|What's your racket?
The latest rackets for the 2001/02 season are retailing for up to £170 and
promising to improve your game. Are they worth it? Joe Laredo probes behind
the manufacturers' claims ...
This time last year I was reporting on PowerZone systems, Triple Threat
Technology, Muscle Weave and other innovations designed to make you hit the
ball harder with greater control and less vibration than ever before... and
to spend more money than ever before in the pursuit of those ends. Twelve
months on, those technologies are still available but new ones have also
appeared to supersede or supplement them ... and prices have gone up again.
What do the new technologies mean in terms of performance and are they worth
your hard-earned cash?
Modern rackets are made from a variety of materials, in varying quantities
and combinations, different parts of a racket having different compositions
to achieve the required strength, stiffness and lightness. It's
all something of a balancing act, since strong and rigid materials tend to
be heavy (not to mention expensive), so can only be used in small
quantities. (A racket made of sheet steel wouldnıt be much use to anyone.)
The ideal - a racket that dissipates zero
energy and allows the player to impart 100% of his effort to the ball - is
always out of reach, but materials are constantly being developed or adapted
in an attempt to edge closer to it.
A couple of years ago, it was titanium;
this year there's tungsten and intellifiber.
Intellifiber? Head's latest innovation is the use of a material in the
racket throat (of the i.110 and I.140 three more "intelligent" models are
promised for 2002) that actually changes its properties when it comes under
pressure, i.e. when you hit the ball, thanks to the generation of an
electrical current (the material is called piezoelectric). It isn't strictly
"intelligent" (although Prince's tennis rackets
incorporate a micro-chip in the handle) but it stiffens the throat within a
millisecond of your hitting the ball and you won't get an electric shock.
Prince meanwhile have added tungsten to their new Warrior racket, albeit a
tiny percentage of the total material, which may make an equally small
difference to the power you can generate from it. Unsquashable have also
come up with a new material, tecnolar (as used in bullet-proof vests!),
which is moulded with graphite for a strong but "elastic" frame.
Other manufacturers are using materials you might not associate with squash
rackets: nickel and copper, for example, which feature in rackets on offer
from Oliver and Grays. Powerbraid is the name given to Grays' combination of
these materials in the throat of the new Millennium 130 and Light Blue 135
in order to reduce twist. Copper also crops up in Oliver's Element X and
Sabre's new Cobra and Panther rackets. Karakal have added magnesium to the
SSL-115 and BSL-120 to give them extra strength, and titanium still features
in most manufacturers' ranges, including Browningıs new Stealth Cti and Stealth Ti. Because theyıre heavy, these materials can only be used
in small quantities, so most of the frame must still be made of carbon or
graphite. But even here, the situation is far from straightforward.
There's now a plethora of carbon fibres, produced by heating various
polymers and materials such as coal tar and petroleum pitch. The strength of
the resulting fibre depends not only on the quality of the material used,
but also on the temperature to which it is heated, which affects the
alignment of the fibres. "Low" temperatures (e.g. 10,000°C) produce low
strength (and low cost) fibres; high temperatures (30,000°C) high strength
(and high cost) fibres, which however tend to be brittle. Ultracarbon is the
material Grays use in their racket heads in order to reduce weight in
response to demand from players for increasingly head-light rackets.
Ultracarbon is also used by CX Pro Sport in their new Response and
Precision, while Unsquashable use a carbon 4 in their new Y-Tec 1200 C4Ti
and Fischer "aircarbon" in their M3 150. Oliver claim to use only the best
quality materials in their meta-carbon, which features in a range of new
rackets and is highly rigid but light (half the weight of titanium, for
Similarly, Karakal claim to use the purest graphite, super
hi-modulus, in their BSL-120 and SSL-115 and have developed a new
construction process called "hot melt", which bonds the fibres more tightly
to increase frame strength.
Shapes & Sizes
It isn't only the materials used
that determine frame stiffness.
The shape or profile of the frame is also significant and several
manufacturers opt for a curved cross-section, variously described as concave
(Dunlop), C-section (Slazenger), C frame (Pointfore, including the new
Hawk), C-X section (Sabre), Power-Groove (Titan's new TT) and Groove Power
System (Karakal). This design has the added advantage of effectively
elongating the strings to make the trampoline that bit bigger.
An extra 3mm
all round provides an amazing 25 sq. cm more string, as with Dunlopıs Custom
C-Max and C-Max JP, which claim a "hitting area" of 525 sq.cm (though I'm
not sure you'd want to use the extra 25cm2 for hitting). Similarly,
Slazenger's C-section frame effectively increases the Pro Carbon 140g's head
from 500 sq.cm to 520 sq.cm.
