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Tennis Health & Safety Q & A With Doc Donnay: "Poly Is For Parrots…Not For Sore-Winged Weekend Warriors"

October 5, 2012 — Q. I’m a 3.5-level USTA senior player returning to my League after a serious bout with tennis elbow (no surgeries, I just laid off for a couple of months). My teammates are all using the polyester strings that are all the rage and are campaigning for me “to join the 21st century” and pick up a set of poly instead of my usual synthetic gut. But I’ve heard poly can be hard on the arm. True? – Nancy Roe, Loveland, CO.
A. Most of us have the luxury of experimenting with the full gamut of strings, ranging from synthetics and gut at the low end of the recommended tension range for more power, to polyester strings weaved tightly for more control and much more spin. But since you’re recovering from a hitting-arm injury, Nancy, arm safety should be your all-encompassing concern.

As Doc Donnay’s tennis health and safety mentor used to say: “If you’ve got arm issues and you’re not playing with strings that soften the blow when the racquet collides with the ball, you won’t be playing for long.” And playing with poly is to a sore arm is what walking on a jagged rock pile shoeless is to a blistered foot.

The overwhelming majority of Donnay tour pros - virtually all of the men and almost all of the women - opt for polyester or co-polyester string, either as a full set or mixed with gut because polyester has a dead-like-a-board feel that lets them swing their hardest and impart incredible spins and still keep ball in the court. But that deadness can spread a wildfire of shock and vibration up your arm and aggravate your tender elbow.

The pros also generally string their racquets tight at the very top of the recommended range, which usually runs from the mid-50s to the mid-60s (in pounds) for optimum control. The tradeoff: More potential for impact shock. High-strung poly can be a lethal combo on the arm which may explain why so many of the big boys and girls on the tours go down with tennis arm injuries – 54 in all in a nine-month period, according to a recent report in

The most widely known sore-winged warriors in recent years have been Maria Sharapova (who used a full set of poly at the high tension of 62 pounds before she underwent rotator cuff surgery and now uses a less arm-threatening poly-gut hybrid) and Rafael Nadal (pure poly strung at 55 pounds).

Both recent Tour retirees who called it quits at the U.S. Open a few weeks ago - Andy Roddick and Kim Clijsters - had histories of arm problems. Roddick used a poly-gut hybrid combo strung at an amazingly high tension of 73/61 pounds. Clijsters used the more comfortable gut strings and her arm thanked her for that, but she (1) strung at the top of the tension range and (2) used one of Babolat’s hollow racquets that are notorious arm-pain frames.

The pros can thank (and curse) Gustavo Kuerten for the current wave of poly-mania on the tours. The first player to use poly, Kuerten came out of nowhere in 1997 to shock the world by winning the French Open that was not only his first ATP Tour win, but also the first time he had even reached a pro ranking final. Other players gazed at his strings and basically told their racquet technicians, “I’ll have what he’s using.”

Avoid Further Tennis Injuries with Doc Donnay’s Advice

Now you know about the pros, but what about recreational players with arm problems?

Our sage advice is to (1) run – not walk – from anything polyester and (2) definitely have your tennis racquets strung at the lower part of the tension range that will act like a trampoline and soften the blow. Your best choice is to switch to a natural gut or at least a multifilament nylon synthetic that creates more stringbed deflection and a softer landing area.

Gut offers the best protection against tennis injuries for the arm, but it’s expensive and breaks easily. Multifilament synthetics (for example, Donnay X-Micron in either 17 or 16 gauge), are more cost effective and generally last longer. Gauge thicknesses range from a scale of 15 to 18; the higher the gauge number, the thinner, more comfortable (and more breakable) the string.

So the Doc’s best advice for the arm-worn forlorn: A multifilament string in an 18 gauge thickness. It may not make you famous by Friday, but it will help keep your arm safe and keep you on the court.

Submit Tennis Arm Safety and Performance Questions to Doctor Donnay

Do you have a question for Doc Donnay on anything related to tennis arm safety or performance (think power, control, maneuverability and stability)? Simply send the ‘Doc’ an email at

Questions chosen for publications earn their inquirers nifty Donnay tennis gear (tennis racquet bag or backpack). So, reach out today and erase your concerns by tapping in to our tennis health and safety knowledge.

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