Macon, GA Women’s Challenger October 18-25, 2021Matt Steverson
I had the privilege of being asked to be the stringer at a USTA Pro Circuit Women’s Challenger event ($80,000 prize money) at the John Drew Smith Tennis Center in Macon, GA. As usual with these smaller events, I was the only stringer (most of the time).
The center was striking, a 22-court facility that hosts a lot of events in the area. It was primed and ready for the players to begin qualifying on Sunday, with the main draw slated to begin on Tuesday. Also, it was COVID time.
As usual, the early days were quite busy, with over 50 racquets crossing my machine during the 2 days of qualifying. Due to the extended starting times, I spent 2 16-hour days at the center, always the first to arrive and last to leave. But, Monday was coming to a close and I was priming myself to begin the main draw.
Fortunately, I was able to line up a local stringer to help out on Wednesday and, even though he wasn’t used to the rigors of tournament stringing, he was able to do just enough jobs to get us over the top, and all the players got their racquets on time.
After Wednesday, my life returned to “tournament normal”, and things were much less eventful the rest of the week (see below for the one exception).
After the stress of the first round, it was a fairly normal event. About 140 racquets were done for 37 players (11 by my assistant), plus 8 for the Mercer College tennis team. I had no outlandish setups — the low tension was 40; the high was 57 — and 28 players used full polyester, with 9 using a hybrid setup (10 if you count Beatriz Haddad Maia using 2 different gauges of ALU Power). 6 of those players used gut on the main strings, while 3 (including tournament winner Madison Brengle) used gut or synthetic string on the crosses.
The award for most racquets strung over the 8 days goes to singles semifinalist Xiyu Wang and doubles winner Cat Harrison with 7 each, while singles champ Brengle only did 3 racquets for the whole event, quite a departure in my experience.
The most popular string, once again, was Luxilon ALU Power, followed at quite a distance by Yonex Poly Tour Pro and Poly Tour Strike. Babolat VS was the most popular gut, and Brengle used Wilson NXT Power as her cross string. One of the gut players asked for a 10% machine prestretch.
The busiest day for stringing was 45, and the last day I did a total of 1.
How I Handled Things
Since I’d decided to go it alone at this event, I knew I had to minimize mistakes, especially on the busy early days. Just one misweave or other error at the wrong time could put me behind a very big roadblock and jeopardize the players getting their racquets on time. So, I figured it would be better to take a little extra time to make sure everything was sorted and set up properly than to try and fly through it all.
And it worked. Except for that one time.
During a busy spell on Monday, American player Whitney Osuigwe came to get a racquet for her final round qualifying match. I gave it to her, got paid, wished her luck, and she took the court. A little while later, Aussie Lizette Cabrera came in to pick up her racquet for practice, and that’s when I noticed that I had given her racquet to Whitney. Now, I’m scrambling.
I ran out to Whitney’s court to give the racquet to her coach and hopefully get Lizzie’s back. But, she was already playing (and losing). I explained the situation to him, and he kind of shook it off, feeling that it was the same racquet and they would pay for Lizzie’s string (same string) and it would be OK. Then, Whitney comes to the gate and says, “Not my racquet”, giving it to the official that accompanied us and getting hers in exchange.
The strings looked really good, but I quickly restrung it for Cabrera, running it to her court with as little delay as I could muster, not charging her for the string job. Next, I refunded all of Osuigwe’s stringing fees ($60) for the week so far to make it up to her (when I ran to the court to explain this to her coach, she was about to split sets, and wound up winning in a match tiebreak to secure a main draw spot).
As you might imagine, I’m feeling pretty low at this point, as I had made an unconscionable error, almost costing a player a match. Whitney came in afterwards, and I stood up to fall on my sword.
“I’m sorry, Whitney,” I said. “I made a huge mistake and I’m glad it didn’t cost you a match.”
“Pfftt,” she said. “I didn’t even use it. You’re fine.”
So, I got off the hook there. Lucky for me she won, though, I’m sure.
Whitney came back later in the day and asked me to charge her for the stringing I’d done, but I refused, telling her it “made me feel better.” Which it did. Unfortunately, that one rushed slip-up cost me $80 plus some valuable time.
I got through the rest of the week without any more of that, thank goodness, and got no complaints from any of the players about my stringing. In fact, I got several compliments about the consistency of my work, and more than one player took the time to thank me on their way out.
Stringing is more important than ever on tour these days, and a stringer needs to be prepared to use it in every way they can. To verify the consistency of my string jobs, I brought my Beers ERT1000 stringbed tester with me, and it intrigued a few of the players to watch it in use. Cat Harrison came in one afternoon and asked me if I could give her my opinion as to which of her racquets were the tightest.
“I can do better than opinion,” I told her. “I can give you some facts.” So, I hooked the racquets up to the ERT and found the tightest ones for her to keep, and she gave me the looser ones to be redone. This became our daily ritual for the rest of the week.
“Little” things like this are important at this level, because most of these players are living week-to-week, and are trying to keep expenses down. Stringing is a daily cost for most of them, and unnecessary string jobs make things tougher on them. I was glad to help Cat, even if it may have cost me some money.
I had a great time at this tournament. The hotel was excellent (my room was huge), the tennis center and staff were first-rate, the food was fine and plentiful (I gained 3 pounds in 8 days), and the players were great.
Every time I finish one of these things, I swear I’m too old to do it again, but I keep coming back.
Will I do this event again? No, I think I’m too old.
See you next year.