If four brand new swanky Roger Federer rackets aren’t enough, how about a high-tech bag to complete your collection?

This one, it should be pointed out, is quite a bit different than traditional storage, to say the least. Wilson describes the Federer elite bag as having a torpedo shape. The idea was that most racket bags have a similar architecture -- larger where the racket head lies and then narrower at the other end.

So, as John Lyons, global product director of Wilson Racquet Sports, explained, the impetus behind the Federer bag was to maximize the negative space.

“When you put a racket into a bag, traditionally there’s a good amount of unused real estate by the handle,” Lyons said. “And it’s pretty safe to say players don’t really want to jam apparel down there because it’s then difficult to get the rackets out. So the concept here was to create a compartment under the handles (i.e., the negative space), where you could place your shoes, wet clothes -- whatever you want.”

Federer Bag
Courtesy Wilson Sports This bag fits all your needs and keeps out the moisture. What else could you ask for?
Once this was completed, the bag took on a new configuration, and as the development process wore on, it became apparent that you could actually make the bag smaller and still fit the same amount of equipment. So a lot of players who carry massive three-compartment luggage -- which in tennis-equipment parlance is known as a 15-pack or Super 6 -- are actually toting around a lot of extra baggage.

The backstory behind this bag comes with a technological twist as well. In the racket compartment, there’s a small mesh pocket on the side wall. Inside the mesh pocket is a silver canister. And inside the canister is a desiccant, a moisture-absorbing material, the same substance found in the small bag in a box of electronics.

It’s actually an active moisture-management system.

“It’s based on the idea that strings, particular gut, absorb moisture, and that affects their play,” Lyons said.

“So we did some testing by saturating the string. This literally meant weighing a set of string, submerging it in water for a period of time to allow it to absorb moisture more rapidly than it normally would, find out the maximum water it could absorb and then weigh it afterward.”

What Lyons & Co. found was that gut absorbs a good amount of moisture, which makes up a lot of the string’s weight. Nylon-based string like synthetic gut or a multifilament can consume about 15 percent of its weight, give or take.

And as strings absorb moisture, there’s a discernible drop-off in strength. Natural gut and nylon-based strings specifically began to lose durability, if not break. Bottom line: These strings are painfully susceptible to moisture.

Polyester strings, which Lyons refers to as non-hydrophilic -- that is they don’t absorb much moisture -- weren’t affected nearly as much as you’d imagine, but even small doses caused some tension loss. Maybe a half to one percent, Lyons said.

So the idea of that small canister in the Federer bag is that it absorbs the moisture. Wilson tested this by building a moisture chamber and then tested the bag with and without the desiccant.

“We found out, we got half the moisture in the bag when we used the desiccant canister,” Lyons said.

Another cool concept is that the canister is rechargeable. There’s a little window on it in where the beads change color when fully saturated. You can take the thing out, bake it in your oven, which evaporates the moisture, and re-use it over and over.

The result is that your strings and grips will play better when protected from moisture.

Tech it out: Head Graphene XT Speed

November, 17, 2014
Nov 17
HeadCourtesy Head TennisHead tennis opens up the new racket season with a sweet update to its Speed series.

Think about the possible permutations when constructing a tennis racket. Seriously, take any major brand and look at the multiple iterations they produce to account for the vast appetite from players of all skill levels.

Some are created with power in mind, others with spin or control or speed. Which one do you buy? Help!

Here’s where Head Tennis can assist. In its latest line, the Graphene XT, you, the consumer, can toggle between a spin-friendly 16-16 string pattern and a more dense 16-19 pattern, which is essentially like getting two rackets for the price of one. With the purchase of a Graphene XT Speed MP A or Graphene XT Speed Rev Pro, Head will send along a second set of grommet strips that you can sub in when re-stringing your racket.

Head is calling it an Adaptive String Pattern (ASP) technology, which, when you think about it, is a pretty novel concept. And the truth is when switching courts and surfaces, you may opt for a control-oriented setup or vice-versa. Now you have that flexibility.

All that being said, while racket manufacturers are becoming smarter and more creative with their bells and whistles, the bottom line is still to produce a solid frame.

So how did Head do to kick off its 2015 line?

Pretty sweet, actually.

I was a big, big fan of the Novak Djokovic-endorsed Speed Pro from earlier this year. It had good weight and a ton of stability with exceptional maneuverability and forgiveness. It was one of the few rackets that excelled in nearly every aspect. If I had one complaint, it was that I had nothing to complain about. Serious, it was a fantastic stick that played much more fluidly than you’d typically get from a 11.8-ounce frame.

Needless to say, I was both excited and skeptical when the latest line of Speed rackets arrived last week. Head says its new Graphene XT technology “features a 30-percent stronger material structure that has been engineered to optimize the racket’s weight distribution to where players need it most.”

Simply, what that means is that the weight of the racket has been moved closer to the tip of the head. The result: Extremely easy power from a racket that is still very maneuverable. I immediately felt the difference in swing weight. Although the MP A version is quite a bit lighter than the Speed Pro from last year, it hit just as heavy because of the weight distribution.

I found this to be especially helpful in the 16-16 setup. I’ve never really gravitated toward these en vogue open patterns. I find them too unpredictable. But in the case of the MP A, because the balance point was higher in the head, it helped keep my swing under control. The result was a ton of spin with minimal effort. And, oh by the way, it had the same fantastic feel as its predecessor, but perhaps a little more buttery smooth. And, to boot, with the open pattern the sweet spot on the frame was enormous. Not a dead spot to be found.

A couple of days later, I cut the stings out and restrung the Graphene XT Speed MP A with the new denser setup. Honestly, I thought I’d like the racket even more. What I found was a ton of control, good power, great spin but the sweet spot had shrunk.

Now granted, there’s a good possibility I strung it too tight. As I started to get into a groove, though, I found the 16-19 pattern far more satisfying. Especially at net where the racket did all the work. One of the most efficient rackets I’ve ever used at net, actually.

The end result was this: This racket is every bit as savory as last year’s model, maybe more so. With the option to open the string bed (or close it), it’s impossible to go wrong. Trust me on this one.

Graphene XT Speed Rev Pro

A very similar feel to the Graphene XT Speed MP A, the Rev Pro comes a little lighter and a little longer. And also with two sets of grommets to change the string pattern.

I enjoyed the extra length on this racket, but at just 10 ounces strung, it was light, though not nearly as fragile as I thought it would be. With a 1-point head-light balance, the racket felt akin to a low 11-ounce racket.

It hit surprisingly heavy for a lightweight. With the extra leverage, I could crank groundstrokes, but there was a noticeable difference when I didn’t meet the sweetspot -- this unlike the MP A.

I added some lead tape around 10 o’clock and 2, which helped the stability quite a bit.

Serving was a gem with this frame. Certainly, my speed increased, as you’d suspect from a longer racket, but it was more the easy, consistent power.

I used this racket with both the 16-16 and 16-19 setup. In this one, I actually preferred the denser pattern, mainly because it helped alleviate some of the instability.

The XT Speed Rev Pro has some good potential. The static weight is low, but a solid option for 3.0-4.0 players. And if you’re enamored with the added length but want more beef, add some tape. Definitely worth a hit.

Head Graphene XT Speed S

At first, I wasn’t sure how the racket would stack up against its slightly heavier Speed MP A brother. It’s more or less the same mold, just a half-millimeter thicker and .4 ounces lighter.

The Speed S, which comes only in a 16-19 pattern, hits a very plush ball. The frame is only one-point head light, though, and that means it hits much heavier off contact than you’d think. The reality is that it’s not terribly different than the MP A, but make no mistake: It is a groundstroke machine.

