The Complete Idiot’s Guide to choosing a tennis racquet

An idiot wouldn’t be reading this. Instead, he would swing a racquet a few times in the pro shop, and say: “Wow, it’s so light! I’ll take it!” After a few weeks of violent banging, he would drop out of the game with tennis elbow.

Tennis elbow should be your main concern. Light, stiff, head-heavy racquets are bad for tennis elbow, so avoid them. Simple physics (which I will not bore you with, here) is clear on this, and so are the big hitters on the men’s tour.

First, the bottom line: heavy and head-light is best. Best for performance, best for avoiding injury. Here are average values from the database of 296 racquets in October 1999. Elbow Crunch is a measure of elbow safety (should be low), and Work is the effort needed (should be low) for ball speed. The conclusion is clear: heavy and head-light = good // light and head-heavy = bad.

Averages for Worst and Best 50 (out of 296) for Elbow Crunch
Worst 50
Mass 272 grams 9.6 ounces
Balance 37.43 cm 8 points head-heavy
Best 50
Mass 328 grams 11.6 ounces
Balance 32.67 cm 8 points head-light
Averages for Worst and Best 50 (out of 296) for Work on Serve
Worst 50
Mass 281 grams 9.9 ounces
Balance 37.65 cm 9 points head-heavy
Best 50
Mass 324 grams 11.4 ounces
Balance 32.34 cm 9 points head-light

Pete Sampras uses a 14 oz. racquet that has an even balance, Andre Agassi uses a 13.2 oz. racquet that is ⅝-inch (5 points) head-light, and Mark Philippoussis uses a 13.5 oz. racquet that is ¾-inch (6 points) head-light. These guys, from their outstanding performance, obviously know something about what works in top echelon tennis. What they use is no heavier than the old wood racquets, and even children used to be able to swing them.

Most of the best sellers today, however, are about 4 ounces lighter. Why won’t the racquet manufacturers offer the same racquet that these pros use? If it’s not the same, why mislead people when you know — or any reasonable person should know — that it is deceptive to have the pro out there with the same paint job as the light racquet? Exhibit “A”: Andre Agassi plays with what is purportedly a Head Ti Radical, but his racquet weighs 2.5 ounces more.

If you are inclined to buy a granny stick, consider this: If you were in a car accident, which would you rather be driving, a compact or a truck? We all know that the light car will get crushed. The collision of a racquet and a ball is the same thing: a heavy racquet will keep going on impact, crushing the ball more for better pace and spin.

Light racquet partisans argue that because you can swing the light racquet faster, it will hit harder than a heavy racquet. Granted that if you have the time and energy to execute a long violent stroke, you can swing the light racquet faster and get greater head velocity on impact. Three problems with that: (1) a violent stroke is harder to control; (2) when you are stretching for a shot, you don’t have time to execute a long stroke, so velocity will be small and because racquet weight is small also, your shot will be weak; and (3) the light, fast racquet will slow down a lot on impact, stressing the arm. All of that lost energy will have to go somewhere, like your arm. Momentum (mass times velocity) and not force (mass times acceleration) or energy (½ mass times velocity squared) is what counts in a collision. Oops, sorry — a little scary physics there, but the point is crucial for understanding the principle. It’s an elementary point called Conservation of Momentum, which any first semester physics student should know. It is a common mistake to think that high racquet kinetic energy is desirable, and therefore a badminton racquet is the best because you can swing it fastest.

What you want is a racquet that will give you the most ball speed for the least effort (Efficiency), and which will not stress your elbow or shoulder (Elbow Safety and Shoulder Safety). What you don’t want is to put in a lot of effort on a wild shot that wrecks your arm.

But what if you put most of the mass in the head, making the racquet head-heavy? Wouldn’t you then have a light racquet that hits hard? The light, head-heavy racquet will have a high swingweight, which is good for pace and spin. Swingweight is the inertia (resistance to change in motion) of the racquet as it rotates, and what this means in practice is that it’s harder to whip, but once you get the racquet rotating (e.g. on the wrist snap of the serve) it will want to keep rotating when it meets the ball and will crush through, mashing the ball against the strings for better spin and pace. That’s the advantage of the Hammer and the extra-longs. But in combination with light weight, there are these drawbacks on closer scrutiny: (1) a light and head-heavy racquet is bad for the elbow and shoulder, for technical reasons explained elsewhere; (2) it feels heavy and sluggish to position for volleys and returns; (3) the power comes from your effort, not the racquet, and you have to work a lot harder to get a certain ball speed than with a heavy and head-light racquet.

Although the trend for years has been in the wrong direction, toward light and head-heavy racquets, there are some excellent oldies still available, like the Prince Graphite Classic. But as time goes on, they get discontinued. So do like Pete Sampras (who uses the legendary St. Vincent ProStaff 6.0 85, long out of production): don’t buy just one, but stock up when they go on closeout.

A fairly accurate index of racquet quality, which can be computed using published racquet specs, is the ratio

Mr² / I


M = racquet mass, in kilograms
r = balance from butt, in centimeters
I = swingweight, in kg·cm² (about an axis 10 cm from the butt, the axis used for published measurements)

In the 2002 survey, when ranked by this index, 104 of the 167 racquets were within 10 places of their Expert ranking, and at most off by 31 at the extreme. See here. The average ranks were almost the same. Using this formula, index values of 1.10 or less are good; 1.18 or more are bad. This index will quickly evaluate new racquets which have not been ranked yet here. Tennis Warehouse is a good source for new racquet specs.