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Wimbledon's racket stringers cater to players' whims

By Michael Roddy

LONDON (Reuters) - Tennis players are a "superstitious" breed, says the head of the team which strings their rackets at Wimbledon, but his workshop is ready to cater to their every whim.

As the championship enters its final weekend, pressure is mounting not only on the remaining players but also on the people who string their rackets.

Requirements go well beyond the tension of the strings and what types are used, Andrew Phillips, manager of Wimbledon's racket-restringing workshop, said on Friday.

"We're tuning it to the player's specifications," said Phillips, who works for British company Apollo Leisure.

Tucked away in a building behind Court No. 1 and beside the practise courts, a team of up to 12 is constantly on duty, from 5 a.m. until almost midnight, when required, putting new strings on rackets, adjusting tensions on the day of a match or even restringing a racket during one.

They use machines to pull strings to the required tension, but a lot of the work is manual. The peak workday was at the beginning of the tournament, on June 23, when the team strung a record 402 rackets in one day and "everyone worked extremely hard", Phillips said.

As the tournament enters its closing stages, the pressure increases to get the job done exactly right for some of the most demanding players in the world.

"Obviously, at this level it's much more complicated and that's where the experience comes in to translate it into how to string that racket," said Richard Parnell, from Epsom, England, who learned the trade from his father, strung his first racket at age 12 and regularly strings rackets for Venus Williams.

These days, players may well demand a mix of polyester strings, which tend to help place the ball more accurately, and traditional cow-gut strings, whose natural softness lends power to the shot, Phillips said.

Beyond that, though, the workshop is equipped to print the logo of the player's racket maker in any position the player wants, and to tie specific knots at precisely the right places.

"They're very superstitious - a player will want the logo on a specific position on the string, a knot in a certain position, and as long as we get all their details, we'll aim to do that," Phillips said.

Parnell said the trade had changed significantly in the 36 years he's been at it - from the days when the motto was "keep it simple, stupid" - to a much more sophisticated approach.

"A perfect stringing job is basically maintaining the shape of the frame, maintaining the integrity of the string, putting the right tension on it and holding that tension - that's as easy and as hard as it is," he said.

And the reward for the racket stringers, apart from the 22 pound ($37) charge for each stringing job?

"It's when a player comes in and has won and just sort of congratulates everyone and shares the experience," Phillips said. And the worst part? "The early mornings."

(Writing by Michael Roddy; Editing by Andrew Roche)

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