I often talk about how the best rackets are those that feel like an extension of your arm. The Speed S was certainly that. It hit heavy and with excessive spin. If I could hang back at the baseline all day, I might never put this racket down.

Serving was good, not great. It felt a little unwieldy. This is where the head balance can be an impediment. I didn’t feel this way on either the other two frames in this review -- perhaps because the beam was narrower and thus moves quicker through the air.

This was a really nice frame, one that would appeal to a wide range of players.

Overall, the Graphene XT series is a sweet update. The weight distribution, which now lives closer to the tip of the racket, makes sense. More importantly, though, these frames truly have a unique, precise response. Who doesn’t want a piece of that?

Consensus about the speed of the court has been almost as hard to find as a competitive singles contest at the ATP World Tour Finals this week. Despite an elite field of eight, there have been mismatches rather than matches. With almost all lasting little more than an hour, the hunt has been on for an explanation, with Roger Federer even suggesting that the two are linked.

"I think it's actually quite simple, in my opinion, because the court plays somewhat slow, and the serve doesn't have that much of an impact depending on you how back it up, your serve," he said. "I think it's very much a game of movement and the baseline game. Whoever's better from the baseline has the upper hand, then dominates."

But when pressed on whether there was a difference between the court this year and the much tighter affairs a year ago, Federer said, "No, it's the same. It's just matchups."

Tomas Berdych also pointed to the surface, saying, "I don't know what's the explanation. But there could be also something about the surface.

"It doesn't allow you for any mistakes. In my word, I think it's very slow. You know, for us who wants to hit the serve and try to play aggressive, it's very difficult. You're facing the best players in the world. So when you put these things together, then the scissors opens too much and then it creates the scores how it is."
[+] EnlargeAndy Murray
Julian Finney/Getty ImagesSome players like it, others don't. Nonetheless, the court at the ATP World Tour Finals is one of the more unique surfaces on the circuit.

The reaction was a stronger version of his initial comments. "The courts are pretty much every year very same,” Berdych said. “If there is a small difference, it's very little,” he said following his first match. "But I found the surface quite challenging. When you hit the ball very flat, it stays flat. When you put a lot of spin or some spin, it taking the spin quite a lot, too."

In an odd way, those words might please the man responsible for the court, Javier Sanchez, one of the famous tennis-playing Sanchez brothers (who have an even more famous sister) as well as the owner of the court surface company GreenSet. Not only is the court exactly the same as previous years, he insists, but it is exactly the same as those at preceding events at the Paris Masters and Basel -- right down to the guy putting down the court.

"I try to do a speed that if you want to go to the net, you can go, or you want to stay at the back, or you want to hit a slice, the ball goes down, you want to hit a topspin, the ball takes the topspin," he said. "Fair to everybody."

The surface is used at most of the dozen or so ATP and WTA events GreenSet does the courts for and has been tested using the experiences of variety of professional and recreational players. He says that provides a better test than mere machine measurements of speed.

"Really, I don't know the numbers of this court," said Sanchez, who bought the company when he retired from the game in 2000 and moved it from France to Spain. We try to do it with the sensations of a real game, not with a machine. A machine is speed and no feeling."

The company prides itself on two things: consistency between its courts and consistency on its court.

"We think we make all the courts the same, doesn't matter if it's here or it is in Basel or Valencia or Barcelona or China. The consistency when we do it, we try to do it the best," said Sanchez, adding, "The texture is completely in all [of] the court equal. That is also important. Doesn't have to bounce different in any place -- not the lines, not on the courts."

According to ATP officials, GreenSet is the court used at the Tour Finals every year it has been held in London. The Paris tournament has used GreenSet since 2012.

The company takes the concrete floor on the stadium, installs its own wooden base on the concrete floor of the stadium and paints the court with its mixture to create the indoor hard court.

But what about the players' complaints that the courts at the three events play quite differently? Is it all in their imagination? Not quite, acknowledges Sanchez. The speed and bounce of a court can be affected by several factors, including:

" The surface underneath: While the 02 Arena this week has a concrete floor, the Bercy stadium at Paris is partially wood filling in an indoor hockey rink, making the court softer -- and slower -- in those spots.

" The balls. While the balls in London and Paris are the same, they do frequently change between events. Balls play at different speeds, and those which fluff up more get slower.

" The altitude: The courts at London and Paris would be significantly slower than at Basel, which is 500-600 kilometers above sea level.

" The temperature: Play is slower in colder conditions.

" The space around the court: The O2 arena is said to have two meters more behind the baseline than Paris, changing the visual perception of the players as well as giving them the opportunity to chase down more balls.

Sanchez says he has never had a request from a tournament director to make the court a particular speed, though the ATP event in Bogota is slowed down to adjust for the altitude.

There are several other reasons the matches have been one-way traffic. They include injuries, exhaustion attempting to qualify for the tournament, lack of form among the big servers, and a relatively inexperienced field with three newcomers. The only round-robin contest through the first 11 matches to go three sets involved a substitute, David Ferrer, who was filling in for Milos Raonic.

But the surface has also come under scrutiny, and it's little wonder that attention has honed in on the floor. The players on receiving the beatdowns have had few other places to look.

Tech It Out: iDapt Force 98/100

October, 27, 2014
Oct 27
If only you could design your own jeans or shoes. Or tailor your food order exactly the way you want it. Wouldn’t that be nice.

Or, say … customize your own tennis racket. There’s a novel idea. Well, welcome to the game, Dunlop iDapt.

Think your tennis racket isn’t pretty enough? No sweat. Too long? Too short? Not an issue. With Dunlop’s latest line, you have options aplenty. The company has created four new models in the iDapt Force series, all customizable and, truthfully, a potential game-changer.

With each model you can select standard or extended length frames, choose the feel (flexible, medium or firm) and, naturally, pick out the cosmetics that suits your discerning eye.

Serious, you can go flashy or air on the side of monochromatic, if that’s your style.

But here’s the thing: These sticks are more than a pretty face.

I took a couple for a test drive recently and was admittedly surprised at the feel off these frames.

iDapt Force 100

For the record, here’s how I customized my frame: standard length, firm and neon yellow (think the color Jimmy Connors’ racket during his 1991 US Open run).

Bottom line: stout. The first things I noticed was the massive plow-through and the gaping sweet spot. The racket was just about as comfortable as any frame I have tested this past year. I’ve seen some comparisons to the Babolat Pure Drive, but I wasn’t buying it. This iDapt had a much deeper cushion and was noticeably less harsh on my arm.

The frame weighs in at 11.3 ounces, but at only three points head light, it packed a much bigger punch than I expected. The head-heavy feel augmented an already plush response.

I was able to hit big groundstrokes continuously without feeling fatigued or overwhelmed. As a matter of fact, more than most rackets, I felt this one gave me the option to be aggressive while maintaining serious control.

Net play was smooth. The racket had no dead zones and sticking a ball deep in the court or dropping it over the net seemed seamless. This frame served huge. For a “tweener,” this racket felt much more like a player’s stick than some other wider-beamed rackets.

I used the racket for about 75 minutes, hitting a series of crosscourt groundies and then some volley drills. The end result was explosive shot-making, which instilled confidence to hit even bigger shots.

So there you have it. Pretty and potent. Not a bad combination. Actually a stellar one.

iDapt Force 98

This was a fun racket for me. Light and maneuverable with easy access to spin, in many respects, this racket felt similar to its slightly larger brother, the Force 100, but without as much of the plush response. I ended up adding some lead tape around 3 and 9 o’clock, which helped. (By the way, Dunlop offers “Blast Zone weights” that add two or three grams of weight.) Just another cool, customizable feature.

