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Stringing us along in Melbourne

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Originally published on: 26/02/10 14:11

Tennishead took a break from the on court action in Melbourne to track down some of the unsung heroes grinding away behind the scenes. Top Serve Tennis provides the official stringing service at the Australian Open, working their way through a mind-boggling 3,000 restrings during the fortnight.

Three thousand, you say? Yeah, right. Yes. Right. Players can have up to 80 restrings during the event, with some needing 12 rackets newly restrung before every match. That means a whopping 40km of string is used, almost the distance of an Olympic marathon, which seems like a walk in the park when considering 3,000 restrings.

Tennishead talked to stringer extraordinaire Ron Kohn about life in the Melbourne Park stringing room.

TH: How long have you been stringing, Ron?
RK: Since about the age of 14, so for about 30 years!

TH: Where did you learn your skill?
RK: Basically self-taught with a little help from my coach back in those days.

TH: How long does it take to string a racket?
RK: It depends on the set-up, combination of the racket and string. Theres rackets that are easier to string than others because of string pattern and string density, and theres rackets that are harder. There are also strings that are more manageable than others. So anywhere from 10 minutes to 20 minutes really.

TH: Which type of string takes you the longest?
RK: Its not really the type of string its more to do with the racket. So when youve got a dense stringing pattern thats always going to be the longest, and especially when youre dealing with natural gut at high tensions youve got to slow down and be careful with it to make sure you dont damage the gut.

TH: Do any of the players have unusual stringing requests?
RK: Nothings really unusual any more, weve been around long enough to have heard everything. If youre talking unusual in regards to tensions, tensions have been varying here from 15.5kg right up to 37kg so thats a huge range.

TH: Apparently Maria Sharapova takes eight rackets on court; five are strung to 60lbs, and three to 61lbs?
RK: Yeah, she has variable tension of two pounds difference between mains and crosses, somewhere around 60-62 and 61-63, depending on the conditions, whether the [centre court’s] roofs closed or open, whether its a 40 degree day or its a cool night. Of course, weather conditions can vary greatly here in Melbourne, we can have four seasons in one day!

TH: So if a player knew that they were going to be playing indoors in Rod Laver they would string the racket differently to with the roof openhow much notice do they get of that?
RK: It depends. Theres been matches where the match is ongoing and its started to rain so theyve had to close the roof, and there might be a half-hour delay before they get back on, while theyre closing the roof and drying the court. But that hasnt happened in recent years because the satellite tracking of the weather-forecasting has been very up to speed and very high-tech. I think a couple of days ago they had the roof closed already knowing it was going to rain and it did drizzle. In previous years that wouldnt have happened, the roof would be open waiting for it to drizzle and then they’d be rushing to close the roof. The players certainly get to know in advance, enough in advance to have a few rackets strung anyway.

TH: Have you got any funny stories or anecdotes to share?
RK: It depends what you call funny! We dont call anything weird these days because weve seen it all. Stringers are known for their tools which consist of everything but the kitchen sink. We get players coming in asking for glue to fix a broken shoe, we need to fix broken butt-caps on their rackets. Were the Mr Fix-it of the tournament because we always have every single tool under the sun to fix this and that and everything else.

TH: What are the physical hazards of stringing?
RK: Well, these guys are the best in the world here they come from eight different countries to string for us for these few weeks. They string plenty of rackets all year roundprobably a couple of hundred rackets a week in their shops at home, so to string 300 here is no big deal, its not going to affect their fingers or anything because their fingers are used to it. No stringers have actually got skin on their fingertips, so were used to that. Its good when the police want us, weve got no prints at all! But, yeah, it can be physically draining as well as mentally draining. The first few days well go round the clock, and we did one shift from the day before the main draw started on the Sunday, we started at 6 oclock, a few of us went on till 2 oclock in the morning on the Tuesday. So right through Sunday night and all day Monday and almost all of Tuesday morning. Others only got to bed maybe for 2 hours on the Monday morning and back here at 6, so yeah those first few days are physically draining. You can imagine theres 500 players all coming in, theres 128 men, 128 women, theres also the doubles players coming in to practice, the juniors, literally everyones here at that stage. Its not until the first round of the doubles is finished when half of them exit and it becomes a bit calmer and a bit more manageable for us. We will do virtually 400 rackets a day in those first few days.

TH: How many stringers do you have here to do that?
RK: Ten. So thats when youre going full clap round the clock, no sleep. The stringers are getting sore knees from standing up all day, you might have a sore back but the fingers are fine, were used to that!

TH: You predicted youll string 3,000 rackets during the tournament, but youve already exceeded that?
RK: Yeah, were over that. Weve just gone 3,051, with two days to go, so theres not many now with a few players left in the field. Its the finals already so theres four players in singles, eight players in doubles, and I think the mixed players are probably doubling up on whos in the doubles, so theres not more than ten players around really. Well we won’t get to 3,100, put it that way, so the next few days are pretty cruisey, 20-25 rackets a day, we might get to 3,080-90, something like that.

TH: Whats it like being looked at in the window by passers-by?
RK: To be honest, we dont even notice! Especially here on the front desk you can see weve got our four reception stations here, when its busy weve got players coming in all the time, and youre busy concentrating on what their requests are to make sure you get it right, you dont want to give them their rackets back with the wrong tensions in or anything. This is the busy hub here with the reception, the cutting, the bagging, the stencilling all of that, and back behind us in the other room is the workstation with the nine machines there. Those guys are fine, they can concentrate perfectly on their stringing while guys are watching them. We dont mind the big fish tank here, it keeps you interested, youve got a view to look at while youre working, at least its not a blank wall, so it stops the monotony.

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