When poly goes dead – a silver lining
Those first few hits of a fresh bed of poly is like no other. There’s an energy you feel, like you can do anything. A feeling we wish could last forever.
But, there’s a lot happening in the background that contributes to string death – and I’m not talking about breaking the string.
It wasn’t even 7am yet, and I forced myself out the door for a morning run. The leaves are falling off the trees like rain, and it was all starting to sink in. Fall has always been a struggle for me.
While everyone is enjoying cooler temps and changing colors, I’m too busy hanging on to the last bit of summer by a thread. But when the thread snaps, the daze is gone, and I’ve missed Fall completely.
I fear change. I see winter looming in the distance. Opportunities to play tennis start to erode, half-done videos that might never be finished, and good matches few and far between.
Instead, I get it stuck in my mind of how exactly I want it to be – a utopian dream world of warm summer sessions – one that lasts forever.
But this year felt different. So much change in my life. Colors popped against the gray foggy backdrop, and the cold air was refreshing. I just had one of the best matches of my life the other night. The new merch order was arriving today. There was a pile of rackets waiting for me, deliveries to be made, and new ones to be picked up.
I’m working on embracing change, but for now, I’ll keep the dream going.
In the beginning of a poly’s life it’s almost like you’re getting free spin. But as the string wears down it stiffens up, control drops, and good qualities start to fade – requiring you to make up for these losses – and we describe this feeling as the string going dead.
Strings begin to lose tension as soon as they leave the stringing machine. Tension loss is accelerated once you start hitting balls. Eventually it levels off, but tension loss alone isn’t why the strings go dead.
So if my poly is losing tension, shouldn’t it be getting more comfortable? And more powerful?
Why does it feel quite the opposite? There’s a few things other than tension loss that are happening, and every one is asking you to work a little harder to get the same result as before.
One of the biggest parts of comfort is the elasticity of the material. It’s what makes poly feel so sweet initially – you can feel the stretch, the pocketing, and the power. Yet it’s firm, so the result is a feel of control. But due to the nature of polyester, the clock is ticking.
Like a fresh pair of running shoes they feel plush early in their life, then begin to lose their spring and dampening qualities as you put on miles. The string material is physically hardening due to the work it is performing. It can only withstand so many impact cycles until it just doesn’t spring back like it used to – the material itself is getting stiffer.
Next is the coating. Poly when brand new can be ultra slick. Many have oils and coatings that help the string to slide and snap back with minimal friction, getting effortless string snap back and spin. The downside of all this sliding is, as time goes on, this coating wears down and the friction starts to increase making you work a little bit harder to get the same spin.
I love the feel of sharp, shaped strings. Pentagonal, hexagonal, octagonal, even square. It’s debated whether or not they actually get more total spin, but just going from a round string to a shaped string is night and day in how it feels, to me. There is a feeling of bite and grip that is confidence inspiring especially on low balls that need to be flicked up and back down in a hurry. An added bonus is the felt flying everywhere, it feels cool. But as these sharp edges start to wear down and become rounded off, you’ll notice it’s just not like it used to be. You have to adjust your strokes slightly and swing a little faster to compensate.
One of the biggest but most underlooked parts of poly wearing out is the string bed locking. When new, your mains and crosses can slide freely in any direction, twisting, bending, spreading, and torquing with the ball like a net. This freedom helps the string bed stretch naturally, and even some super stiff poly’s can feel soft initially. Go watch slow mo videos of ball impacts to see it working. Even though you had your racket strung at 50 lbs initially, this freedom to move contributes to the dynamic tension of the whole system.
String bed locking happens when the mains begin to wear and develop notches at the intersection of the string. You’ve probably felt it before if you try to move the crosses on an old bed – you have to pop them out of the groove.
Since poly is harder than other strings, this notching gets pretty deep. Now what you have is a string bed where the main is “locked” on to the cross, meaning it can only slide in one direction as if the cross was a track. The effect is that it becomes harsher feeling as it doesn’t have the freedom to move around in all dimensions as it did previously.
So while your initial tension you strung it at is dropping, the dynamic tension is increasing from this locking, leading to power loss and a harsher feel.
It’s almost like your car freely driving around a turn, finding the most natural route around the road vs your car riding on a fixed track like a train – the turns, bumps, and changes in direction would be more abrupt and jarring.
The final part isn’t about the string, it's about you. We are very good at adjusting and compensating as the string wears. But at some point, you won’t be able to overcome the drop in power, the increase in friction, the rounding off edges, and the locking up of the bed. You won’t be able to hit the ball hard enough to get power and spin levels when the string was new – and winter makes this even harder.
To get the highs and thrills of the best performance you must be willing to pay the price – to adapt, to anticipate change – to overcome.
If it lasted forever, we wouldn’t get that same rush, that energy that we so much look forward to.
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