This was one of those rackets that truly felt like an extension of my arm. The directional control was exceptional. If there was one downside, this one lacked some of the stability the 100 had. I noticed this more when hitting from a defensive position. Offensively, though, the Force 98 allowed me to take healthy cuts from both wings without the fear of spraying too many balls -- which, yes, I can do.

The highlight on this frame was the ease in which the 98 moved through the air. This racket is right in the wheelhouse of specs I typically gravitate toward -- a weight just north of 11 ounces with a swingweight around 320. It allows for some customization without drastically altering the feel off the stringbed. This racket had comfortable power without producing those vexing fliers. I felt like I could either swing out or take some speed off the ball and hit sharper angles without having to think about it.

Like the 100, I went with the firmest iteration of this frame and standard length. I feel like I would have benefited from the half inch if I had chosen that route. Especially on the serve, which was very much control oriented, but lacked a little bit of the punch I found in the iDapt Force 100.

But I’ll say it again: Whether going for broke down the T or kicking serves out wide, I felt like the directional control was superb.

This racket was easy to wield around net, and the added weight really helped the stability in sticking volleys where I wanted.

All in all, the iDapt 98 is a fantastic all-court frame, which, by the way, comes in three nifty colors as well. I’d recommend spending some time manipulating the specs. Mostly the weight. If you get it right, you won’t be sorry.

The bottom line here is that both the 98 and 100 frames are quick and eminently comfortable. And if you need a tweak here or there, Dunlop gives you that option.

What more could you ask for in a racket?
In medieval times, handshakes were used as a cue to solidify a truce between armor-clad warriors. A peaceful ending to a potentially hazardous outcome. However, if they drew a dagger instead, it was, well, game on. Yikes.

In tennis, handshaking isn’t so much a life-or-death gesture as it is a tacit understanding of respect. Though we’ve seen a few controversial handshake snubs throughout the years, this custom is by and large quick and innocuous in nature.

And then Sunday happened.

In case you missed it, in the Valencia Open final, Tommy Robredo squandered five match points against Andy Murray, and as they embraced at the net, the Spaniard gave Murray not only the middle finger, but the double-barreled one-finger salute, which is generally reserved for only the most abhorrent and appalling of actions.

Granted, it was all in fun. The truth is that the exhausted finalists embraced for a few warm moments at net just as the drama mercifully ended. But, seriously, who can blame the befuddled Robredo? After all, he has suffered two heartbreaking losses to Murray in the past month. In the Shenzhen Open final, Robredo also failed to convert -- you guessed it -- five match points. For you math wizards, make that two matches, 10 match points for the cursed Spaniard, and nary a win to show for it. No wonder Robredo told Murray to, um, flipping buzz off.

But here’s the thing: This series of events -- the impossible win from Murray, the vastly disappointed Robredo, the all-around theater -- was only the third most interesting thing that happened Sunday.

That just the way it goes when you have Serena Williams and Roger Federer winning titles.

Serena, just days after being crushed by Simona Halep in the round-robin stage of the year-end champions tournament, returned the favor in Sunday’s final, picking up a third straight win in the year-enders.

Moments later, it was Federer’s turn. In 52 minutes, he swept away David Goffin for a sixth title in Fed's hometown of Basel at the Swiss Indoors championship.

So there you have it: The two most prominent players in today’s game adding to their already ridiculous résumés -- both at the surreal age of 33.

Who said fall tennis doesn’t matter again? In the month of October alone, we’ve seen Federer win the Shanghai Masters for the first time and return to No. 2 in the world with more than a fighting chance to snare the top spot by year’s end since 2,500 points are up for grabs at the Paris Masters and ATP World Tour Finals, respectively. Federer trails No. 1 Novak Djokovic by only 490 points.

And, in case you're not keeping track, Federer has now won 12 straight matches heading into the season’s penultimate event. And what’s to stop him from here until the end?

Djokovic has played less-than-commanding tennis since the onset of the summer, and his wife just gave birth to their first child this past week. Sleep deprivation, anyone? Rafael Nadal is out for the rest of the year after a season-ending appendectomy, and players such as Stan Wawrinka, Kei Nishikori and Marin Cilic have taken precipitous drops since pockets of sublime play earlier this season. And Murray, despite winning in Valencia, is playing for the sixth straight week.

But this is really about Federer’s form. Against Goffin in the Basel final, Fed was spectacular, winning 32 of 37 points on serve en route to his fifth title of the season. For good measure, he leads all players with 66 match wins this season. Since turning 33 years old in early August, he is a near-perfect 26-2. (Wasn’t there some kind of old-guys-can’t-play fodder making its rounds through the tennis brass a year ago? Anyway, we digress.)

As for Serena, she played tepid, distracted tennis for part of the season, but with scrutiny at an all-time high following her Wimbledon doubles episode, she vowed to turn things around, and did. She won four titles in seven events to close out 2014, including the US Open and the year-end championships.

In Singapore, after Serena won her third straight title, the tournament named an orchid after her -- one of the highest honors that can be bestowed on someone from that city.

As Simona Halep said in her postmatch interview, “Congratulations to you, Serena. You are the best.”

Not sure anyone could, uh, flip that script.

Tech It Out: Gamma RZR 98/100 M

October, 23, 2014
Oct 23

The search for the perfect racket is a by and large a futile endeavor. Whether it’s too stiff, too light, too clunky, (too ugly!), this seemingly simple task is frustrating. I have found a host of rackets I have really enjoyed, but perhaps the last time I found the perfect racket came eight years ago.

It was the Gamma Ipex 7.0. Fast, sleek, maneuverable and spin friendly. And pretty. I bought three of them in advance of my first sojourn to the International Tennis Hall of Fame.

Yes, that frame turned me on to Gamma tennis rackets. Typically renowned for its advanced string technology, Gamma rackets have typically gone under the radar compared to other alpha-dog manufacturers, which is somewhat befuddling if you ask me. A few years later, I began using the T-7, which was rock solid, and then the Gamma 330X, another stellar frame.

Needless to say, I was geeked up when the RZR series came out a year ago. At the time, I tried out the 98T, but was disappointed by the unforgiving feedback and lack of maneuverability. But this season, the RZR line redeemed itself with a newer, more versatile frame.

Meet the RZR 98 M, a fantastic all-court racket. When I first started hitting, I was impressed how easily this frames moved through the strike zone. The racket was as sleek as its slick black design. Spin off this frame was nasty -- actually far more fierce than I had predicted.

Though the racket did lack a little backbone (which you might expect from a flex rating south of 60), I really enjoyed the arm-friendly comfort and zip off the strike zone. I was able to hit consistently deep in the court with about as much spin as any other frame I have used in the past year.

Serving was the racket’s best attribute. Because of the maneuverability and power, I saw a discernible increase in my MPHs, while kicking serves out wide had quite a bit of bite. The racket weighs in at 11.4 ounces, which is an ideal weight for club and advanced players. It also allows for some customization. I added a little to experiment but ultimately took it off because the racket felt a little clunky.

It should also be noted, I strung the racket with Gamma’s much-ballyhooed Glide string in the crosses. According to Gamma, the string is “made from a proprietary, super elastic fluorinated polymer that dramatically reduces the sliding friction between strings. This allows the main strings to ‘glide’ farther and faster along the cross strings to store and return more energy to the ball. The radically faster “snap-back” generates greater spin with more power, feel and comfort.”

Which is just a complicated way of saying, “When power meets spin, good things happen.”

For comparison’s sake, I strung the same model with a full bed of Gamma iO18 poly and played about 30-45 minutes with each frame. The racket with the Glide setup felt markedly quicker off the string bed than the other racket and with more spin. So from an offensive perspective, I really enjoyed the hybrid.

