Strings and Shoulders

In 2007, I made it to Newk’s annual Tennis Fantasies camp despite having prostate cancer surgery earlier in the year; but I had to sit out camp the following year due to a shoulder injury (bicep tendonitis in my shoulder) caused by my racquet strings. And the same pain has just resurfaced!

Here is the “back story” and lessons to be learned …

In 2008, I switched from traditional strings to the new “poly” strings that all the pros were using. Mine was Luxilon Big Banger; and it was used in both the mains and cross strings, with about 55 lbs of tension.

I loved the effect the strings had on my game: feeling like I could hit the ball as hard as I wanted and it would dip in, due to the extra topspin the strings imparted. But over the summer of that year, I started getting shoulder pain.

The pain got worse and worse; and I thought it was from overuse or perhaps a dreaded rotator cuff tear. After x-rays and a couple of doctor visits, it was diagnosed as an inflammation of the bicep tendon as it attached to my shoulder. The doctor gave me a shot of “cortisone,” ordered me to rest, and I switched back to “normal” strings.

Although I had to miss Newk’s camp (for the only time in the last ten years), the inflammation and pain thankfully went away and my six-day-a-week tennis schedule continued.

This past winter, a Naples teaching pro advised me, “Anyone who uses the hard, poly strings both ways in their racquet is foolish. But anyone who doesn’t use poly strings ONE way on their racquet is equally foolish.”

He advised me to:
• Try the combo pack put out by Gamma that had their poly Zo Verve sting in the mains and a traditional synthetic gut in the crosses.
• String it as loosely as I can tolerate (mine was 48 lbs).
• And “break in” the racquet by only using it for 10 minutes for the first few sessions.

I did and again enjoyed the benefit of the new string technology … WITHOUT any shoulder pain.

But last week, up here in New Hampshire, I broke strings in both my racquets and had one strung with what was available locally, Luxilon Big Banger and synthetic gut at 48 lbs.

(The quick, one-racquet stringing job was nicely done for me by Laura Joslin; who was leaving the next day for the National Grass Court Super Senior Father-Daughter tournament at Longwood in Boston. And congratulations to her and Whitey Joslin for winning the Silver Ball!)

In THREE days of use (I confess to not remembering to “break in the strings slowly”), the same shoulder pain has returned!

I called over to the tennis club and spoke with Laura’s husband, who said, “Sure, Luxilon Big Banger is very hard on the arm; and there are softer, poly strings to choose from.” So they are changing to another string on the second racquet, when Laura returns.

Lessons to be learned:
1) Poly strings are a great addition to your game.
2) But use the more forgiving brands.
3) String them only on the mains, with a softer, synthetic gut on the crosses.
4) String at a tension in the 40’s
5) Break the racquet in slowly.
6) And … “listen to your body” to stop when the pain starts.

10 thoughts on “Strings and Shoulders

  1. Why not be proactive and ice your shoulder every time after you play like the major league baseball pitchers do?

    Brother Bill – i do ice when injured; but probably a good idea to do regularly. tks. george

  2. I have struggled with the same issue and have decided on Wilson Sensation 16 strung at 58lbs both in mains and crosses.

    Steve – How long have you been using? No pain? george

  3. I’ve been using poly strings for over a decade now and have tried out many combinations of string to get it “just right” for myself. Basically, I have found that Luxilon is just too harsh a poly. I definitely recommend hybrid stringing using a MONOFILAMENT in the crosses (not a multifilament). All poly strings are stiff and will easily cut through the multifilament strings. I’ve been using the following string setup for the last six or seven years and still love it.

    MAINS: I use a softer 1.25mm (17 gauge) poly string made by TOPSPIN
    called CYBERFLASH.

    CROSSES: I use a monofilament called SIGNUM PRO ULTRA
    1.28mm (16L gauge) which provides excellent pocketing

    NOTE: Have crosses strung 2 or 3 lbs TIGHTER since a monofilament
    string will stretch while a poly will not.

    I switched to TOPSPIN CYBERFLASH five or six years ago due to how harsh Luxilon and other poly’s were on my arm. I’m not sure if poly strings have improved since then because I’m so happy with my poly/monofilament hybrid setup…….

    Because I’m USPTA and get some string from Wilson, I have tried some of the new Luxilon poly’s and still have NOT found them to play or feel as good as the Topspin Cyberflash.

    Years ago, I found an excellent resource in Georgia for string information. Might be worth you giving this guy a call. His string business is called “Guts and Glory” and his website is http://www.ggtennis.com

    Take care and see you this winter in Florida !

