Prince EXO3 Black Review Part 1

This is the first in a multi-part review of the Prince EXO3 Black.  I’ve hit with this racquet four times with my standard stringbed of Pro Hurricane Tour 17 on the mains and VS Team Gut 17 on the crosses.  I previously used an O3 Speedport Black, although have been hitting with the Black Team for many months while recovering from an arm injury.  I’m still not back to 100% on the arm/shoulder, so I feel this is a good condition to report on any wear/stress caused by the new frame.

Here are the racquet specs, right off the frame

Head Size: 100 sq. in

Length: 27 in.

String Pattern:  16×19

Unstrung Weight: 10.8 oz

Unstrung Balance: 12.6 in

Swingweight: 295

Power Level: 975

Grip: Prince Resi Pro

Stiffness: 72 (from the internet)

Strung balance appears to be a few points head-light.  Although the EXO3 Black clearly feels heavier than the O3 Black Team, the swingweight is such that it’s pretty easy to get the racquet to the ball.  I do experience some timing issues and that’s just a matter of me getting used to the frame.

My style is all-court (1hb) and what I never do under any circumstances is stand several feet behind the baseline and trade mondo-topspin groundies with the young whippersnappers.  I like to step up, take the ball on the rise, and hammer it back deep and hard.  For that, you need a rock-solid frame and the EXO3 Black delivers with flying colors.  I can’t describe how much I like the solid feel at impact.  I can stand closer to the baseline and take half- or three-quarter swings at deep balls and pound them back with complete confidence.  It was a bit hit-and-miss with the prior frame.

Speaking of feel and response, I got a dramatic upgrade on volleys.  I never liked being at the net with the Speedport Black Team, despite the excellent maneuverability of the stick.  With the EXO3 Black, I can’t wait to get there 🙂

Serves are a bit different.  I’m taking more of a half-stroke motion, starting with the racquet raised in the air.  The EXO3 Black needs a bit more work to generate the same service speed.  However, I noticed that I hit my spots with more regularity.  I suspect that the previous frame was more susceptible to slight twitches in forearm or wrist motion.

I was quite pleased with the arm-friendliness of the heavier, stiffer frame.  As expected, stroke timing is a bit different.  When balls are being hammered to you by a pro or a 4.5+ player, tiny fractions of a second really matter.  The first two sessions, I noticed some slight soreness in the front of my shoulder near the chest.  It faded pretty quickly.  By the fourth session, I didn’t notice much at all.  With the Speedport Black Team, I had a problem with the head-heavy frame and a responsive stringbed at lower tension.  Even sweet-spot impacts at very low racquet speed (like a drop shot) had some perceptible low-frequency vibration (the type a damper does not inhibit).  Nothing but solid feel from the EXO3 Black.  I should note, however, with this particular hybrid string job at lower tension, I prefer the feel of the frame with the small EXO3 vibration damper that comes with the racquet.

Stock grip feels really good, although I’m not sweating much in the colder weather.  For most racquets, I can’t wait to apply an overgrip.

I’ll post another review as soon as I have pics.  I don’t own a digital camera, so I have to find someone to take the pics for me.  I want to compare the EXO3 Black to the Speedport Black in the same pic.

Babolat Revenge Review Part 2

Continuing from part 1, I hit with Revenge as a fullbed for a little over eight hours under a variety of conditions.  Tension loss was less than a pound.  The string grew on me, but I was still anxious to test it in a hybrid.  Fortunately, the gut on my regular hybrid became mushy and it was time to restring.  So, I had both racquets restrung with VS Team 17 on the crosses.  One was strung with Revenge 17 on the mains at 51 lb and the other with the usual Pro Hurricane Tour 17 at 53.  My racquet is a Prince Speedport Black.

I was pleased with the control provided by Revenge as a fullbed at lower tension, so I wanted to experiment at the low end of my normal range.  If I strung a hybrid with say xCel Power on the mains at 51, I would be guranteed to spray balls into the fence from the first shot 🙂  The hybrid Revenge configuration performed pretty much  the same as the fullbed.  Solid control even at lower tension and this from a so-called ‘power’ string.

