Sara Seed: Strings the thing!
They’re on call 24/7. Some shifts last more than 12 hours. When called upon, they must act with precision and assurance and with a tremendous amount of attention to detail. And there’s little to no room for error because time is of the essence.
The equipment and instruments used in this profession are of the latest and most up-to-date technology. They must be educated on each case. And they often perform in front of a live, waiting audience. Yet they’re probably the most unappreciated but highly respected members of the staff. They are the racket stringers. And these are their stories ... (Insert “Law and Order” music.)
It’s the 2013 NCAA Championships and Mitch Zavesky, a University of Illinois freshman majoring in mechanical engineering, and Dennis (D.J.) Rogala, a junior majoring in political science, are stringing rackets, greeting visitors, fielding questions and eating lunch all at the same time.
As I start the interview, it’s immediately obvious these aren’t your average students with a little side gig. They’re on their feet the entire time, and their fingers bleed from the constant pulling. Time is money, as this is helping pay for their college education. There are no stringer scholarships. They take it seriously and present themselves in a friendly, engaging, yet professional manner. Heck, D.J. even has business cards with the title, “Head Racquet Technician.”
They’ve known each other since high school, as they were doubles partners on the Marian Catholic High School boys’ tennis team. Mitch actually started stringing rackets in the ninth grade, and Dennis followed suit after taking a summer job at the prestigious Olympia Fields Country Club, teaching tennis.
And this is where the story gets really interesting. The UI co-hosts an annual tennis tournament at Olympia Fields, and D.J. introduced himself to men’s head coach Brad Dancer. He told him he’d be attending Illinois and would like to assist the tennis program in some way. Brad advised he get the appropriate training, did a reference check and received high praise.
Then, when D.J. started school, Brad recommended he be hired at Atkins Tennis Center. And two years later, Mitch joined him on staff.
“These guys do a great job, and their work ethic is incredible,” Dancer said. “Our players simply drop their rackets into a bin labeled ‘Broken Strings’ at the end of practice, and by the next practice they are ready and waiting for them. They’re amazing.”
They can usually string a racket in 15 to 20 minutes or quicker if a player is on the court competing and needs it ASAP. So far, Mitch has strung 87 rackets and D.J. 172. Just like Jimmy John’s ... they are freaky fast.
Just like the racket’s weight and size of its head, strings are an interesting and key component, and there are three kinds: Natural gut, which comes from a cow, and is used by many collegiate and pro players. There’s seldom-used synthetic gut and polyester gut, which is what many recreational and USTA league players use, including me. It can get expensive, as a packet of 40 feet of natural gut string can cost $40. Polyester ranges from $8 to $20 a packet. Labor is around $20 a racket. The tension of the rackets varies from the low 40’s to the high 60’s. Most pros average in the mid-50’s and use a combination of natural and polyester gut. The most popular string is the polyester Solinco Tourbite. But wait ... Wilson Sporting Goods Company is about to take center stage. Again.
Wilson reps, Erika Offerdahl, U.S Promotions Manager and Cy Dofitas, U.S. Promotions Coordinator of the racquet sports division, were on hand Wednesday to educate and provide college coaches demos of their new racquets and innovative string, Luxila 4G. They’ve also provided two stringing machines and stress standing mats, the same ones used at the U.S Open, for our ace stringers.
This soon-to-be 100-year-old sporting goods company’s rackets have produced more Grand Slam winners than any of the other companies combined. Their creative marketing and innovative discoveries with new stringing techniques are truly revolutionary, as they continue to service beginners to professionals.
As I end this interview, more rackets are being dropped off, and Mitch and D.J. are on it. Their names and bios may not be posted in the program, but they are just as much winners as the players competing. Man, I love this game.