KENNELBACH, Austria—I pass two tennis courts surrounded by a chain-link fence and arrive at the end of a nondescript block—then step into Head’s vision of the racquet production future.
About 20 journalists from around the world convened with Head executives and engineers last week, as the brand premiered the global launch of its new Custom Made racquet. Head hopes to engage and empower players of all levels to become active participants in the racquet production process, with “a unique level of personalization that, until now, only world-class players like Novak Djokovic, Andy Murray or Maria Sharapova had access to,” said Ottmar Barbian, Vice President and Division Manager for Head Racquet Sport.
The new service transforms your keyboard into a customization kit, allowing players to create their personalized version of the Head Graphene Speed—Djokovic’s racquet of choice—online at Head.com/CustomMade. (The company hopes to make the Prestige and Radical models available for customization in the future.)
“The main goal is the possibility to make the best playing racquet for yourself and your game,” Ralf Schwenger, Director of Research & Development, Head Racquet Sport, told TENNIS.com. “On the other side, is the emotional aspect: This is a racquet you created for yourself, it’s your baby so to speak, so the technical aspect of playing with a racquet that meets your needs and the psychology of walking on the court with a racquet you created can be very strong.”
The nine-step Custom Made process is quick and user-friendly, featuring both the metric and imperial measurement systems. You select the racquet’s cosmetic (either all black or the traditional inline Speed design), weight, length, balance, grip shape and size, grip type (all-leather, HydroSorb Pro or HydroSorb Comfort), string pattern (18x20 or 16x19), and string type and tension. To top it all off, the name for your racquet (in 25 characters or less with three font choices) is laser-printed inside the shaft.
“In the end, we wanted a holistic approach to making the racquet," Schwenger said. “It’s the relationship between the player and the racquet, so when the racquet performs exactly the way the player wants, it’s the joy and confidence that comes from that experience.”
If you’re unsure of which parameters to pick, you can start with stock settings of the Speed Pro, Speed MP, or Speed S, with tips from Djokovic, Murray, and Sharapova serving as guides in the configuration process: “The standard length is 685 mm: A longer racquet gives you more power but also becomes harder to swing due to less maneuverability,” Murray advises.
Self-awareness shapes the design: The greater understanding you have of your game and the specs best suited to your style of play, the more you’ll gain from Custom Made. Rather than starting the process with a vague pursuit of more power, control, or spin, it’s best to begin with some clearly-defined numbers in mind—like entering an address in a GPS—to reach your desired destination. Know the length, weight, balance, and string pattern you want, and try to envision the impact changing your ideal specs can have on your game.
“If you change one parameter in a racquet, then you can change the entire playability of that racquet,” Schwenger told me. “It was very important for us to test all possible iterations people can create to make sure they all meet Head quality standards. It’s not only looking at the racquet, you have to look at what the player wants and how the racquet and player will interact.”
During the past 18 months, I’ve played primarily with two racquets: The Donnay X-Dual Gold 99 and the Gamma RZR 95, which are both 27 inches long, weigh about 11.5 oz., and are head-light. I used those specs as the basic blueprint during my customization, then considered fulfilling the top two items on my tennis wish list: Strengthening a serve whose bite is decidedly more dragonfly than dragon, and hitting a heavier ball from the baseline. To that end, I built a racquet that is a quarter-inch longer and a bit heavier than my two current frames. (I'll let you know how it played in a future piece.)
The entire process took me less than 10 minutes to complete. A word of caution: Be sure you're completely committed to your final design before you check out; once you complete the transaction, you can't change your design.
The finished frame costs $400 (there is an additional shipping cost which varies depending on where you live; see terms and conditions), which is about double the cost of a stock Speed. Six weeks later, it will be delivered to your door in a stealth black box, complete with a Custom Made bag and a certificate with your specs signed by the engineer who customized your stick at company headquarters in Kennelbach. Custom Made frames come from the same site where the racquets of Head’s elite pros are customized, rather than China, where most racquets are mass-manufactured.
With its humming machinery and high ceiling, Head’s Research & Development center could pass for a university lab. Walking through the door, the image of an intense Djokovic pasted to the wall seems ready to walk toward you with the slogan "You blink, you lose" beneath his feet.
Inside, Research and Development Engineer Manfred Emberger, who has personally customized racquets for a slew of the brand’s Grand Slam champions and is surrounded by racquet molds for players ranging from Andre Agassi to Thomas Muster to Marat Safin, uses a computer to meet the correct measurements for a racquet designed by a member of our group. (Head says Custom Made racquets are subject to a measuring tolerance of +/- 1mm/0.04inch and +/- 1gram /0.04oz.)
Watching Emberger at work, you realize that in the hands of an experienced engineer, customization is an amalgamation of algorithm and art, rather than just strategically-placed lead tape and shots of silicone.
Racquet customization can be a collaborative process between player and the Research & Development team—and in the right hands, the finished piece can sometimes produce immediate results.
“In 2012, the week after the French Open, Tommy Haas came to Kennelbach to work on changing his racquet specifications,” Schwenger recalled. “He had a hitting session in the morning and gave us feedback on some problems he had, then we took Tommy’s feedback and worked on the balance and the weight of the racquet.
“We customized the racquets here in Kennelbach and in the afternoon we had another play-test session and Tommy was like, ‘Yeah, yeah, this feels right.’ He took the racquets with him, drove to Halle [Germany], and after winning the first round he called and said, ‘It feels great, I need more racquets.’ So we customized more racquets, shipped them out, and a few days later, Tommy won the Halle final in straight sets against Roger Federer.”
Of course, an elite player like Haas is as in-tune with his Head Prestige as a classically-trained violinist is to any variation in his Stradivarius. I’m not sure if the racquet I built will help me, a 4.0-level hacker, tap into the tennis muse, but I found the process of considering the parameters of the stick and my shots to be beneficial in that it forces you to objectively assess both your game and your goals.
“I think [customization] was pretty successful in this case,” said Schwenger. “Unfortunately, we cannot offer the consumer to come to Kennelbach, but this is the first step.”
Sorana Cirstea, Jelena Jankovic, Samantha Stosur, Victoria Azarenka, Eugenie Bouchard, Sabine Lisicki, Maria Sharapova, Ana Ivanovic, Caroline Wozniacki, Na Li, Monica Niculescu, Petra Kvitova, Flavia Pennetta, Belinda Bencic, Irina-Camelia Begu, Lucie Safarova, Madison Keys, Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova, Donna Vekic, Angelique Kerber, Elina Svitolina, Agnieszka Radwanska, Dominika Cibulkova, Venus Williams, Andrea Petkovic
Deserve my appreciation: Steffi Graf, Elena Dementieva, Justine Henin, Kim Clijsters.