There was increased feel from groundstrokes by crossing with the gut, which helped alleviate my concerns from the first part of the review.  Next, I wanted to see how the configuration volleyed.  At 51lb, I expected a slight mushy feel from volleys.  The opposite was true.  Response was crisp from the very first volley.   With the VS Team/Pro Hurricane Tour hybrid, I get a serious feel of the ball being pocketed and ‘launched’ from stringbed.  This affects volleying to some extent based on the pace of the ball coming towards  you.  With VS Team/Revenge, response is consistent whether it is a light touch volley or responding to a very hard passing shot.

You will pick up a bit more feel and spin from the hybrid configuration on serve, but overall response is quite muted compared to Pro Hurricane Tour on the mains. Again, the expectation for Revenge is to provide  reasonable power while maintaining control.  With a power configuration, it’s up to you to provide the control.

My first conclusion is that Revenge is better suited for a hybrid configuration if you already play a hybrid (especially a gut/poly hybrid).   Control is quite good even at lower tension.  Given the combination of control and response on volleys, I’m probably going to keep the VS Team/Revenge hybrid as a doubles racquet.  It is not as powerful or responsive as the VS Team/Pro Hurricane Tour combination, leading me to believe that Babolat should be advertising this as more of a control string as opposed to a power string.

You can get plenty of power from Revenge by stringing at lower tension and just hitting out on the ball.   The response is adequate and the control ensures that if you miss, it’s all on you.   Spin is average; about what I would expect from any 17 -gauge hybrid configuration.  As might be expected, it is noticeably less than I achieve with the VS Team/Pro Hurricane Tour configuration.  However, given Revenge’s reputation for tension maintenance, you can hold that power/control level for longer periods of time than other configurations.  I expect more frequent restringing with VS Team/Pro Hurricane Tour.

Given the pace I experience from 4.5/5.0 players, my general conclusion is to stick with the VS Team/Pro Hurricane Tour hybrid for singles play.  I’m viewing VS Team/Revenge as more of a specialty configuration, for use in windy conditions when control is at a premium or doubles play.

Babolat Revenge Review Part 1

This is the first in a two-part review of the new Revenge string from Babolat.  I currently play a VS Team 16/Pro Hurricane Tour 17 hybrid, so I’m reviewing Revenge both fullbed and in a hybrid.  I normally string in the 50-53 range, so I first tried Revenge 17  in a fullbed @ 54lb.

I had previously tested Pro Hurricane Tour and xCel Power as a fullbed in the same racquet, both at an average tension of 53.  The xCel Power felt great but had a tendency to spray balls.  It was better crossed with xCel Premium.  The Pro Hurricane tour was so responsive in my head-light racquet that it had some low-frequency vibration that was very noticeable on touch shots and light volleys.  Crossed with the VS Team gut, however, performance is terrific in a hybrid.

My first impression of Revenge was that it was a cool-looking (red) string with a unique popping sound at impact.  At lower tension, the string provided expected power on groundstrokes but with unexpected control.  This is one string you can take a hard swing at the ball and if you miss, it’s all on you.  While not advertised as a comfort string, I did not notice any arm soreness after hammering on the string with 4.0/4.5 players for about an hour.

Volleys were very crisp and it almost seemed like the string performed better at the net than on the baseline.  If you have a relatively flat first serve, you will probably upgrade your first serve with Revenge.  Spin was definitely weaker than Pro Hurricane Tour (as would be expected) and from what I remember hitting with xCel Power.  You might lose a bit on a sliced second or heavy topspin first serves.

Coming from a gut player, my next observation is almost predictable.  Revenge does not have the feel I like on touch shots.  If these are an important part of your game, then you will not like this string in a fullbed.

After about 3 1/2 hours of hitting under various circumstances (including in the middle of the day in Texas heat), there was very little string movement.  The person who strung my racquet indicated no issues in the stringing and little coil memory.  DIY’ers will probably find it an easy job to string.

Overall, this string impresses me as good choice for 3.0/3.5 players looking for a power string without sacrificing control.  Revenge is advertised as a highly durable string with minimal tension loss.  That means you can afford to string at lower tensions without fear of the string becoming mushy after just a couple weeks of hard play (which happened to me with xCel Power).  I will continue to hit with the string and once I get to about ten hours, I’ll measure the tension and report back.

I believe 4.0+ players might consider Revenge as an alternative to say Big Banger, but only from the standpoint of adding control or getting a more arm-friendly string.  If you currently play a hybrid (especially a gut/poly hybrid), you would only want to consider Revenge as a substitute for your mains.  When my current hybrid is ready for restringing, I’ll see how Revenge compares as a main string to the Pro Hurricane Tour and then post part 2 of this review.

