 4 games or more if I'm testing during match play. I like to serve twice in match play before switching if I can. If I'm in a clinic or drilling with a pro then I might switch a couple of times during each drill. I always try to start off each drill with my normal racquet so that I can get a feel for how I'm doing on the drill before switching to another racquet. You could even set up a hitting session with a pro and get them to give you feedback on how each demo is affecting your play. Just keep in mind that some teaching pros are sponsored by one manufacturer and will be more likely to recommend that brand than others regardless of whether it's the best fit for you or not.

Anyway, Good luck Christy! Let me know what you end up switching. I'd love to know what you end up deciding on. Take care!

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