Typically, I am a fan of full poly in most rackets. The all-around control and confidence to strike the ball with all-out swinging are just a couple of the byproducts of using this stiffer material, but the longer I hit with the Glide, the more I began to see the advantage. Especially after 90 minutes or so on court, easy power is a good thing. The next time I take this racket out, I’d like to string it about five to seven pounds tighter, especially in the RZR 98 M, which already packs a punch.

But this is one of those racket-string combos, that when you get it right, is a difference-maker. I’m a big fan of Gamma frames in general and the RZR 98 M only validated my allegiance.

Gamma RZR 100 M

Comfort, comfort, comfort. This frame (also strung with a Glide hybrid setup) was remarkable from the baseline. With a more head-heavy frame than the 98, this one swung through the air with more conviction. I felt completely in control of the point, especially with a stiffer frame.

Offensively and defensively, this racket put me in good positions to win points. Although I preferred the directional control of the 98, the 100 compensated with a more dense hitting and fewer fliers. And the sweet spot was noticeably larger as well.

The frame was nicely tapered at the top of the head, part of the aerodynamic design Gamma had in mind. The result was all-out swinging with tremendous bite off the ball.

Like the RZR 98 M, I felt the 100 M’s best attribute was serving. Because of the controlled power and the acceleration off this frame, hitting flat up the middle came with minimal effort, and it goes without saying that kickers had a little more juice than most other rackets.

This year’s RZR line is a vast improvement over last year’s models. In the ever-growing racket ecosystem, Gamma’s frames in general are underplayed. But make no mistake, its frames are just as potent as any other company, and you’d be wise to take both these for a whirl.

It’s hard to pinpoint the exact genesis of the tennis racket. Some reports suggest they go back as far as the 14th century. Crazy enough, though, from the late 1800s, when tennis truly began its descent on a mainstream sport, rackets didn’t change much.

But then it was on. Steel rackets, including the legendary T2000 made famous by Jimmy Connors, found their way on to the tour in the 1960s. The next iteration of frames were primarily made of aluminum, and racket heads began to increase in size. And finally manufacturers discovered graphite, a far lighter and stiffer substance that is the dominant element in today’s rackets.

Of course, it’s far more detailed than this, but through it all, a few select frames have penetrated the racket market as technology has advanced. The Prince Original Graphite and Jack Kramer Pro Staff from the late 1970s to the Dunlop Max 200G in the 1980s to the Head Prestige in the 1990s.

There are many more, of course, but nothing like the onslaught of frames today. Name a big-time tennis manufacture and it has a celebrated model with ubiquitous appeal, whether on the pro circuit, the junior ranks or even at the club level.

One of these stylish, sought-after rackets comes via Babolat, which soon after creating its world famous Pure Drive, came up with a more aerodynamic version, the AeroPro Drive -- the racket made famous by Rafael Nadal.

Admittedly, I was late to the game when it came to giving this stick a whirl. I had always gravitated toward thinner-beam frames, mainly to help with maneuverability. In retrospect, I was a little parochial in my search for a racket that would best suit my game. My mistake.

Just north of its throat, the AeroPro Drive’s beam is 26mm, which by comparison is six to eight millimeters wider than a typical thin-beamed frame. But I can tell you this: This racket cuts through the ball like a knife. And it’s rock solid, to boot.

The current iteration of this frame also uses cortex technology, which alleviates a lot of the harsh response the older models were criticized for. I play-tested this racket for over 90 minutes recently, and I wanted to keep going. Overall, the racket weighs 11.3 ounces (plus an overgrip and dampener), but it feel like you’re swinging a much lighter frame with the stability of a 12-ounce racket. A winning combo, for sure.

Because the racket moves so quickly, serves felt far more natural than I thought they would, and I could deliver solid pop with minimal effort. If there’s one manipulation I’d make, and this is just a personal preference, I’d jack up the length by a half inch. Good news is that this racket comes in a “plus” size, too (27.5 inches), which I will explore.

But I can safely say I get the universal demand for the AeroPro. It does everything really well. Exceptionally well, that is.

Babolat Pure Control Tour

Finally, a true classic frame that can measure up to today’s tweener frames without losing any stability. The bottom line is that this racket is a perfect hybrid of mass and touch. With a low flex rating, this Pure Control is eminently comfortable off the ground.

Make no mistake, you have to do the work. At 11.8 ouches, and with a tight string pattern, it might feel unwieldy at first, but there is uncanny comfort as long as you stay out in front of the ball. And with that, some serious power.

Personally, once I got into a rhythm, I didn’t want to put this frame down. It exuded confidence from all areas of the court. Only a select few rackets I have tested this season have had consistent stability off the string bed. The benefits were most evident in hitting short balls and playing attack-first tennis. Offensively, this racket is a machine. With a lower flex rating of 63, there is a lot of comfort -- and more so, a sweet pocket upon impact.

The precision was spot on with volleys. Because of the heft and stability, sticking balls deep in the court came naturally and with ease. One recommendation, though: The frame seemed to perform better (or more comfortably) with a blend of gut and polyester string, or, at a minimum, a softer poly rather than a full bed of a harsher poly.

This racket really surprised me, though. Despite a denser string pattern, spin was easy to generate. But it was the overall confidence-inspiring feedback that made this one a real winner.

Babolat Pure Strike 16x19

If the Pure Control seems like too much frame, might we recommend the Pure Strike 16x19? Weighing in at 11.3 ounces (the same at the AeroPro Drive), this frame performs well from all areas of the court.

The bite off the ball is stout. Actually, it’s right up there with the best spin-oriented rackets I have play-tested in a while. With an open string pattern and a stiffer flex, the combination of power and control was ideal.

Even though structurally and aesthetically (and by the way, this racket is pretty handsome), it’s quite different from the AeroPro Drive, I felt the same bite off the ball -- but in a much sleeker frame.

If there’s one knock, I felt like there was occasional instability, mainly returning serves. While the Pure Control Tour easily blocked back big serves, the Pure Strike tended to wobble if I missed the sweetspot.

On the flipside, this frame was superior on the defense or when scrambling to turn defense into offense. It truly felt like an extension of my arm.

This racket has garnered universal appeal, and for good reason. The frame also comes in three other models. A heavier 12-ounce, 18x20 version, a lighter (11.4) 18x20 frame as well as a lighter (10.8) 16x19 version.

Babolat has raised its level of rackets for well over a decade now as you might infer by the number of pro-level players who use them. Each of these frames has its own unique attribute. So which one is for you?

Roger Federer's Davis Cup challenge

September, 15, 2014
Sep 15
Roger Federer is learning that you may be the all-time Grand Slam champion, a distinguished 33-year-old ambassador for the game, a friend of Michael Jordan and Anna Wintour, and a guy with some hefty hotel bills, considering his two sets of twins, but it still doesn’t get you a free pass to anything a player of your stature might really covet.

This applies with added emphasis to the Davis Cup, where the curious mix of five matches (or “rubbers”) in three days, the choice-of-ground rule (teams alternate hosting ties, no matter how much time transpires between meetings), the importance of the “swing match” doubles and the volatile nature of playing for your country instead of yourself can wreck the form chart in the blink of an eye.

Federer wants to add a Davis Cup championship to his CV; it’s the only piece of his career puzzle that’s still missing. Various factors -- lack of a solid Swiss No. 2 singles player, the siren call of Grand Slam titles, a reluctance to X-out four weeks on the calendar when he made his schedule -- kept the all-time men’s Grand Slam singles champion from pursuing that goal when he was most dominant on the tour.

