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Fitness
And With Tiger’s Golf Clubs You’d Win the Masters

By PAUL BERGER
Published: October 18, 2007


AT a time when your iPhone case says as much about you as the music you choose to upload, no two officemates have the same Google home page and no true sneakerhead would be without customized kicks, it is perhaps inevitable that the thirst for personalization has seeped into amateur sport.

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Marc Serota for The New York Times
THE RIGHT TOOLS Cristovao Franza, assistant director of tennis at St. Andrew's School in Boca Raton, and his customized rackets by Warren Bosworth, who personalizes the end caps.

Cyclists can spend three years’ worth of vacation money on custom-built bikes while golfers spend hours agonizing over the perfect shaft as if they were being fitted for an Oscar-ready bespoke suit. Now it is the turn of tennis, where players for whom mass market just won’t do can take their $200 or $300 rackets to a customizer.

One part math, two parts physics, customization promises to transform an everyday racket into the perfect tennis machine by altering its weight, balance or swing weight (a combination of the weight and the balance), for about $50 a racket. For hundreds of dollars, sometimes thousands, a professional will pinpoint which adjustments are necessary for your game.

Cristovao Franza, 22, the assistant director of tennis at St. Andrew’s School in Boca Raton, Fla., said tennis has been a big part of his life since he was 7. He spends about six hours a day on court either teaching or training for competitions. Four years ago, he had four Head Liquidmetal Radical rackets customized for about $60 each, and another three rackets custom built.

“It’s all about confidence,” Mr. Franza said. “With the racket the way it was when I bought it in the store, I didn’t have the confidence to hit certain shots.” He chose the Head Radical because it was used by his idol, Andre Agassi (whose two-handed backhand is a model for Mr. Franza’s). But the racket was so light it was hard to control, the rounded grip did not quite match his hand and the shaft was too short.

Now, Mr. Franza said, if he hits shots correctly he knows the ball will go where he wants. “I am playing the best tennis of my life,” he said.

Once the preserve of professional tennis players, racket customization is beginning to catch on among dedicated amateurs who have heard about it in the media or online, where racket customizers — whose ranks have been growing in recent years — are easy to find. The message boards of sites like tennis-warehouse.com buzz with chatter about grip size, racket weight and balance.

People who customize are typically the most ardent amateurs, playing at least three times a week in leagues or tournaments. Chip Brenn of Sandia Racquet Services in New Mexico says they are often more obsessed with racket diagnostics than professionals are. “A pro knows what they like and they are not going to change,” he said. “But recreational players are a lot more interested in tinkering.”

The precise number of amateurs who have turned to customization is hard to pin down, but they represent a small number of tennis players. About 24.5 million Americans played tennis in 2006, according to the Tennis Industry Association, with just over 5 million of those playing 20 or more times. Tennis retailers say less than 10 percent of consumers request customization, while customizers themselves admit the numbers are fairly small.

“If you told me there were 20,000 people out there who have had their racket customized, I would be very impressed,” Mr. Brenn said. Still, he stopped advertising nationwide because he couldn’t meet demand.

In Mr. Franza’s drive to hone his game, he turned to Warren Bosworth, 72, a customizer in Boca Raton who has been tweaking rackets for over 30 years. Mr. Bosworth added weight to the heads for greater control, elongated the grips and gave the grip edges more definition. At no extra cost, he personalized the butt caps: “Custom built by Bosworth for Cristovao Franza.”

Many amateurs already dabble in customization themselves, increasing the mass of their racket by adding lead tape to the head or handle. Laurence Shanet, 41, a television and theater director, was among the self-customizers until recently, when he turned to Roman Prokes of RPNY Tennis in New York, because “you can’t really get a good machine that measures weight, balance and swing weight for less than $5,000 or $6,000.”

“Tennis is incredibly frustrating,” said Mr. Shanet, a former junior and college tennis player, who now plays once a week at most, “and so the equipment is one of those areas where you can look for an edge.”

Bob Patterson of Racquetmaxx in Alabama said “people are talking more about customizing rackets,” and that 80 percent of his business is now from amateur players, compared with 10 percent a few years ago. Tim Strawn, a racket stringer and the founder of www.grandslamstringers.com, said the Internet has been a huge factor. “Ten years ago people didn’t even know these services were available,” Mr. Strawn said.

But David Bone, executive director of the United States Racquet Stringers Association, attributed the increase to a push from customizers, who advertise actively online and in stores. More of his association’s members are moving into customization, he said, and more amateurs are being persuaded to use those services.

But does it all matter to their game? Billy Martin, the coach of the University of California, Los Angeles, men’s tennis team and a former Wimbledon quarterfinalist, said it probably benefited only the most proficient players. “Everybody wants to play with what the pros play with,” Mr. Martin said. “But for the average Joe, I don’t think it makes much difference.”

Most tennis enthusiasts know that professionals’ rackets are customized to such an extent that though they look the same as store-bought rackets, technically they are worlds apart. These amateurs are demanding the same level of service, but their desire does not always match their ability.

Donald Cline, the tennis and golf buyer at Paragon Sports in New York, said a 75-year-old man came into the store requesting “Federer’s racket strung with Federer’s string.”

“The sales guy had to tell him, ‘First of all, you can barely lift that racket,’” Mr. Cline said. “And if you use this string, your arm is going to fall off because it will hurt so much.”

Because mass-produced rackets vary slightly in weight and balance, one of the most common customization requests by amateurs is racket matching, said Don Hightower, the president of the online retailer Tennis Warehouse. Players want to be sure, he said, that if they pop a string on one racket they have a bag of identical ones in reserve.

Popping strings is one problem. But lifelong tennis players sometimes find that it is their bodies that wear out. John Alper, a 55-year-old director of TV commercials and documentaries, travels a lot for work, but when he is home in Florida he plays four times a week, and he plays to win.

But Mr. Alper found his Wilson Pro Staff racket starting to become a little too heavy. After trying a few customized rackets, Mr. Alper bought a custom-built Bosworth racket instead. He says customization is still relatively unknown at his tennis club, but he won’t be helping to spread the word. “I am usually a very generous guy,” he said. “But in tennis I want every advantage I can get.”
 
 
 
 
 
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