Tennis is a physically demanding sport that engages various parts of the body. From sprinting across the court to swinging and returning shots, it takes a well-rounded athlete to play well. Proper conditioning and good flexibility help reduce the incidence of injury and lead to a better overall experience of play.
There are a variety of injuries associated with tennis, many of which originate in the arm, shoulder, and wrist area. Sometimes injuries arise as a result of poor technique or improper equipment. In many cases, stress to at-risk body parts is mitigated by proper body and grip positioning, and swing form.
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The most common injury associated with tennis is the so-called “tennis elbow.” Tennis elbow (lateral epicondylitis) is a chronic injury that occurs when elbow tendons become overloaded, usually by repetitive motions of the wrist and arm. In the forearm, tendons and muscles connect to a bony bump on the outside of the elbow. Complications from tennis elbow result in pain centered around this area. Depending on the severity, the pain can spread to other parts of the arm, even going as high as the shoulder and upper back.
Stringing and Links to Injury
While tennis elbow can arise as a result of overuse or simply frequent play, interestingly enough, it can happen as a result of using a racket with firm stringing. As a general rule, the more tightly-strung the racket, the greater chance of injury.
The reason for this is twofold. First, because the strings are tighter, the shock generated from the ball’s impact with the racket is transferred more directly through the racket, through the wrist, and up through the arm. Looser strings absorb and return more of the shock from each hit, rebounding and springing the ball forward. Second, with tight strings, players have to exert more force to achieve the same ball velocity. While higher string tension generally translates to greater control over the ball, the tradeoff is less power transferred to the ball with each stroke.
There are a few factors related to string variety and construction itself that mediate the risk of injury, including the following factors:
- Synthetic String Construction – Durable strings consist of tough materials made typically of Kevlar, polyester, or nylon. The construction can be either monofilament or multifilament. Monofilament strings are generally more robust and resilient compared to natural gut and other multifilament synthetics available in the market. However, because monofilament strings are tougher, they are harder on the arm and joints. Multifilament strings are recommended for players with existing injuries.
- String Gauge – Gauge refers to the string thickness. Different tennis strings also come in varying gauges, and the thicker they are, the harsher the feel and more direct the transfer of momentum. So, for injury prevention, thinner, or higher-gauge strings are preferable.
- Tension – As we mentioned before, tension is perhaps the primary factor that determines injury risk. According to experts, tennis racket string tension is one of the crucial factors that can enhance any player’s game. Advanced power players who hit hard and swing fast benefit from tighter tensions. However, for players suffering from arm problems and beginners with higher frequency or off-center hits, a softer low-tension string bed is recommended.
Other Racket Characteristics Connected to Injury Risk
While tennis string materials and string tension are one of the major attributes that people consider when thinking about injury risk, there are other racket characteristics, including weight and balance, grip size, and stiffness that influence risk.
Racket stiffness refers to how much a racket will flex or bend when you hit a tennis ball. It’s measured on a scale of 0 to 100, with lower numbers indicating a more flexible racket and higher numbers indicating a stiffer racket.
How can racket stiffness lead to injury? Well, a racket that is either too stiff or too flexible can have a negative impact on your arm, wrist, elbow, and shoulder. If you have weak arm muscles and/or improper technique and you use a racket that is too stiff, you can receive an excessive shock or jar to your arm every time you hit the ball. Over time, this can lead to injury. If your racket is too flexible, however, then you may not give enough energy to the ball with each hit.
Racket Weight & Balance
A head-heavy racket is a racket where the bulk of the weight is concentrated in the head. Usually, this configuration allows players to hit with increased power while exerting less force. Head light rackets are the opposite–where the majority of the weight is concentrated in the handle. If you aren’t playing with the configuration that is best for you, then more shock can reach your wrist, forearm, and shoulder, leading to injury.
On the other hand, if the racket is too light, you may need to overcompensate and hit harder, also causing stress on your arm.
Racket Grip Size
The size of the racket grip determines how large the diameter of the grip is. If too small, players may have the propensity to grip too hard in order to keep hold, and vice versa. Any compensation or overcompensation can lead to injury. The rule of thumb is to pay attention to any pain or discomfort that arises as a result of a certain racket configuration. A player should listen to their body and address any pain or injuries as they arise, then make equipment adjustments accordingly.
As with most things in tennis, what works best depends on the player’s individual preferences and level of comfort.
Recognizing the upside to performance and feel associated with various string tensions, many players will opt to carry multiple rackets strung at different tensions. Professional players especially will maintain several rackets.
As a general rule, most players with arm injuries will benefit from reducing the tension of their strings, which will help create a softer, more forgiving string bed. The result will help reduce the stiffness associated with higher tensions, which will ultimately be more forgiving to a player’s arm.
If you are suffering from an arm injury such as tennis elbow, it can also be worth examining the type of string as well as the kind of racket you’re using to achieve the highest level of comfort, while still being able to enjoy the game and compete at a high level. Some players view the tradeoff as existing between comfort and performance, but the reality is those good players can strike a good balance that fulfills both aspects.