1. STRING’S THE THING
Many players may spend hours arguing the relative merits of one racket versus another and agonise for weeks before spending £100 or more on a new one, but surprisingly little attention is paid to string, which is really the most important piece of equipment from a competitive point of view. After all, you don't hit the ball with your racquet (at least, not intentionally); you hit it with the string.
Certainly, the racquet is important, because it holds the string. But the string provides the majority of the power, control, and "feel" to every stroke. String is to squash as tyres are to motor racing or sails to sailing: you won't get far without them, and quality makes a difference. The more knowledge you can bring to bear when selecting equipment, the more competitive you will be.
Squash string is a surprisingly technical product, even though differences may not be easy to see. The primary variables are gauge (or thickness), materials, and construction. There are also differences in stringing tension and racquet design, both of which influence how the string performs. Then throw in different player preferences, styles of play, and budgets, and it becomes clear that selecting the right string is no simple matter.
Despair not, however, for while it may not be a piece of cake, neither is it rocket science. During this series of articles I will be looking at these issues, separately and in combination, to help you choose the best string for your game. I won't compare brands, but my Titan strings are an excellent choice! I will try to provide enough information so you can analyse all manufacturers' claims and decide which strings are worth trying.
That "worth trying" is key. No matter how much information you have, the only way to know if a string is right for you is to play a few matches with it. So my main advice is: restring frequently (restring as many times a year you play in a week) and try different strings until you find the one that suits you best. You may be surprised how much your game improves.
2. FEEL THE WIDTH
String gauge is the basic factor. Every player should know the gauge of the string in his or her racquet and how it affects performance.
In general, thin strings are more powerful but less durable than thick ones. I'll be addressing the subject of power at some length in later columns, so for now I'll simply state that thinner strings stretch further on impact with the ball. As they recover from stretch, they propel the ball forward: the more stretch, the more power.
There are two main causes of string breakage. The first is ‘notching’. During a match the cross strings (the shorter, ‘horizontal’ strings) are pounded hundreds of times against the main strings (the longer, ‘vertical’ ones). That repeated pounding cuts notches into the mains and eventually one of the notches becomes so deep that the string snaps. (It’s almost always the mains that break.)
The second major cause of breakage is overstretching, or tensile failure. While notching occurs gradually, tensile failure is sudden and catastrophic. Overstretching occurs most often on poorly hit shots, when the ball contacts the string bed near the frame. The string wants to stretch equally on both sides of the ball, but in this situation there’s not much to work with on one side. The string stretches beyond its elastic limit and simply snaps.
Obviously, thicker strings are more resistant to breakage than thinner ones. But because thick strings tend to be less powerful, each player must decide for him or herself which factor is more important.
Packages of string indicate thickness with a gauge designation; some list the diameter in millimeters as well. As shown in the table below, each gauge covers a range of allowable sizes, with thicker strings having lower gauge numbers. I’ve shown only the gauges of interest to squash players (the scale actually goes ‘up’ to 15 for tennis strings and ‘down’ to 22 for badminton).
String thickness can be measured with a wire gauge or a micrometer, but make sure this is done with the string off the racket. Because string gets thinner as it is stretched, you can’t get an accurate reading on a strung racket.
Squash strings are made in only two sizes: 17 and 18 gauge. An 18 gauge string will deliver more power, but less strength and durability, than a 17 gauge. I’ve included 16 gauge in the table not as a suggestion but as a warning. Strings this thick are intended for tennis or racquetball, and cannot deliver adequate power when strung into the smaller head of a squash racket.
Unfortunately, some stringers don’t want to be bothered carrying a separate line of string just for squash, and they often get away with selling tennis string to squash players because many players don’t know the difference. But now you know better; string matters. Demand 17 or 18 gauge, and take your business elsewhere if you don’t get it.
SQUASH STRING DIAMETERS
18 1.06 - 1.15 mm
17 1.16 - 1.25 mm
16 1.26 - 1.34 mm
3. DO YOUR STRINGS GIVE YOU THE CREEPS?
Choosing the right string tension is one of the most important equipment decisions a squash player can make. It used to be a relatively easy one in the ‘old days’ when all rackets were made of the same material (wood), all racket heads were the same shape and size, and there were fewer types of string to choose from. At that time, all rackets were strung between 13.5 and 18 Kilograms of tension. In other words, there was a spread of just 4.5kgs, so you couldn’t go too far wrong.
