Players are very specific and superstitious: Paul Skipp
Paul Skipp began stringing rackets at Wimbledon in 2004 and took over as the head stringer of the team in 2014. Now 47, he has been stringing rackets for 29 years and works at more than a dozen tournaments annually. Stringing involves a series of precise technical tasks tailored to each player’s specifications. The tension—how tightly a racket is strung—determines the control and power a player can wield.
The Wimbledon stringing team handles about 450 rackets daily on the busiest days of the tournament—the Sunday before it starts and the first Monday and Tuesday thereafter—and about 4,000 rackets over the three weeks (including the week of qualifiers). On the busiest days, the entire team has about 25 people, including 15 stringers and other staff. By the end of the fortnight, it drops to about seven-eight.
Skipp spoke over the phone from Nottingham, where he was stringing rackets at the Nottingham Open, about the scale of the task, what players want, and what it feels like to string a winning racket. Edited excerpts:
Has your work at Wimbledon increased over the years?
Yes. When I started in 2004, there were about nine or 10 stringers, we were probably stringing about 2,500 rackets for the three weeks. It’s gone up dramatically now to about 4,000, which is a major jump.
Is that because players go through their rackets more quickly?
The majority of players are using polyester strings, which have a very short performance life, so the players want to change them more often. They rarely break strings now. But they find the performance of the string comes to such a level that it’s not good enough, so they change more often now than they used to.
Has the material changed?
When I started in 2004, there were still quite a lot of players using natural gut. But now you will find most players are using polyester and there are also players who mix the string bed with polyester and natural gut.
Can you tell us something about player requirements and their idiosyncrasies when they come for stringing?
Players are very superstitious and know what they want. The stencil logo on the strings needs to be in a certain position, they want the knots in a certain location. Some want their rackets strung in the morning, some in the evening. There could be so many different bits and pieces. But yes, players do get picky with their equipment.
What about some of the top-ranked players—what do they ask for?
We don’t string for all the players in the tournament. Players like (Roger) Federer, (Andy) Murray, (Novak) Djokovic use off-site services. (Rafael) Nadal hasn’t really got any requirements other than ordering a certain type of tension no matter which tournament he goes to. Some players will change the tension depending on the surface. But Nadal sticks to the same tension all the time. He’s a very easy player to string for.
Someone like Kei Nishikori...he may have six-seven rackets done per match. But then he will send back some during the match, sometimes up to three-four. The string job itself is exactly the same—it’s just he does it (the restringing) quite a lot. A lot of players do that. The Williams sisters can be demanding in the number (of rackets) they do and when they want them, but it’s nothing untoward really.
Do you follow the fate of the rackets you string?
When we string the rackets, whoever we string for, we take a personal interest, and it’s our work, so obviously we would like to see the players (using our work) win. We like to see whose rackets get furthest through the tournament and hopefully win the tournament itself, whichever event it’s in.
Do players ask for particular stringers?
Sometimes some players will be happy with certain stringers and say, “I know you are there, can you string my racket for me this week?” So we are happy to do that. I tend to string (for) the same players every year, by my choice, not necessarily by them asking. I string for Jack Sock, Richard Gasquet; then there are some others.
Does it bother you when players smash rackets on court?
Yes, it is a bit frustrating.
How is stringing at Wimbledon different from working at other tournaments?
The size and amount of work and management of 14 stringers, whereas in a tournament like Nottingham there are three of us, so it’s easier to manage. In Wimbledon, we need to prioritize the work, who does what. It’s all about timing and getting it done in time. Obviously, the numbers are considerably higher. Sometimes we have to say that what (players) are asking (for) isn’t quite possible, but we try and offer them the best.
We will have some players come and say, “I want this racket in half an hour,” and we say, “That’s not possible, sorry,” because the stringer is not free or doing something else. Basically, they should have arrived earlier. It’s normally a case of being in a hurry. They may say I’m playing tomorrow or I don’t know when I’m playing so I want them at 9 in the morning. There are various different circumstances but we have to look at what we can and what we can’t do.
What have been some of the highlights of your work?
I remember stringing for Andy Murray for his first match at Wimbledon (2005). That was a nice little highlight. I’ve strung for men’s doubles champions (Jack Sock and Vasek Pospisil, who won in 2014) as well. When you see the players afterwards, they come and shake your hand and grab a picture, that’s good as well.
You must feel good when your rackets win.
Oh, absolutely. It’s difficult to say whether your influence really enhanced them, but you like to think that it did.
Has a stringer’s job become more important over the years? Can it make a difference to the outcome of a match?
It’s become more important as players want more consistency. They want to get the right result, the right finish. Stringers have gotten better, they’re getting more consistent and giving players what they want.
If it’s not done correctly, it can affect the player’s comfort, and the result. If it’s inconsistent, then the player may not have control and won’t be happy. We try and replicate everything exactly the same all the time to make sure the players are happy.
Do you also play?
When I’m at home (in Portsmouth, UK).
And you string your own rackets...