Natalie Grainger Talks String
By Steve Crandall
Vice President, Sales & Marketing
Ashaway Racket Strings
Natalie Grainger is one busy woman. In addition to playing a full professional circuit - she won the US Nationals in March, is currently ranked #1 in the US and #4 on the Women's International Squash Players Association (WISPA) Tour - she is also a member of the US Squash Team, President of the Board of WISPA, and Head Coach for the US Under 23 Development Program. We managed to catch a few words with her recently as she was packing to move from DC to Connecticut. She was feeding her cats at the time, and when a friend strolled in with a dog, things got quite exciting for a bit. But despite the pandemonium, Natalie managed some very prescient comments on a subject near and dear to me - string and stringing.
The women's game, she said, is significantly different from the men's, as (hallelujah) women are different from men. This affects both string choice and stringing tension. "Everybody has their own preference, of course, but based on athletic and strength capabilities, I think you will find that men tend to string tighter than women," she said. "I haven't seen that backed up in research," she added, "but from what I've seen, men play a faster, more power-oriented game.
"Many times, I've heard guys say, 'I wasn't moving very well today,' and that's the end reason for losing. But with women, while not moving very well is going to cause problems and may cause you to lose, there may also be one or two other things you can throw at your opponent before getting way down."
"The thing with women is that we're not really trying to play like guys. It is a different game. With women you can definitely see more mental stuff going on - it's more the style of play. There's a big distinction. If you watch someone like Rachael or Natalie Grinham competing, and you see someone like myself or Shelley Kitchen, there's a huge difference in our styles of play. A lot of old coaches believe that if you hit the ball really hard and chase down everything, there will be fewer people able to beat you. But women's play is not like that. We play a slightly different game, more nuanced and strategic."
For Natalie, that means playing with a string that maximizes what she can do with the ball, "touch-wise," without sacrificing power. Having recently switched to Ashaway SuperNick® XL Micro, she now finds that stringing at slightly lower tension - 26.5 lbs compared to 28 or 29 with her previous string - gives her the right level of comfort and control.
"However," she was quick to add, "I think it really is a matter of personal preference and I think a lot of it depends on the style of the player. I don't know what Shelley Kitchen strings her racquets at, but I would say she may be a little higher than me as her game is based on power. But if you take someone like Rachael Grinham - and again, I'm not sure what she strings her racquet at - I would guess that she's going to be less than Shelley. With the way she likes to move around and move the ball all around, she wants more touch and feel in her racquet."
But Natalie also believes choosing a string and playing tension should be more of an intuitive than an academic exercise. "I don't think people are going to string and try to play like something: I think they string to what feels good and what they play like."
There are other factors, too, like the type of racquet you play with, and the partners you play with. "Some racquets are stiffer than others. With some, I've definitely popped down a notch or two on the tension. It's an easier swing and an easier hit for me, and I feel I can control the ball better."
Breakage is not an issue for Natalie, and at lower tension, her racquets retain tension better. As a result, with rotating her racquets around, she only tends to restring every three to four weeks. But being a control player, string texture is a big issue, which is where the 18 gauge SuperNick XL Micro comes in.
"The Ashaway string has a lot of what I call 'grit' on it, which I like. Strings that are coated with a kind of plastic are not so great. The ball just kind of slides across the strings as opposed to having the feel on it. I prefer to play with something that doesn't slide, something with a bit of tackiness or give, so the ball is actually going to spend time on the racquet, and feel like it's actually doing what you want to it do and you've got total control of it, rather than feeling more like the ball is in a slingshot."
If anyone can make the ball do what she wants it to, it's Natalie, and we hope that continues for a long time. However, all this talk about low tension and control is only for her softball game. For hardball doubles, it's another story entirely, one we hope to tell in a future column.
This article previously appeared in Squash Magazine.