But over the past year, Stan Wawrinka finally embraced his talent, won the Australian Open and established himself as a top-five player. It did not go unnoticed by Federer, who is still highly competitive at majors but struggling to actually win them. He saw his chance to win a Davis Cup and leaped on it. Some conceded the championship to Federer and Wawrinka the moment Spain (without Rafael Nadal) and Serbia (without Novak Djokovic) flamed out in the first round of the competition, the latter beaten by, yup, Federer & Co.

It sure looked like that coveted free pass for Federer -- or at least it did until this weekend, when the French popped up to complicate things.

Federer and Wawrinka will travel to France at the end of November to meet Les Bleus. Both teams advanced Sunday, with Federer sewing up a fairly smooth win over Italy in Geneva with a fourth-rubber win over the visitor’s top player, Fabio Fognini.

But the French were already sitting with their feet up, sipping champagne by the time Federer finished cleaning Fabulous Fabio’s clock. Jo-Wilfried Tsonga & Co. swept the Czech Republic (who, led by No. 6 Tomas Berdych, were hoping to three-peat) on a gorgeous, sunny weekend at Stade Roland Garros. Now the French look suspiciously like that proverbial “team of destiny.”

Les Bleus have won nine Davis Cup titles, going back to the 1920s and those famous “Four Musketeers.” But they are 0-2 in finals since 2002 and have been accused of playing under potential. That certainly seemed the case when they were one match from elimination for 2014 after just one day of Davis Cup play in April. They lost the first two singles matches of the quarterfinals to a pair of German journeymen. (The average ranking of the French singles players in the tie was 15; that of the Germans sounded more like the call numbers for a light FM radio station: 101.5.)

Badly stung, France snapped to life and averted disaster with a 3-2 win. They then clobbered the Czechs. France’s three singles stars, Tsonga, Richard Gasquet and Gael Monfils, have been playing some terrific tennis. They have an excellent doubles player in Michael Llodra and a good sub in Julien Benneteau.

It’s hard to imagine the tie will be played outdoors in France so late in the year (Nov. 21-23). That ought to help Federer, whose game really shines under ideal ambient conditions. But that won’t be a major factor. It’s just a small break for a great champion who isn’t getting away with anything in his Davis Cup quest.
videoFor Marin Cilic and Kei Nishikori, breaking through in a Grand Slam wasn't a question of game, ability or effort. It wasn't about being able to do it. It was about actually doing it.

For that, Cilic and Nishikori needed help from others who had done it. In Goran Ivanisevic and Michael Chang, they found their ideal coaching counterparts -- former Grand Slam champions who had similar backgrounds but also possessed attributes that they were searching for.

For Cilic, Ivanisevic was a fellow Croatian and sporting inspiration who had previously helped Cilic's career from arm's length but was now going to be hands-on in steering his game.

The 25-year-old had been coached by Ivanisevic's former coach Bob Brett and began working with Ivanisevic a year ago, when he returned to the tour from an anti-doping suspension that was attributed to a mistakenly purchased product and reduced in length. In addition to the renewed motivation Cilic got from the unsettling experience of testing positive, the new coaching arrangement has re-energized his career.

Ivanisevic's most obvious contribution has been helping Cilic with his serve, as the former Wimbledon champion had one of the most formidable deliveries in history. As Cilic struck service winner after service winner in his three-set win against Roger Federer in the US Open semifinals, including three aces while wrapping up the match, Ivanisevic said, "It's like watching myself."

But he has also had a wider effect on his younger compatriot, with his famous humor and personality helping bring some balance to the serious, hard-working Cilic.

That might be the biggest thing Ivanisevic has brought to his team, notes Cilic, the new US Open champion. He had reached the top 10 in 2010 but admits he started enjoying the game less and saw his ranking slip into the teens and 20s.

But there was more to the new mindset than that. For a tall, rangy player, Cilic had a conservative game, one Ivanisevic encouraged him to exchange for a more daring one.

"At the beginning when we started to work, we sat together and Goran told me that my game and my tennis has to be aggressive tennis," said Cilic. "I can't play too much tactically because most of the times before I was dealing too much with the tactics against players and not focusing on my game.

"It wasn't easy to change my perspective and to change completely my mindset. It took ... five, six months of the tournaments to be able to sink that into me and that I know on the court that's the right way for me to play. That was the most difficult part."

Ivanisevic agrees that the message took a while to deliver.

"[Cilic] was not very offensive before," he said. "You have to risk. If you don't risk, you don't know what can happen. So I tried to push him. He responded well. He was not easy, but this is the result."

The new coach also points to Cilic's fitness.

"He's covering the court well, and all the credit to the physical trainer; he really push him," Ivanisevic said. "But this year he push him even more and he really responded well."

[+] EnlargeKei Nishikori
Alex Goodlett/Getty ImagesKei Nishikori's work with former French Open champ Michael Chang has sparked a renaissance in the 24-year-old's game.
At about the same time Ivanisevic and Cilic were beginning their collaboration, Chang was in the hallways at the US Open talking to Nishikori's team about coming on board. The two began working together during the offseason, with Nishikori also keeping his regular full-time coach.

Like the Croatian pair, Chang and Nishikori had a lot in common: an Asian background, a tennis childhood in the United States, small stature and striking speed. What Chang had, and Nishikori sometimes seemed to be lacking, was unquenchable competitiveness during matches and a willingness to push his limits.

As Ivanisevic did with Cilic, Chang told Nishikori to play a bigger game for bigger impact. Nishikori has said this approach is behind his rise this year, with Chang telling him to be "a little more aggressive than before and stepping more in."

"I think there are similarities there," Chang told reporters during the US Open. "There are style similarities. Obviously being Chinese, he's Japanese, there's cultural differences, but there's cultural similarities as well.

"I think mentality generally, being a little bit more on the quieter side, is something I understand a little more. So those similarities obviously make it a little bit easier to work with him and to communicate."

Despite his good five-set record, Nishikori has been frequently injured, including withdrawing from the Miami semifinals and retiring during the Madrid final this year. The 24-year-old almost didn't play the US Open either, having had a cyst removed from his right foot and not playing for three weeks. But Chang pushed the case for playing, saying, "Get through the first two matches and anything can happen."

"I gave him examples that I have known for myself and for Pete Sampras, where [we] were not quite sure if we were going to play and ended up having a great result," said Chang. "I actually ended up getting to the finals of the French in 1995 [after] almost pulling out of the tournament."

So Nishikori kept training, arrived at the US Open almost a week before for extra preparation and coasted to the second week. But Chang wasn't letting up.

"I just keep telling him, 'We're not done yet,'" Chang said. "I'm always trying to encourage him. I don't want him to be satisfied with round of 16.

"It's easy to be able to be satisfied with that, because his best result was a round of 16. Gets to the quarters, I think easy to be satisfied with that. You have the opportunity to win a Grand Slam, you have the opportunity to win your first major, you take advantage of it, and you come as best as possibly prepared as you can."

A pair of four-hour matches followed and then a four-set defeat of top-seed Novak Djokovic in the semifinals.

Despite reaching his first Grand Slam final, Nishikori didn't seem satisfied with a three-set defeat at the hands of Cilic, talking about building on his performance and having more chances.

The champion's mentality of the two champion coaches certainly had a noticeable impact on both Cilic and Nishikori at the beginning of their partnerships. A year later, it all came together at the US Open.

Along with everything else, don't discount the effect of having a former idol join a player's team. Several current players have benefited from working with well-known names this season.

The coaches get something from it too, with Ivanisevic saying that watching Cilic win was not unlike his famous Wimbledon victory and Chang citing an opportunity to do something for Asian tennis, just as his older brother Carl did for him.