Other big heads (495+cm2) include Head's i.110,
QMıs Nexxt, Sabre's Cobra, Fischer's All Court
Titanium 160, and CX's Response and Power. There
are several other construction methods designed to increase stiffness
without adding weight, such as Headıs PowerFrame (i.110 and i.140), a series
of "bubbles" in the throat and shaft, and QM's honeycomb of magnesium foam
(MG/X004 and MG/X006), introduced last year for a similar effect.
There's a drawback to all this stiffness: extra vibration, which racket
manufacturers have devoted yet more time and money to devising ways of
reducing or absorbing. QM claim their magnesium foam (see above) reduces
vibration and Oliver mix their meta-carbon with resin and use kevlar to the
same end. Head maintain that their intellifiber eliminates 20% of vibration
"because electrical energy does not create
vibrations". (My knowledge of physics isn't up to
evaluating this one.)
Other vibration-reducing systems include Dunlop's
imaginatively named Squash Ball Vibration Dampener, Sabre's Vibrostep
(Tornado) and Fischer's GDS (M3 150 and M3 160),
but perhaps the most interesting idea comes from Wilson, whose
system consists of a three-part frame structure, the head and the handle
being linked by a section made of shock-absorbing material. Although this
innovation hasn't yet made the (inevitable?) transition from tennis to
squash, we're told to expect it in the near future (you'll read about it
As racket frames become stiffer, racket strings are being asked to work
harder and harder to maintain control without sacrificing power (another
unattainable ideal). Various string patterns have come and gone over the
years; some have gone and then come back again, like Head's PowerPattern, a
parallel arrangement of strings with an equal distance between each, just
like those old wooden rackets. (It worked well enough for Jahangir...)
Other manufacturers are following Prince's lead with a "fan" string
arrangement. Notable among these are Karakal, QM with their new Razzor and
CX Pro Sport (soon to be renamed CX Pro Squash), who have relinquished the
Goudie brand and launched four new rackets of their own for the 2001/02
season, the top two of which (Response and Precision) feature a "double"
main string pattern where all the main strings run right down to the throat.
Sabre also have a new four-racket range headed by the Cobra, which features
a "double impact" string system. This doesn't mean that you can hit the ball
twice but that two strings share one grommet i.e. they're wrapped round
the bridge. Wilsonıs new Hyper Rollers Overdrive has a unique frame design
featuring a double bridge, allowing the main strings to extend even further
towards the throat.
The point at which string meets frame is another area where manufacturers
have invested ingenuity in devising ways of maximising the deflection of the
strings at each end to increase power and reduce wear. A couple of years
ago, Wilson came up with Power Holes with this aim in mind; now theyıve
fitted rollers (Hyper Rollers and Hyper Rollers Overdrive), which they claim
allow the strings to move by an extra 40%. Head's
PowerZone grommets are supposed to allow 80% more deflection than
and Sabre's Control Zone is essentially the same
idea: enlarged grommets to allow the strings greater flex so that ball stays
on them longer to give you more control.
But how much more power does this
extra movement give you? Very little, according to the string manufacturers,
who reckon that your choice of string type and tension is far more
A number of manufacturers make a point of emphasising the quality of the
string they use, including Unsquashable, whose top rackets are prestrung
with Tecnifibre 305SPL (Y-Tec 1200 C4Ti) and XTRA D.Ti (Stagger 721 and 921
C4Ti), and Grays, whose premium rackets (Millennium 130 and Light Blue 135)
are prestrung with Ashaway Super Nick XL.
Weight & Balance
variable in a racketıs design is its weight. A lighter racket is faster
through the air and easier on the arm, but thereıs obviously a limit to how
light it can be if itıs going to withstand repeated impact with the ball
(and occasionally with other harder objects). Karakal continue to claim the
lightest racket on the market with their SSL-115, although Head's i.110 runs
it close with a frame weight of 110g. Other new lightweights include
Karakal's BSL-120 and MXTi-125, CX's Response and Sabreıs Cobra. (Note that
some manufacturers quote weights without strings, grip or bumper strips,
others all-up, so you should ask what the figures include when comparing
Weight isn't an absolute factor, of course; much depends on how the weight
is distributed, i.e. on a racket's balance. A head-heavy racket can generate
more power than a head-light racket, but only if you have the technique (and
strength) to wield it.
Dunlop have come up with an ingenious solution to
this conundrum (why has no one thought of it before?): interchangeable
handles (Custom C-Max and Custom Tour). Each racket comes with three handles
of different weights 10g, 5g and, apparently, 0g (perhaps it's
filled with hot air?) so that you can choose the balance that best suits
At the end of the day, it largely comes down to finding a
racket that suits you and the way you play. (You only have to look at the
variety of rackets used by the top players.)