- Kamakshi Tandon
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NEW YORK -- Serena Williams has been many things throughout her career, but conventional is not one of them.
She has dipped in and out of the game, scooping up Grand Slams in between dealing with injuries, designing dresses, pursuing acting roles, doing manicures and hawking products on the Home Shopping Network.
Now, at 30, Williams is playing as well as ever -- maybe better than ever. And she's doing it in a way that's very unconventional, for her -- by being conventional.
Perhaps her biggest -- and quietest -- concession to prevailing norms has been a switch from natural gut to hybrid strings. Serena and older sister Venus were almost the last players left on tour to still play only with traditional gut -- the just-retired Kim Clijsters was another -- but both Williamses have now made the move to using a combination of gut and polyester strings.
Serena began to try various types after Miami this March, where she lost in the quarterfinals, and debuted her new strings in Charleston in April.
"Obviously she likes it -- she's lost only two matches with that string," said Serena's hitting partner, Sasha Bajin.
The 14-time Grand Slam champ had previously been wary of making such a move, so Bajin was surprised, but pleased, when she first communicated the idea to him.
"I've been suggesting it to her for a while to just go try it but to be honest, she played so great with the natural gut before, it's kind of hard because it's a big step for a player, to switch a racket or switch strings," he said. "I don't know, from one day [to] the other, she was, 'Hey, you know what I want to try this,' and she bought strings."
Her equipment reps supplied her with various types to experiment with, including the angled-edge variety which is supposed to help players create more spin, which she didn't like.
"The string itself is a little bit rough on the outside, so she kind of didn't like that," Bajin said. "Finally, she found one that she does like."
Serena settled on a combination with Wilson natural gut in the mains (the strings which go from the top to the bottom of the racket) and Luxilon 4G in the crosses (the horizontal strings).
Goran Hofsteter, who has been assigned as Serena's stringer in the U.S. Open stringing facility for the past seven years, was surprised to find her ordering something other than the usual. But, he said, Serena's racket had become increasingly powerful as new models were released, creating more reason to change the strings.
"With these new rackets today basically, it's way too much power, so you have to put some other string in to control it. And this one works very good," he said.
The Williams sisters rarely go it alone, and this is no exception -- Venus has also made the switch, and is using the same Wilson gut-Luxilon 4G combo. Her U.S. Open stringer, Yat Kong, feels the change makes sense.
"She has all the power that she needs, so she needs more control," he said. "It's also a very dense string pattern, so there's more string per square inch. It makes the racket head much stiffer. You get more control, but not as much power. That means a player has to be able to swing out."
That the sisters can certainly do. Both also like their rackets tightly strung for more control, which translates into a high string tension. With hybrids, they can rely on them to stay that way.
"The racket is not so sensitive," Bajin said. "So right now it's like 98 degrees out here [at the U.S. Open] and the natural gut will actually change in the racket itself, loosen up a pound or two. Then she goes to Wimbledon it might be rainy and cold. That hybrid type of string keeps the same tension."
Since returning last year after a series of serious medical problems, Serena has taken more baby steps toward joining the rank-and-file.
After a first-round loss at the French Open, she stayed in Paris to train at Patrick Mouratoglou's academy, and has since then been working with the French coach on an informal basis.
It is the first time since coming on tour that Serena has regularly joined forces with an established coach, with both sisters having long named their parents as fulfilling that role. And while Venus' hitting partner, David Witt, appears to capably serve in a full coaching capacity, Serena has had only Bajin, with whom she has a more teasing, casual relationship.
"When I met her I was so young, I don't have the type of respect or authority that a coach should have," Bajin said. "I do give her a little bit of advice, I do motivate her a little bit, but it's different. [Patrick] definitely bought in some new ideas and working on something different, not just what we are used to."
Over the past year, Serena has also made perhaps her biggest commitment to fitness and training, even saying last summer she was practicing every day for the first time in her career. She is also playing a full schedule for the first time in years, winning four WTA titles in addition to her victories at Wimbledon and the Olympics. Her only losses since Miami, not counting a withdrawal during Rome, have been that first-round loss at the French Open and a quarterfinal loss in Cincinnati.
Serena has had a remarkable career without acting like a typical tennis player. Now, it looks like she could turn out to be even more remarkable acting just like one.
At this stage of her career, Serena Williams is finding success by breaking from habits that used to make her an extremely unconventional tennis player, Kamakshi Tandon writes.