"There has been only one other Asian man that has broken into the top 10, and that was Paradorn [Srichaphan]," Chang said. "Being in that 15-16 range, there was actually a fair amount of similarities because I was stuck in that range in 1990, 1991, until Carl came and coached me.

"So I felt I have an opportunity to be able to help a young, very talented Asian player be able to take his game to the next level."

The two US Open finalists knew how to play. Now, their coaches are showing them how to win.
NEW YORK -- Wednesday evening with the low-hanging sun on its final legs, fans flocked to the practice court in waves.

World No. 1 Novak Djokovic was warming up on the court closest to the walkway, prepping for his encounter with Andy Murray. So close was Djokovic, that if I dared, I could have reached through the fence and grabbed his leg -- though that would have been weird, and probably a felony. The winner of that match would advance to the semifinals and be the overwhelming favorite to come out of his half of the draw.

During practice, Djokovic was cracking groundstrokes with hitting partner Ryan Harrison, the 184th-ranked American, while the Serb’s coach, Boris Becker, stood by. The two players traded crosscourt forehands, then backhands. After a brief water break, Djokovic began hitting serves. Rather he was pounding them.

Understandably, the fans were in awe. But what I noticed was the sound coming from the racket he endorses, the Head Graphene Speed Pro. The noise reverberated through the court and onto the bleachers with a clear and concise thud.

[+] EnlargeDjokovic
Jerry Lai/USA TODAY SportsNovak Djokovic, with his Head Graphene Speed Pro in hand, won Wimbledon and once again took over the top ranking on the ATP Tour.
To this point, I had already used two of Head’s Graphene frames, the Radical Pro (the racket Murray endorses) and the uber-popular Prestige Pro. The overarching sentiment is that both these frames have serious pop and stability. And when I tested them, that certainly rang true.

But a week before the US Open, I gave the Graphene Speed Pro a whirl. The feedback I had heard was positive, but it wasn’t until I tested it that I truly appreciate this frame -- far more than I thought I would. Simply, you might not become the same caliber tennis player as Djokovic, but you just might see a helluva improvement in your game. Seriously.

First and foremost, the first thing about this racket is how much confidence it instills. Between its sleek frame, massive sweet spot and heavy-but-not-over-the-top weight, you’ll feel like you can swing for days without overhitting.

And the pop. Oh, the pop. Graphene, a material that researchers have called stronger than diamonds, engenders a different sound than any other racket out there. But because of the maneuverability of the Speed, I was able to really crack ball after ball. The beauty of this frame is that it produces pinpoint control, and even at 11.8 ounces, it swung much lighter. I spent a good 90 points play-testing this racket and couldn’t get enough.

Serving was perhaps the most potent shot. The ball comes off the racket like a cannon, but again, because of the ability to easily wield this frame, I found it seamless to hit down the T or slice one out wide.

Everything about this racket was solid. Perhaps it’s slightly underpowered for some, but if you’re a 4.0 or higher and want to develop good swings, this is a must try. After all, if it’s good enough for the world’s top dog, you might want to give it a whirl.

Head Graphene Instinct MP

In today’s racket business, fancy names and branding are often a ploy to make you plunge and take a chance on a frame. Take a gander through some of the comment sections and you’ll see irascible consumers who didn’t get what they wanted. So when I heard first about Head’s latest series, the Graphene, I had doubts.

But I soon learned that after hitting with the latest Radical and Prestige, there was something to it. And when I took the Speed for a spin, I became a true believer in how a racket can have serious backbone without sacrificing control.

So needless to say, the I had high hopes for the Instinct -- the sticl Maria Sharapova endorses. This frame packs a much lighter feel than the other two, but the net results felt similar to the other three in terms of power and control.

At first I struggled with the 11.0 oz weight, but after adding some lead tape, I felt more comfortable. Compared to the Speed, I didn’t need to take a full rip to garner power with the Instinct. It’s a racket tailor-made to not just rocket tennis balls but produce serious spin.

Without question, my serve improved more than any other shot with the Instinct. Between the racket’s head speed and rock-solid frame (70 flex), I was hitting with easy raw power.

Tennis players are notoriously zany creatures. We have weirdly specific rituals, and our choice in gear rarely waffles.

Truth is, I wasn’t sold on this frame when it first arrived. It wasn’t as sleek as the Speed or even the Prestige, and it felt light. But after a couple of hitting sessions, I began to appreciate how easy the game felt (in relative terms).

Unlike the Graphene Speed, the Instinct is truly a racket for all levels. And a good one at that.

Head Sprint Pro Shoe

If you haven’t heard by now, footwork is paramount in this oft-frustrating game. Not only do you need mental preparation, but you have to be on your physical game, too. Given the unrelenting short sprints and the start-again, stop-again grind, the biggest mistake a player can make, especially a competitive one, is wearing the wrong shoes.

I’ve personally tried a lot. Durable, flexible, flat, high arches. I’m not a podiatrist, not do I play one on TV, but after years of playing, I have a pretty good sense of what works and what doesn’t.

So when I first wore the Head Sprint Pro, my first instinct was … I feel fast -- ergo the name “Sprint.” They were low to the ground, light and stable. Kind of the perfect combination, no?

The short answer is, well, yeah. I’ve been using a pair for a few months now, and I can honestly say, they feel like an extension of my feet. I don’t know what the exact weight is, but the Sprint Pro shoes felt on the lighter side. But mostly they just felt fast and stable. Call me a fool, but that’s a pretty sweet combo.

Predominantly, I’ve used these shoes on hard courts, which notoriously wear down souls quicker than other surfaces, but so far I’ve seen little wreckage. On clay, on which I’ve played about six or seven times with these shoes, I felt like I could stop and slide without any interference from the shoes.

The bottom line is that shoes should not be an impediment to any degree. And as someone who’s fussy and fastidious to a fault, I’ve been digging these shoes. I’m going to guess you might as well.

Still no timetable to resolve grunting issue

September, 1, 2014
Sep 1
To many tennis enthusiasts, the sound is about as enjoyable as a car alarm or a smartphone flood warning. And two years ago, the WTA acknowledged loud grunts and shrieks had provoked a stream of complaints from fans.

So in 2012, the WTA announced that along with other governing bodies of the sport, it was launching an initiative -- with no timetable -- to begin educating budding players in breathing techniques to lower the volume and to “eventually” adopt a rule against noises deemed “too loud.” As for doing something about current players, tour CEO Stacey Allaster told “Outside the Lines” at the time, “I wish I could.”

In response Monday to a recent ESPN request for an interview with Allaster about developments on the issue, the WTA provided a memorandum saying, “In an ongoing effort to inform the tennis-wide community regarding forthcoming changes to regulation regarding excessive grunting, [it has] outreached to over 1,875 players, coaches, parents and administration to date.”

The memo stated that the WTA had conducted roundtable conversations with an additional 120 players two years ago about the tour’s shared concerns with fans and its commitment to “address the issue,” and cited a list of 25 international tournaments, coaching conferences, training centers and academies it has reached so far on “how to avoid excessive grunting.”

“Grunting is part of the game, but clearly excessive grunting can be a distraction,” according to a WTA statement Monday.

Two years ago, Allaster had said the loud noise was “having no impact on competition.” But others, like Martina Navratilova, have long maintained that noise loud enough to obscure the sound of a racket hitting a ball compromises an opponent’s reaction time. (This week ESPN’s Sport Science explores the issue.)

Allaster said two years ago she expected the tour to eventually provide chair umpires with “noise meters” to assess penalties for “excessive grunting.” In Monday’s statement, the WTA said it has “begun scientific research on sound levels” in different environments and that the “development and implementation of an objective rule change is in discussion as we gather additional information.”

