In the world of pro tennis, the early 21st century has been marked by a revolution in equipment. What's happened in the past seven years represents a bigger technological shift than anything that occurred in the previous 25. You'd have to go back to the onset of oversized racket heads to find something that made as big an impact as what's currently taking place.
This revolution is taking place in the world of racket strings.
Time was when pros played with gut, highly resilient strings that added both buoyancy and control to fairly dead racket frames. Spin certainly was deployed, but in large part, the name of the game was to drive through the ball and create penetrating shots that paved the way for attacking. Scott McCain, long-standing coach for Paul Goldstein and a number of other pros, referred to this as "a linear stroke."
Even as a young pro, this was the model Roger Federer followed. "Seeing Roger play when he started on the tour around the year 2000, it seemed he was obviously modeling his game after Pete [Sampras]," McCain said. "He was one-handed, could block the ball, had a good forehand and seemed like he was looking to attack."
And then came the string called Luxilon. Unlike the lively strings of days past, Luxilon -- a company that makes fibers and strings for industrial applications -- is a dead string. According to Nate Ferguson, head of Priority 1, the company that strings for such pros as Federer, Lleyton Hewitt, Fernando Gonzalez and Novak Djokovic: "It's a total shift. Because the string is so dead, the player can swing loose and hard. The result is much more dip, whip and power."
"The rotation you get is drastically different than with gut," Goldstein said. "The ball jumps and moves unbelievably. A ball that looks like it's going way out and then drops like a stone -- that's what everyone calls 'a Luxilon shot.' "
"It's now parabolic," McCain said. He likened contemporary tennis to pingpong, adding that the size of racket grips also has been reduced considerably.
"It used to be, you didn't want the racket to twist in your hands, so the goal was to use as big a grip as possible," Ferguson said.
Such legends as Roy Emerson and Tony Trabert often used grips that exceeded five inches in circumference. These days, a man as physically imposing as Rafael Nadal employs a 4¼-inch grip, all the better to whip his racket back and forth like a windshield wiper. A veteran coach jokingly refers to the Spaniard as "The Butcher" since he so voraciously slaughters each ball that comes his way. (Nadal does not use Luxilon but does string his rackets with a similar synthetic string.)
McCain and many others have noted how Federer does not play as aggressively now as he did at the beginning of his career. Federer's current game is a special, highly-effective mix of patience, wise defense and powerful offense.
"I realized things were slowing down," Federer said following the final at the U.S. Open. "The new string generation came along where returning and passing shots was made easier. It was harder to attack in some ways."
One factor that created the opportunity for a string such as Luxilon has been the increasing slowdown of court surfaces. Responding to criticisms in the '90s that big serves and even more powerful service returns were shortening fan engagement, tournament directors all over the world began to drastically slow down their courts. Indoors, slick carpets gave way to much slower courts. Cement courts at outdoor events also lost their one-time slick quality. And even Wimbledon got in the act, its grass courts of the past five years bearing little resemblance to the lively grass that was heaven for net-rushers and hell for ground-strokers vexed by erratic bounces.
"Now you can play the baseline at Wimbledon," Goldstein said.
Fast-bouncing courts provide pace, ball speed aided by the very quickness of the court and the ball moving through it. John McEnroe was superb at this brand of fine motor billiards. But for every McEnroe, there were dozens who merely slashed and burned their way through one match after another. Moreover, the ascent of Europe as a tennis power in the past 20 years -- both in the economics of the sport and on the court -- has created a natural affinity for that continent's most popular surface: slow clay. And clay is a surface on which it takes more effort to generate pace. Enter Luxilon.
For the current pros, the use of Luxilon is a pragmatic necessity. According to McCain, so staggered was Pete Sampras by the string's ability to turn defensive baseliners into forceful counter-punchers that he dubbed it "Cheatalon." But of late, even an exemplary net-rusher like Sampras has gotten in on the act by using a mix of Luxilon and gut -- a combination that Federer and many other pros use, too.
Over the long term, though, it's uncertain what kind of impact Luxilon will have on the duration of players' careers. "It's physically laborious to take these big cuts all the time," said the 31-year-old Goldstein. "It's much tougher on the body." Nadal, for example, is only 21, but over the past three years, he has suffered a few injuries that could well have been caused by his exceptional physical vigor. Then again, injuries are bound to happen, no matter what equipment a player is using.
On a more grassroots basis, McCain and others worry that youngsters seeking to emulate many pros will use Luxilon without truly possessing the skills necessary for harnessing the blend of a dead string, a lively racket and a big swing. It could well be a race to see which breaks down sooner -- the body or the strokes.
"Even now," McCain said, "even at the level of Roger and Rafa, the name of the game is to get the ball in the court."
Joel Drucker is based in Oakland, Calif., and writes for Tennis Magazine and The Tennis Channel.