  4. George –
    Glad to hear you’ve found the string remedy to your shoulder pain – and congratulations again to Whitey!

    After sixty consecutive years of playing tournaments, am now having my longest downtime due to sciatica (pain in the butt with intermittent calf pain – tingling- numbness) but slowly improving (after 4-5 months) with PT. Golf – no problem – but the torso twisting and extension in tennis is a killer. Anyone else moved through this and out the other side? Dag

    Dag – sorry to hear about your pain. i have not ‘shared’ the same problem. george.

  5. George, I don’t know about “poly” strings; but as a stringer, i know how stiff they are to string, but apparently quite a few touring pros are now stringing in the 40s. We know about Fred Drilling of course(38 if I remember correctly), and I have been in the low 40s for several years. George Morton

  6. George, I am glad you posted this. Traditionally, I have not used hybrids and had for a long time used a softer multifilament, like Wilson NXT 17 guage, in both the crosses and mains. About a year ago, a stringer who used to be on the tour with Agassi convinced me to go with a prepackaged hybrid, which is the Volkl Hybrid V Fuse package, featuring Volkl Cyclone in the mains and Volkl V Icon in the crosses. Cyclone is what I would call a “softer” poly string and Icon is a natural gut. While Volkl packages and sells the strings as their own, I believe they are actually made for Volkl in Australia by Klip. I had them strung at 52 pounds for both crosses and mains.

    Anyway, the strings worked pretty well for months, but about two months ago I decided to visit a different stringer, who reportedly is the greatest thing since sliced bread, to see if he might recommend something better or that I might enjoy more. He happens to be “in love” with all strings that have the name Technifibre in hem, and even more so he happens to be “in lust” with any Technifibre poly strings.

    So, acting on his advice (and I confess somewhat against my own instincts, because I recall all of the trouble that you had with polys and your shoulder problems a few years ago), I allowed him to string one of my racquets with Technifibre Ruff Code, its newest and, as I later found out, its most durable (translation: hardest) poly string. This was not a hybrid pattern but, rather, the Ruff Code was in both the crosses and mains, strung at about 55 pounds I believe. (The new stringer never did tell me the exact tension, claiming he strings all strings differently depending on their characteristics and it is a “trade secret”. I should have heeded the warning bells in my head right there.)

    Well, just like everybody else who has switched to polys has reported, I started to like the extra spin that I got with the Ruff Code. I did notice right away that I had to hit the crap out of the ball in order truly to experience the spin, but as an old fashioned Eastern Forehand/ Continental Backhand guy from wooden racquet days, it was at first invigorating to actually be able to hit real honest to God heavy topspin off both sides for maybe the first time in my life.

    But about a month after the strings went in, I suddenly developed massive pain in my elbow. The pain was diffuse, it was in the middle of the joint, and it was NOT traditional tennis or golf (a/k/a servers) elbow. Instead, it was kind of located at the junction of the tricep tendon and the back of my elbow. I treated it by rest and ice and stopping play for several weeks, which made me miserable. Eventually, I got in to see an orthopedic doctor, who took x-rays and told me I didn’t have bone spurs (or, strangely tendonitis anywhere) but I might have a floating piece of cartilage that somehow got dislodged from wherever it had been hiding and it had temporarily moved around to cause all of that pain. I got a cortisone shot and, so far, everything has been fine ever since.

    However, I have stopped hitting with the Ruff Code racquet, at least regularly, since the pain went away and I am now back playing. Instead, I got one racquet strung at 52 pounds with good old Babolat VS Team gut, 17 guage, and I have been using that. It is like playing with butter. I forgot just how wonderful natural gut feels to hit with.

    I have also gotten two racquets restrung with the Volkl Hybrid that I described above. Again, I like the strings just ok — they just don’t play like gut, or even the poly Ruff Code — but they get the job done. But using these strings feels like the tennis equivalent of kissing your sister. There is no spark, at least for me that is.

    I confess to having also played a few sets, again, with the racquet strung with the Ruff Code. As time has worn on, the strings have started to stretch ever so little, and the whole thing just feels a little softer now than it did two months ago, which I like.

    Meanwhile, the stringer has been trying to talk me into trying Technifibre Black Code, which is reportedly a much softer poly straight off the reel. But I have been reluctant to even try the stuff because I am afraid of repeating another episode of elbow pain, especially as we get closer to Tennis Fantasies in October.