Tennis Tip: Maintain Posture Through Impact

I think it was David Leadbetter who popularized the saying in golf of letting the dog wag the tail, not have the tail wag the dog.  The idea behind the saying was to let the larger muscles in the body control the movement of the smaller muscles, not react to their motion.  In other words, the hands and arms do not start the backswing in golf; they react in unison to movment in the larger back muschles.  The so-called ‘one-piece’ takeaway was thus popularized.

The tennis swing bears some similarity.  So many swings I study are dominated by arm motion.  The hips, back, and legs seem to come along for the ride.   This is very evident in the motion at and through impact.  I see people trying to put ‘body english’ on the ball to complete the stroke.

The two most common moves are standing up at impact and throwing the body around (particularly on the forehand side) just before impact.  The former move often comes from a psychological desire to add more height to the ball.  The latter move is often an attempt to direct the ball crosscourt or add more power.  In golf, we would call this coming ‘over the top.’  The downswing is started by ‘throwing’ the arms from the top, then the body tries to compenste by pulling around and to the left, which only throws the clubhead even further outside the swing path, causing an outside-to-in motion.  With an open clubface, this produces a slice; a pull results from a closed clubface.

In either case, we should not be using the upper body to ‘add’ to arm motion at impact.  The upper body should be positioned prior to impact.  Its role in the swing is one of stabilization and being part of the total kinematic chain.  If the body is rapidly rotated back around during impact, the racquet face is either closed or starting to close, so the result is a flatter swing path that has a tendecy to direct the ball downward.  With perfect timing, the ball can be hit low and hard, but net balls are a common result.  The compensation is additional body motion by raising and over-rotating at impact.  This causes the ball to often miss wide crosscourt or long.

Stroke inconsistency can often be traced to short-circuiting the kinematic chain, moving the arms too much and trying to compensate with body motion at impact.  With sufficient time to setup and hit a ball in the strike zone, the body should appear to rotate around the spine at impact with a relatively still head.  We see this so well in Federer’s strokes.  The body posture is formed prior to impact and remains relatively constant through impact as the kinematic chain is unwound.

Getting rid of body compensations takes some effort and I suggest you work with a professional instructor.  Identifying specific  compensations and setting up drills to alleviate the issue is important.  Two people that have apparently similar compensations may need completely different remedial action.  For example, I have a tendency to shift the body laterally back towards midcourt.  My instructor identified this as an attempt to recover too quickly and get into  position for the next shot.  So, we do lots of crosscourt drills where the goal of the drill is to maintain strict posture and consistently hit the ball back hard and deep (we usually try for 8-10 straight).

In golf, we used to say that you ought to be able to take a practice swing and see your left shoulder go under the chin on the backswing and see the right shoulder go under the chin after impact.  Take a practice swing with your racquet and look at your shoulders.  Do you really get the feel of pivoting around your spine?  Do the arms act in response to motion in the hips and shoulders or does the upper body react to motion in the arms?  Is the dog wagging the tail or the tail wagging the dog?

Good luck with the game!

Tennis Tip: Take a Snapshot Before Impact

I often draw analogies between tennis and golf, but today’s tip comes from football.  I once heard a pro receiver say that they were coached to take a mental snapshot of catching the ball just before it arrived.  The idea was to reinforce whether it was a hands or body catch, proper body position, keeping feet in bounds, etc.  Once the mental snapshot was taken, they were supposed to duplicate the snapshot with an actual catch.

I’m just starting to hit right-handed again afer a few months layoff.  One of the early challenges is getting my timing and sense of racquet control back.   I’ve used this technique in practice in order to help reinforce proper racquet position at impact when working the ball.  I try to think of the part of the ball I want to strike as being highlighted and how I want the racquet to look at impact.  Then, I try to put the racquet in the exact position as my mental snapshot.  In order to do so, I have to have good footwork and body preparation in addition to proper racquet motion.

Take advantage of practice time by not just hitting aimlessly.  Try cross-court and down-the-line rallies.  Try to keep the ball inside the doubles alley.  Think about where you need to impact the ball and mentally higlight that part of the ball before impact.  Mental visualizations are always a bit tricky at first.  When I first tried this technique, it seemed a bit strange. After a couple practice sessions, I became comfortable with its application.  Iv’e found it helps a lot in terms of proper setup and stroke motion.  You may also find that it helps you in another important area which is focusing on the ball through impact in the first place.  Yes, we all want to look up too quickly to see where that great shot went.