But rackets now come in a wide range of sizes and shapes, made by different methods using a variety of high-tech materials. Action ranges from ultra-stiff to quite flexible, and recommended stringing tensions range from 9 to 18kgs. The spread has increased to 9kgs, which means there’s twice as much room for error. Or, to look at it in a positive light, there’s greater opportunity to ‘tune’ your racket to suit your playing style by adjusting the string tension.
The basic equations are these: Higher Tension = More Control; Lower Tension = More Power. Strings at low tension stretch more when they contact the ball, and then quickly snap back to their initial length. This ‘trampoline effect’ (also known as resilience or rebound) adds power to the shot. If the racket is strung at a higher tension, there’s less stretch left in the string to provide power. On the other hand, tighter strings remain flatter, so it’s easier to control the direction of the ball and to impart spin to it.
But long strings stretch more than short ones under the same loads. This is the main reason why the new long-head rackets have more power than the old round-headed ones. Thus string tension should be in proportion to head size. In general larger heads call for tighter tension than smaller ones to achieve comparable playability.
A racket loses roughly 10 percent of its tension by the day after it was strung – and that’s if it’s not used. The tension continues to drop gradually over time, and more rapidly if it’s used often.
Loss of tension is due to ‘creep,’ or stretch at the molecular level, and it’s a fact of life; work with it, don’t fight it. Think of stringing tension in terms of initial or ‘reference’ tension. Learn what reference tension works best for you and go with that.
The construction of the string also affects tension and performance. Nylon monofilaments are relatively stiff, but are subject to a fair degree of creep. Multifilament strings are more flexible, but may be even more subject to tension loss. Strings made of Zyex® fibres are both highly resilient and creep-resistant – which makes them very good, but not necessarily the best for every player. I’ll examine string construction in more detail at a later date. The main point I’d like to make here is that your choice of string and tension should be guided by many factors.
It’s always a good idea to discuss your needs with a stringer who understands squash. But remember that much will depend upon your personal preferences. If you’re a power player, you might want to add control to your game by stringing tight. Or you might want to make your shots even more powerful by stringing loose. Or you might choose something in between for a balance of control and power. If you’re a finesse player, you can use string tension to maximize your advantages, minimize your liabilities, or strike a happy medium.
4. THROUGH THICK AND THIN
Much of the power in a squash racket comes from the ‘trampoline effect’ – the rapid stretch and rebound of the string bed as it contacts the ball. The more resilient the string bed, the more power it generates. Thin string is naturally more resilient than thick string; and string strung at low tension can stretch more than string strung at high tension. So if you want to increase power in your game (and who doesn’t), there are two ways to approach it: use thin string, or have the racket strung at the low end of the tension range.
The other side of the coin is control. The more the string bed stretches on impact, the harder it is to control direction and spin on the ball. This is especially the case on off-centre hits, where the strings stretch more on one side of the ball than the other, making an off-centre ‘trampoline’.
Control is also affected by a second phenomenon: what I call ‘dwell time’. The more the string stretches, the longer the ball remains in contact with the racket face. With a stiff string bed, the ball bounces off the racket face at a single instant. The player can anticipate the instant of contact, and adjust the racket angle accordingly. But with a stretchier string bed, the ball is ‘carried’ by the racket as it swings through many degrees of arc. It’s difficult for the player to know exactly when the two are finally going to part company, so it’s harder to make the proper adjustments.
Using thicker string or stringing at higher tension will produce a stiffer string bed and enhance control over the ball – just the opposite, naturally, of the recipe for power.
But here’s another factor to consider: at the same tension a thin string is stretched more than a thick one, so the thin string behaves as if it’s tighter. If you’ve been playing with 17 gauge string, strung at 12kg tension, and you switch to thinner, 18 micro-gauge, to obtain more power, you’ll probably want to reduce tension to 11Kg or so. At 12kg the thinner string would feel too tight, and you’d actually sacrifice power compared to the thicker string. (For jargon junkies, I’ll call this phenomenon ‘relative tension’.)
By changing the tension, you can adjust the amount of power or control that you get from any string, thick or thin. But that doesn’t mean that thick and thin strings can be made to behave identically. Thin strings penetrate the surface of the squash ball a bit deeper on impact, and this tends to enhance control. And thinner strings generate less resistance through the air, so the racket can be swung a bit faster, for more power. Neither of these factors has a big influence, however, and generally only highly skilled players can detect them at all. On the other hand, thicker strings are more durable and they hold tension longer, so they can save you money.
Thin or thick strings; low or high tension; each variable affects the way your racket performs. Pick the set-up that best suits your needs. If unsure of your exact requirements drop me an email, and I will discuss the best options with you, in order to get the most from your game.