    The bottom line is I still don’t think I have found the “perfect” string for me, yet. It could be the Babolat VS Team, but for the usual issues with gut, being (1) it doesn’t last long, (2) it is very expensive, and (3) you cannot use it in the rain, or even on moist clay courts or in high humidity if you strictly follow the recommendations. So, the quest continues.

    Marty – Thanks for the good string story. See you in Texas! george

  7. In response to Dag’s post, I suffered a ruptured disk three years ago — stretching for a volley. I ended up in the hospital with spasms so painful I couldn’t take them. Spinal steroid injections by a pain management specialist ended the spasms. My residual symptoms were identical with Dag’s. A month of PT followed, along with a drug called Gabapentin. Although I had three spasm episodes over the next year that required another injection, the episodes were successively less severe. I’ve had none since. But I’ve occasionally had Dag’s symptoms — mild sciatica along with the butt pain (right above where you carry a billfold). Each time I’ve resumed the Gabapentin, which has gradually resolved the issue without further injections.

    Keith – Thanks for sharing your experiences. george

  8. I would advise against polys for anyone with chronic arm, elbow or shoulder problems….it’s just too unforgiving and if you’re older it takes forever to heal. Take Mart’y’s advice….natural gut is the narcotic of tennis. If you desire extra spin go to 18 ga strings. I’m not so sure us old farts with eastern and continental grips get that much extra spin on the ball anyway.

  9. Prologue: I decided to get one racquet strung with the Volkl Hybrid at a lower tension, sort of following what the top pros seem to be doing. Taking a lesson from the Fed, who also reportedly plays with a poly/ natural gut hybrid combination, although in this case with the gut in the mains), I asked the stringer to string the Volkl gut in the crosses at 50 and the poly in the mains at 45.

    I HATE it. I have discovered that these strings just do not feel right to me at so soft a tension. So, if I decide to stay with a hybrid string — not sure if it will be the prepackaged Volkl because “kissing my sister” is not very scintillating — I think I will revert to stringing at somewhere around 53-55 for both strings.

    BUT, I have now managed to play a few sets of both doubles and singles on the racquet strung with the Babolat VS Team gut. In a word, I had truly forgotten just how sweet gut is to play with and I think I did not do it full justice in my prior comment. My serve has suddenly gotten that old pop restored to it, my volleys are suddenly crisp and deep just like the old days, my overheads are going in at maybe 10-20 mph faster than usual, my groundies are hitting at more depth and especially my slice has much more bite, and my touch on things like drop shots, lobs and short/ angle volleys is where it hasn’t been for a long time. In short, I am more and more thinking I am just going to have to be one of those guys who carries 5 racquest with him wherever he plays and they all are strung with gut (in case of string breakage).

    The only downside, in terms of stroke production, that I see with the gut is it is just harder to hit a heavy topspin with the gut than it ever was with the full poly RuffCode or the Volkl Hybrid with poly in it. I had gotten used to be able to generate more topspin with the poly strings by just hitting harder. But the gut does not react the same way. If you hit it harder with gut, the ball just flies more. In fact, the best, and maybe only, way to generate heavy topspin with gut, for me, seems to be to move my grips more to western or semi-western and swing much lower to higher than I am used to. But this takes effort to remember during a point and I kind of feel this old dog should give up trying to learn too many new tricks.

    So, as Chris says, maybe we old farts with eastern and continental grips just have to learn to be happy with our flatter, less topspin flatter strokes. After all, we got this far playing the way we do.

    Marty – If you get real good pop on your serve, maybe we can have shorter points and a less-than three hour match at this year’s Newk camp! george

  10. George, if you look back in the annals of time, you will see that, provided I have not gotten blown away by somebody who is just a notch too good for me, which has also happened on occasion, I rarely have had anything but marathon singles matches at Newk’s!! In running through my memory of what I think has been 54 singles matches since 1993, and excluding the one and only year that I missed in 2000, I can actually recall 19 singles matches that I have played that have gone the full 3 sets (or that included the third set supertiebreaker after that was implemented), and most of these went at least 2 1/2 hours with several going longer than 3 hours. Plus, I am sure that I am forgetting some matches, so there probably are even more long matches that I have played that I cannot now recall. That being said, I am sorry to say that I have lost my fair share of these marathon matches, like ours last year. But I once was told by an opponent some years back who no longer attends Fantasies Camp, after he found out that he was scheduled to play me for the third year in a row, after we split two 3 1/2 hour + matches in the two preceding years, that he would rather have the flu than to play me in another match. As I recall, I wound up beating him pretty easily and quickly that third year. I have always been more the tortoise type than the hare.

    Marty – Yup, the flu sounds like a good alternative to me! See you in October. george

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