Directional control based on compensations translates into inconcistent play.  Muscle memory never gets to work in your favor as the compensations are different every time you play.  Practice proper technique and then muscle memory starts to work in your favor.  Good luck with the game!

TennisTip: Train Like a Boxer For Better Footwork

In the previous tip, I alluded to ‘hearing’ your feet while practicing as a means to produce fewer steps and more adjujstment in setting up to hit the ball.  It’s very difficult to hit a good shot without the body being in proper position.  My biggest footwork issue is taking too few steps and getting in position early.  Instead of stepping into the ball as part of the stroke, I’m already setup, so I have to ‘muscle’ the ball with my upper body and arm.

In searching for a drill to help alleviate this tendency, I looked at other sports where the pace of action is fast and footwork is extremely important.  Martial arts in general, and boxing in particular fit the bill.  One of the old-school techniques for teaching balance and footwork in boxing is to tie a string between the boxer’s feet while standing in a ‘ready’ position.  Either through shadow-boxing or moving with a partner, the boxer must quickly move into a variety of positions without breaking the string.  This forces the boxer to make adjustments in small steps, allowing him to more quickly react to an opponent’s move in mid-step.  Not all that different from tennis; making adjustments for wind, ball spin, the ball hitting slick spots on the court, misreading a volley angle, etc.

So, I tried it … at home, of course.  Just hitting a foam ball up against a wall.  Freaking amazing drill.  What I thought was a small step broke the string instantly.  Then, I videotaped myself and saw what I was doing; trying to ‘position’ myself as quickly as possible, then hit through the ball as opposed to a single, fluid motion.  I comapred this to some video I recorded of Federer.  It’s interesting how many times his strokes have been analyzed and I never hear anyone talk about his feet.  His stroke production really begins there.

So, I continued with the drill until I could hit some really basic forehands and backhands without breaking the string.  I try to duplicate this motion when I warm up.  When doing so, I always tend to hit much better than when I warm up thiking only about stroke production in the upper body.

This is a drill that is not easy to migrate to the court, so I typically relegate it to indoor practice when it rains.  Breaking and retying a string is tedious, but don’t use a flexible cord as that could easily induce tripping.   In fact, I would recommend just practice moving into position without hitting a ball at first.   It’s a bit risky, but I found it to be an incredible drill that I can do at home.  If you don’t want to try it, at least have your local USTA pro analyze your footwork with you on video.  The bottom line is to consciously make an effort to keep the feet moving and constantly adjusting to the ball.  Always think of the stroke as starting from the ground; not the hips or the shoulders or the arm.  It’s the feet!

Good luck!

Tennis Tip: Hear Your Feet

There are many variations of this general theme, one of which is the Tennis Channel’s one-minute clinic.  Imagine you are paid one dollar for every step taken to the ball.  If you are getting paid ‘by the step,’ the natural tendency is to take more steps to get to the ball.  Smaller steps is one of the keys to better footwork.  Hitting a moving ball requires a lot of fine adjustment from setup through the stroke and into recovery.  It’s easier to make those adjustments with the feet than compensating through upper body/arm/wrist manipulations.  Compensating for poor footwork robs you of power and accuracy.

So, how do you translate this to the court?  I’ve always liked tips that involve less thinking and more sensory feedback.  Even during a practice session, it’s hard to think about multiple things at once.  So, how do you tell if you are taking smaller steps to the ball?  Do you count them?

A variation of this general tip that I like is to ‘hear’ your feet during each stroke.  Especially on hardcourt, you can really hear small rapid steps and shuffling to get the body into the best position for the stroke.  When I hit a ball poorly, I can usually trace a lot of the problem to equally poor footwork.  Usually, it’s taking fewer steps, getting into position, then trying to ‘muscle’ the ball at impact.  A good stroke should be highly fluid, even if you don’t have to move very far to get to the ball.  When I’m hitting well, I’m taking lots and lots of very tiny steps as I position and then take the final step into impact.  In other words, I can always hear my feet moving when I’m hitting well.

The immediate question is how can you train to get better footwork?  I’ll answer that one on Monday.