But there was no mention of a timetable or specific plan.

Perhaps the only thing that’s certain at this point is that the noise from the likes of Maria Sharapova, Victoria Azarenka and some of their colleagues has not lessened.

“It’s as loud as ever,” veteran tennis coach Nick Bollettieri said this weekend when asked about grunting at the pro level. Bollettieri tutored a young Sharapova and other famed grunters such as Monica Seles, the first player to achieve notoriety for the noise.

But as reported by “Outside the Lines” two years ago, Bollettieri had consulted with the WTA on how to quiet things down, and his IMG Bollettieri Academy had begun teaching young players that excessive grunting is poor sportsmanship and a poor breathing technique.

Perhaps fittingly, Bollettieri’s International Tennis Hall of Fame induction speech this summer drew noise interference -- from a car alarm.

And Sunday at the US Open, a reporter’s mobile phone blared a flood warning, in the middle of Sharapova’s press conference following her loss to Caroline Wozniacki.

Neither Bollettieri nor Sharapova, two of the names most often linked to loud noise in tennis, was deterred from continuing.

Reason for Roger Federer's rebound

August, 26, 2014
Aug 26
NEW YORK -- Roger Federer couldn’t help but be himself a year ago. Which was unfortunate.

For more than 2 painful hours, Tommy Robredo outhit, outmaneuvered and pretty much out-tennised Federer in every aspect until the former five-time US Open champ couldn’t take it anymore. The truth is that it was hard to watch but not completely unexpected considering the year Federer was having. When the match here in New York mercifully ended, he could barely muster the strength to wave to packed house that failed miserably to lift his spirits.

And worse, Federer’s performance was far from the rock-bottom result he had experienced just weeks earlier at Wimbledon.

But true to his form, Federer spoke with an air of optimism afterward. “I want to play better. I know I can.”

[+] EnlargeRoger Federer
Don Emmert/AFP/Getty ImagesPretty sweet start for Roger Federer, who is playing his first Grand Slam as a 33-year-old.
Turns out, all Federer needed was a new piece of hardware to get him on track. And no, we’re not talking about trophies, though that’s certainly a sweet little byproduct of his newfound success this season. Back in January, Federer permanently began using a blacked-out prototype racket, one with a markedly larger head size that would not only increase his own power but also help him stay competitive with the collective muscle in today’s game.

A few weeks ago in Toronto, the finishing touches were unveiled in Federer’s newest frame, which has been officially named the Pro Staff RF97 Autograph. According to Wilson Tennis, the racket “features a 26-percent wider beam” and a “10 percent larger sweet spot.”

Federer found that sweet spot frequently Tuesday night with a straight-sets win against Marinko Matosevic in the first round of the US Open. Federer was broken just once and now has won 10 of 11 matches since losing the Wimbledon final.

Afterward, though, Federer wasn't talking about Federer or his racket. How could he when His Airness was in the building?

"He was one of the smoothest movers out there," Federer said of Michael Jordan. "There are so many things that he did well and represented the game really nicely, I thought."

For the record, Federer has represented his game nicely, too, though six years have passed since Federer last won the title here. It wasn’t until an unsettling fallow period in 2013 that things devolved into a dire, desperate existence. And that’s when he finally made the decision to swap his dated relic for something with a little more punch.

ESPN analyst Darren Cahill, who coached Andre Agassi to the No. 1 player in the world, sees a tangible difference in Federer’s game.

“He’s been using this racket for eight months, so he’s used to it,” Cahill said. “It's more now an extension of his arm. I don't think it's throwing him any curves. I think his game has picked up. I think it's definitely helped him on his serve, especially the first serve where he's getting a lot of easy power, and that means he doesn't have to press on his serve, so he's hitting his targets much better. That all means he's getting a lot of free points on his serve.”

Tennis players are notoriously creatures of habit. They like what they like. Since his maiden Slam title, at Wimbledon in 2003, Federer had essentially used the same racket, albeit with a slight manipulation in its mold and, of course, with cosmetic overhauls. But by and large, Federer was unwilling to make any drastic changes.

With 17 Grand Slam titles, an all-time record 302 weeks atop the rankings, 22 Masters 1000 wins and his own area code in tennis’ grand pantheon, who’s to blame him?

Still, the low-hanging dark clouds couldn’t be ignored. Federer’s ranking fell to No. 8 -- his lowest since 2002 -- and coming into this season, there was a new, less ambitious reality. Slam titles and ranking points gave way to mere respectability. But Federer was far from acknowledging his tennis mortality.

“He made three adjustments,” Cahill said. “The racket has been crucial to him, especially playing against the power players where it's given him a bigger sweet spot and is allowing him to get a lot more of those shots, especially the hard, fast shots down the middle of the court. He can now block those back and that's where the racket is also helping him. I think he's healthy, which is a huge part of it. And, obviously, making a coaching change also reinvigorated him.”

So, Rog, why the wait to change frames?

“Basically, it was a year ago where I started the racket-testing after Wimbledon,” Federer said. “Anyway, it's a long process. But actually, it all went pretty quickly because I did not use it again here actually for this tournament. Right before I switched my mind, I switched and I said, 'OK, I'll play the year normally.'

“After all the back issues I had, I needed to first figure out what's going on with my game and my back. So I really lost a few months there.”

Anyway, that was so then. As it stands right now, Federer has 50 match wins this season, more than any other player navigating the tour. And this includes his championship run at the Cincinnati Masters a couple of weeks ago. Make that three titles and eight finals in 2014, also the best on circuit.

“After about two months, the fear wasn’t whether he'd decide to go back to an old racket,” ESPN analyst Brad Gilbert said. “Now, if he went back to his old stick, he'd be worse. He's totally used to this racket, and it's made him a much better player. I think that now the racket is second nature for him.”

And second nature just might lead him to first place in two weeks’ time.

NEW HAVEN, Conn. -- Andy Roddick and James Blake are back on the court this week for an exhibition match in the middle of a women’s tournament.

This might seem strange, but when you call the main number for the Connecticut Open, a WTA tournament in New Haven, Connecticut, this week, Blake even answers the phone -- his recorded voice to direct your call.

Blake, who retired from professional tennis, is synonymous with tennis in the area, and played this tournament in the years it was a co-ed event. For each of his matches, he brought an expanded fan base called the J-Block.

On Wednesday and Thursday, Blake will play exhibition matches with Andy Roddick and Jim Courier and try to recapture some of that crowd.

“We’re going to have a good time, but we’re going to really take it to each other,” Blake said. “And it’s fun for us because we don’t get the opportunity to compete with each other. It used to be week in week out.”

The Connecticut Open, formerly the Pilot Pen, has been in flux, turning from a sponsor-owned to a non-profit tournament in the past few months. In the meantime, when tournament director Anne Worcester polled local tennis fans about what they wanted to see.

And local tennis fans wanted men’s matches in addition to the professional women.

“Ever since the New Haven Pen Open became women’s only we’ve been wanting to bring back the men because that’s what we hear loud and clear from our fans, ‘When are the men coming back?’” Worcester said. “And when James retired, it gave us the opportunity to have the most popular male player in the whole world for Connecticut fans to come back and play here on stadium court.”

While Blake is taking on his former rivals, players such as Simone Halep, Caroline Wozniacki, Petra Kvitova and Eugenie Bouchard are competing in the $700,000 women’s tournament.

The Connecticut Open plays in the Yale Bowl, and the tournament sanction was purchased from the WTA by the state of Connecticut rather than seeing it move elsewhere this year.

Have you ever seen anyone play with the same kind of ruthless tenacity as Rafael Nadal? It’s a rhetorical question, of course. No one has, and while the stats don’t track such a thing, we all know it.

