In the French Open final this June, many thought that 6-foot-4-inch Robin Soderling would overpower Rafael Nadal, just as he had Roger Federer in the quarterfinals. On serve at 2–1 in the second set, he hit a sharp, low slice crosscourt to Nadal’s service line—the type of shot that has been unattackable, too low and close to the net to return aggressively: hit it just a bit too hard, and it floats long.
But Nadal took three strides into the court and ripped a short-hopped forehand crosscourt from the service line. The speed of his racket put the ball on a trajectory to the back fence, but his high-tech copolyester strings bent it down inside Soderling’s own service line for an untouchable winner. Soderling dropped his head in disbelief as commentator John McEnroe prefaced the television replay: “Take a look at this ball right here!”
Video: Joshua Speckman demonstrates how new technology is warping the tennis world.
“Yep, that’s impossible,” Nate Ferguson, the stringer and racket technician of Federer, Novak Djokovic, Andy Murray, and Soderling, told me later. “The ball’s 18 inches off the ground and hit for a winner [from there]—that’s bullshit.”
Copoly strings help generate so much spin that today’s players—dubbed the “new-string generation” by Federer— can hit once-inconceivable drives, angled winners, and passing shots. But despite the widespread belief of players that copoly strings have changed the game, scientists until recently could find no evidence that a string’s material, thickness, tension, or texture made a real difference in spin generation.