On Super Bowl Sunday afternoon in 2022, when the vast majority of Gotham residents were huddled at home waiting for the big game to start, I made the short drive from Manhattan to a tennis club on the other side of the East River in Queens. The reason: Roman Prokes, racquet stringer and guru of all-around pro gear, was offering my son a personalized “racquet consultation.” In other words, my son was getting the same advice and attention to his gear that Prokes has given countless pros.
Prokes carefully examined my son’s racquet – getting the exact weight of the stick (“even though racquets have a stated weight, the exact same racquet will often vary by several grams”, he told me at the time ). He then arranged a hitting session with a pro at the club for an hour and had my son try out 10 different racquets with different string configurations before deciding which he thought was the best fit for his game. son left with a new racket and the results, fortuitous or not, were impressive: he won his next two tournaments.
Prokes’ journey from immigrant to world-famous stringer is a classic American story. He left communist Czechoslovakia and traveled to the United States where he worked a series of odd jobs, including that of a taxi driver, before finding stringing work at a tennis club. He soon realized he had tremendous skills in the niche industry and before long he was stringing racquets for John McEnroe, Ivan Lendl, Martina Navratilova and others.
But without a doubt, Prokes’ greatest claim to fame is his still-ongoing partnership with Andre Agassi. Beginning in Agassi’s 20s, Prokes went to every tournament with the Hall of Fame for the rest of his career. In his “wide open,” Agassi was downright rhapsodic in his praise of Prokes:
My racquet stringer is old school, a Czech artist named Roman. He’s the best and he has to be: a string job can make a difference in a game, and a game can make a difference in a career, and a career can make a difference in countless lives. When I pull a brand new racquet out of my bag and try to serve a match, the string tension can be worth hundreds of thousands of dollars. Because I play for my family, my charity, my school, every string is like a wire in an airplane engine… Roman is so vital to my game that I take him on the road. He is officially a resident of New York, but when I play Wimbledon he lives in London, and when I play Roland-Garros he is Parisian. I’m going to sit with Roman and watch him string a few racquets: I’m calmed, grounded, inspired by watching a craftsman. It reminds me of the singular importance in this world of a job well done.
And to this day, Prokes and Agassi discuss the finer details of racquets and strings. For a brief period, Agassi coached Novak Djokovic in 2017 and 2018, and during this association Prokes, with the help of Agassi, worked with Djokovic. “I redesigned Novak’s frame with Andre Agassi, ton and ton of work, seems to have paid off,” Prokes told me. “We looked at how he played and decided that the racquet was not designed for today’s tennis; it was made for tennis two or three years ago. So we made some suggestions, created specific demos, templates and samples, and of course, he loved it right away.
Although Prokes no longer travels with the pros, he still strings many of them from his Manhattan store, which he runs with his wife, who is also a stringer. (It really is a family affair since his son Sean oversees the stringing at the USTA National Campus in Orlando.) The cubes along the wall indicate the names of the players: Frances Tiafoe (who made her debut in the top 10 last week), Madison Keys, Danielle Collins, Sloane Stephens, among them. Prokes also consults on racquet technology with Solinco, a company well known for its increasingly popular strings.
Stringing for top players requires constant tinkering. While a solid junior or recreational player might not notice the subtle differences that a slight tweak to their strings brings, it’s different for the pros.
“They just have a good feeling, so they know what they need and what they want. The pros adjust tension all the time, most of them daily. It depends on the surface, altitude, terrain speed, temperature, etc. says Prokes.
Decades ago, for pros and amateurs alike, there were basically two choices of strings: natural gut and nylon. Now, with ever-changing string technology, there are literally hundreds of options and configurations with strings. It’s a dizzying and often confusing array of choices.
With the pros, Prokes told me, “There are countless choices these days, it always comes down to the three silo pro level. One is gut – mostly used as a hybrid with various polyester strings; polyester strings – these days more and more players are using blends of different strings, different main and cross strings, then finally polyester mixed with multifilament.
When Agassi first tried polyester (poly) strings, he said it was like “cheating”, the strings made a big difference. Prokes says, “Poly strings are really the biggest game-changer in the last two or three decades. I was there with the original players using poly (Mark Woodforde, Guga Kuerten and a few others). Since that time huge changes are still taking place with poly strings, the choices are endless. Without poly, the current game could not be played as it is.
Some sectors of tennis connoisseurs lament such a fact since poly strings have allowed players of all skill levels to take massive swings as there is such a large margin of error with poly setups – further underscoring the dominance of the base game aggressive on touch, serve and volley-style, a style that is on the verge of official extinction on the professional circuit.
And there are some physical issues with poly strings. Prokes says: “You have to be careful about what to suggest to players with strings and racquets, which is really important not only for performance but also for injury prevention. Choosing the right setting is very important, from young children to the older generation and everything in between. I do field consultations with all players, all levels and all ages. I have doctors who refer players to me with injuries that could be manager related. We assess everything and then point players in the right direction. It’s not really different from what I did with the Djokovic frame, I do it for everyone.
In the end, of course, equipment can never trump talent. You have to have the natural physical ability to compete at a higher level. “But that small percentage can make a significant difference,” Prokes says.