But it’s that same inexorable drive that has also led to injury after injury for the 14-time major champion. Nadal aggravated his right wrist in late July and hasn’t played since. On Monday, we received word the Spaniard has pulled out of the US Open, a serious blow not only for him but for the fans.

The world's No. 2 is only three Slams behind Roger Federer on the all-time list, and you have to wonder how much more damage Nadal's body can take. Considering the nature of his game, Nadal's mileage far exceeds his 28 years of age.

So what does it mean? Here goes nothing:

The 43rd chapter in today’s greatest rivalry must wait: What matchup can we possibly get geeked up for more than Rafa-Novak Djokovic? They’ve played 42 times -- more than any duo in the history of the men’s game -- and their battles are nothing short of impossible shot-making and down-to-the-wire epics. Hyperbolic, you say? Perhaps, but even the mundane encounters are more hair-raising than some of the best barn-burning matchups between any other players. During last year’s finale at the Open, they played an excruciating 54-stroke point. It was a ridiculous back-and-forth with elastic defense and violent groundstrokes that ended when Nadal hit a backhand into the net. Safe to say, we won’t get a point like that this year.

Roger Federer reality: No one has played better tennis than Federer has this summer. Make that four straight finals, including a Masters 1000 triumph in Cincinnati this past weekend, where the 17-time Slam champ quashed a star-studded lineup, including Andy Murray, Milos Raonic and David Ferrer. But there was a conspicuous absence in the field: Nadal, who owns a lopsided 23-10 record against Federer. And let’s be real here: Even though Nadal has been AWOL since Wimbledon, what were the odds Federer could get by him in New York (which, by the way, is the one Slam venue where they have never met)? Yes, Federer’s form is better than it has been in a few years, but it’s hard to imagine anyone waging any serious coin on Federer if he were to play Nadal, without some serious hedging.

Possible future concern: If there is one common denominator in the litany of Nadal’s injuries, it is -- with the exception of an abdominal ailment in 2009 against Juan Martin del Potro -- the fact they were all in the lower body. Oh, that blasted knee, which first impaired him a decade ago at the French Open and then again at the 2010 Aussie Open. A knee injury also kept Nadal out of action for 7 months in 2012. And if you’re keeping track, he has also suffered hamstring and foot setbacks throughout his career.

Speaking of del Potro, who also is out of the US Open as he heals from wrist surgery, you have to wonder if there will be any long-term repercussions for the towering Argentine, who has not played a tour match since February because of recurring wrist setbacks. Worse, del Potro’s career has been severely disrupted by his ongoing wrist issues, and he has never come close to returning to top form since winning the 2009 US Open.

Defending champ disappearing act: The previous time a defending champ failed to play the US Open? It was del Potro, sadly, who withdrew because of his aforementioned wrist injury in 2010. And seven years earlier, Pete Sampras failed to show up in New York. But Sampras had a pretty good reason: He had retired. Now there's Nadal, who not only will miss an arduous two weeks in New York, but who also missed the entire summer hard-court circuit. No one knows exactly when Nadal will return, but assuming he is healthy in the fall, perhaps we’ll see the Spaniard play some indoor ball where he has (in)famously never fared very well.

Points ramifications: Almost equally as devastating as Nadal’s omission are the points he's losing. Last season, he swept the summer hard-court season, winning Montreal, Cincinnati and the US Open. No one had pulled off this trifecta since Andy Roddick 10 years earlier. But now Nadal leaves 4,000 points on the table -- 1,000 each from the Masters 1000 events and 2,000 at the US Open. What does this mean? If Federer wins the title, he will officially usurp Nadal as the No. 2 player in the world.

videoThe hardcourt season kicks into high gear this week in Toronto, but it's already very different from what we saw a year ago.

Then, Rafael Nadal was on a rampage, winning the Masters events in Montreal and Cincinnati, and taking the U.S. Open to go undefeated on North American hardcourts.

This year, Nadal is back in Mallorca with an injured right wrist, practicing with a splint to try to get ready for the U.S. Open. Not being able to defend his Masters titles will cost him 2,000 ranking points, with another 2,000 at stake at Flushing Meadows. Even if the Spaniard does play there he will be going into the Grand Slam tournament where he's had the least success, which will make defending his title a huge challenge.

Nadal and Novak Djokovic are so far in front of the field that Nadal will keep his world No. 2 ranking either way, but his absence creates a big hole in the draw. He dominated this stretch of the season in 2013, and at least two of those titles will be won by someone else. But who?

Djokovic is the obvious candidate to fill the vacancy, having just won Wimbledon and already swept Indian Wells and Miami on American hardcourts this year. This is his best surface, allowing him to move securely and outmanuever opponents.

Djokovic is also playing his first event as a married man, brimming with elation from a month with "the Wimbledon title, a wedding and of course a baby coming up."

"I'm going back to the business, back to my office, but of course filled with positive energy, with joy, all the beautiful emotions that a person can experience," he said before Toronto, insisting that it would not be difficult to return his attention back to the court.

"But it's been many years already that I have been on the professional tour and with the same team of people around me."

Djokovic might be primed to replicate Nadal's 2013 dominance, but there's another thing that has changed from a year ago: Roger Federer is in form and eyeing big titles again. Back problems and a U.S. Open defeat to Tommy Robredo have been left behind, with Federer climbing back to No. 3 armed with a bigger racket, a new coach in Stefan Edberg and, oh, two more kids in tow.

With his racket offering more serving power and Edberg on hand for tips on volleys, the 17-time Grand Slam champion has been going to net more often, looking for a new way to win points against the relentless baseline games of Djokovic and Nadal. He serve-and-volleyed frequently on grass, but there is now the question of how often he will move forward when playing on hardcourts.

Like Djokovic, Federer has had plenty happening off the court as well. He and wife Mirka welcomed a second set of twins during the clay season, and Federer finally got to spend some extended time with the newborn boys following Wimbledon. Following his 2013 frustrations, Federer seems to be able to relax more these days.

"I don't have to defend like 12 tournaments a year. I only won one last year, so from that standpoint I feel like you make points every week. I feel like I don't really have to prove anything to anybody even though people are always going to disagree with that," he said.

"For me it's about how do I feel in practice, how is my motivation, how am I actually really playing, how do I feel it rather than how is everybody else thinking they see and know it. I can analyze it much more clearer today than I ever have."

Andy Murray is also in a very different position from a year ago, going from being Wimbledon champion to No. 10 in the rankings following back surgery and a high-profile coaching change from Ivan Lendl to Amelie Mauresmo. But Murray has often done well at this time of year, and could be ready to start moving back up.

"I feel good. I train hard. After Wimbledon I didn't take too much time off. I feel like I'm ready to play some good tennis," Murray said of having trained in Miami before the hardcourt season.

While Djokovic, Federer and Murray lifting big trophies is a familiar sight, what's new is the ranks of younger players crowding the top 10. Though established players like Australian Open champion Stanislas Wawrinka and Tomas Berdych are still contenders, it is the likes of 23-year-olds Milos Raonic and Grigor Dimitrov who have been making waves more recently.

With Nadal sidelined, will any one of them step into the gap? They are aware of the opportunity, as Raonic suggested at Washington when Nadal announced his withdrawal.

"It's unfortunate to see him go but there are too many that are hungry and are licking their chops," said Raonic.

Now comes two weeks of competing for position going into the US Open, where a Nadal comeback would add even more intrigue.

At least one of the competitors is looking forward to seeing what develops.

"I think it's a very interesting time in the game right now," said Federer, "and I think the second half of the season is going to be super interesting."