On Super Bowl Sunday afternoon in 2022, while the vast majority of Gotham’s residents were huddled in their homes awaiting the start of the big game, I was making the short drive from Manhattan to a tennis club across the East River in Queens. The reason: Roman Prokes, racquet stringer and all-around equipment guru to the pros, was giving my son a custom “racquet consultation”. In other words, my son was getting the same advice and attention to his equipment that Prokes has given countless professionals.
Prokes carefully examined my son’s racquet – getting an exact weight of the stick (“even though racquets have a listed weight, the same exact racquet will often vary by several grams”, he told me at the time). He then arranged a hitting session with a club professional for an hour and had my son try out 10 different racquets with various string configurations before deciding on which he thought was best suited to his game. My son walked away with a new racquet and the results – whether coincidental or not – were impressive: he went on to win his next two tournaments.
Prokes’ path from immigrant to world-renowned stringer is a classic American story. He left communist Czechoslovakia and found his way to the United States where he worked a series of odd jobs, including cab driver, before finding work stringing at a tennis club. He soon realized he had tremendous skill in the niche industry and in short order he was stringing racquets for John McEnroe, Ivan Lendl, Martina Navratilova and others.
But without question, Prokes’ biggest claim to fame is his still-continuing partnership with Andre Agassi. Starting when Agassi was 20 years old, Prokes traveled to every tournament with the Hall of Famer for the remainder of his career. In his widely Open” Agassi was downright rhapsodic in his praise of Prokes:
My racquet stringer is old school, a Czech artiste named Roman. He’s the best and he needs to be: a string job can be a difference in a match, and a match can be the difference in a career, and a career can mean the difference in countless lives. When I pull a fresh racquet from my bag and try to serve out a match, the string tension can be worth hundreds of thousands of dollars. Because I’m playing for my family, my charitable foundation, my school, every string is like a wire in an airplane engine … So vital is Roman to my game that I take him on the road. He’s officially a resident of New York but when I’m playing in Wimbledon he lives in London, and when I’m playing in the French Open he’s Parisian. I’ll 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 time Agassi coached Novak Djokovic in 2017 and 2018, and during this association Prokes, with Agassi’s assistance, worked with Djokovic. “I re-designed Novak’s frame along with Andre Agassi, ton and ton of work, seems to have paid off”, Prokes told me. “We watched how he played and decided the racquet was not built for today’s tennis; it was made for tennis two or three years ago. So we made certain suggestions, created specific demos, models and samples, and sure enough, he loved it right away.”
While Prokes no longer travels with the pros, he still strings for many of them from his shop in Manhattan, which he runs with his wife who also is a stringer. (It’s truly a family affair as his son Sean oversees the stringing at the USTA national campus in Orlando.) Cubbies along the wall denote the players’ names: Frances Tiafoe (who made his top-10 debut last week), Madison Keys, Danielle Collins, Sloane Stephens, among them. Prokes also consults about racquet technology with Solinco, a company that is well known for its increasingly popular strings.
Stringing for the top players requires constant tinkering. While a solid junior or recreational player may not notice the subtle differences a slight tweak in their strings make, it’s different for the pros.
“They just have great feel so know what they need and want. Pros adjust tension all the time, most of them daily. Depends on surface, altitude, how fast the court is, temperature, etc,” Prokes says.
Decades ago, for pros and amateurs alike, there were basically two choices for strings: natural gut and nylon. Now, with the ever-evolving 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, still really comes down on pro level to three silos. One is gut – mostly used as a hybrid with various polyester strings; polyester strings – these days more and more players use mixes of various ones, mains and crosses different, and then lastly polyester mixed with multifilament.”
When Agassi first tried polyester (poly) strings he said it felt like “cheating”, the strings made that much of a difference. Prokes says that, “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 ongoing with poly strings, choices are endless. Without poly the current game would not be possible to be played as it is.”
Some sectors of the tennis cognoscenti bemoan such a fact since poly strings have allowed players of all levels to take massive swings since there’s such a huge margin of error with the poly setups – further emphasizing the aggressive baseline game’s dominance over the touch, serve-and-volley style, a style that is nearing official extinction on the pro tour.
And there are some physical concerns with the poly strings. Prokes says that, “One has to be careful what to suggest to players with strings and racquets, really important not only for performance but also for injury prevention. Super important to pick right frame, from young small kids all the way to the older generation and all in between. I do the on-court consultations with all players, all levels and all ages. I have doctors send me players with injuries that might be related to frames. We assess all and then point players in the right direction. No different from what I did with the Djokovic frame really, I do this for all.”
In the end, equipment can obviously never trump talent. One has to have the natural physical ability to compete at a higher level. “But that small percentage can make a significant difference”, Prokes says.