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World’s Best Tennis Stringer – Each Racket Is Handled Like A Stradivarius

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By Alix Ramsay

Picture the scene: it is November 2015. Thousands of people are packed into an exhibition centre on the outskirts of Ghent. It is bitterly cold outside but, inside, the atmosphere is electric and nobody dares breathe. 

After 79 years of waiting since their last success, Britain has a match point against Belgium in the Davis Cup final. David Goffin is hanging on to his nation’s chances as if his life depended upon it. He is trying to push Andy Murray around: he forces the issue from the baseline (the Belgian fans gasp), he edges forward (the Belgian fans yelp) and then Murray launches one of his trademark lobs and Goffin can only watch as the ball sails over his shoulder and lands well inside the baseline. Britain are the champions.

The Flanders Expo Centre erupts in an explosion of noise. Murray drops his racket and falls to the ground in tears. The rest of the GB team jump on him, cheering and shouting. 

In the midst of the mayhem, a lone figure walks quietly to Murray’s racket, picks it up and returns it to Murray’s chair at the side of the court. It is Roger Dalton and he is doing this because it is what he does: Roger does rackets.

The Big Boss of the 10sballs empire calls Roger “the best stringer in the world”. Roger gives an embarrassed laugh when he hears this while his partner, Viv, points out that no, Roger is probably not the best stringer in the world (she is not one to let Rog get above himself, not when there is washing up to be done and the bins to be taken out). But Rog is most certainly one of the best in the business. 

He has been stringing rackets for most of his adult life. It began as a matter of necessity – he was a badminton player and he was going through strings like a hot knife through butter. In order to save a few bob, he bought a stringing machine and taught himself to string his own rackets. Little did he know then would happen in the coming years.

“I decided to try and learn how to do it properly so I went on a course on the Bow Brand factory in Kings Lynn,” Rog explained. “They were the Wimbledon stringers at the time. And the chap giving the course, Ray Gooden, was the head stringer at Wimbledon. 

“He must have seen something in me, even though I wasn’t doing tennis rackets properly at the time, something in me that he thought I could be a good stringer plus a good team player which was what they were always looking for. He invited me to Wimbledon the next year just to have a little go, just for a couple of days, and I really enjoyed it. So, I got invited back the next year as a team member and it just went on from there.”

Rog is a quiet man, not given to blowing his own trumpet, but he has plenty to boast about if he were that way inclined. 

He worked at Wimbledon for 20 years, the last six as head stringer. He is an integral part of Britain’s Davis Cup set-up, selected by Leon Smith, the captain, for Smith’s first tie and he has been the team every step of the way since, from their Euro-Africa Zone, Group II relegation play-off in Eastbourne in 2010, through to winning the trophy in 2015 and, just a couple of weeks ago, to reaching the semi-finals against Spain in the new, re-formatted finals. He is also in charge of all the stringing operations for the LTA for their tournaments across the country, from, as he puts it, Scotland to Cornwall.

“Wimbledon is separate from that, but it’s all the major tournaments: Queens, Eastbourne, Nottingham, Birmingham, so all those,” Rog said. “I organised the stringing for all that. I got a team together and got people there and obviously carried on doing some of them myself. 

“And then I got approached by the LTA, via Babolat, to set up something called Babolab at the National Tennis Centre. It was a technical office to do stringing, customising and that was basically doing top class stringing and customising for British players and all their junior players that were coming through the place at that time. Which is still going today. I’ve sort of stepped aside a bit; my nephew is doing it. But I’m still heading it up for the time being. So, it just went from there, really.”

From there to having show-downs with Serena Williams (Rog is very polite and Serena is very scary – they didn’t come to blows), to understanding the quirks and habits of the world’s top players and to putting one A. Murray in his place when needs be. Racket stringing, it turns out, involves far more than just putting strings into racket frames.

“You need to be able to keep your head when you’re stringing for top people in major tournaments,” Rog said, “because if you start thinking about it, it can be quite daunting. Especially when they’re looking at their strings the whole time and they play a bad shot and they glare at their strings. I’ve had the death stares from Andy or Leon if anything ever happens during a game, if a string breaks or something. 

“During practice, I always answer back if anything is ever said. I just say, ‘well hit it in the middle then’. Things like this. During Madrid, Andy hit a ball and two strings broke at the same time. And he said, ‘that’s never happened to me’. I said, well, let’s work out how long you’ve used that racket. He was hitting for about an hour and a half, then he played two sets with it against Kyle or someone and at the end of that, the two strings went. I said, ‘do you realise how much play that is compared to how long you normally use it for – a set – where you’re only playing every other shot?’ He says, ‘oh, yeah, yeah’. But they forget sometimes.”

Then there is the business of why the players want their rackets restrung. In both of Rafa Nadal’s championship wins at Wimbledon, Rog was responsible for Rafa’s rackets. Keeping one eye on what was going on on Centre Court, he knew to be prepared for anything but he also knew Rafa of old.

“He was sending rackets back all the time,” Rog said. “I was trying to tear them out but I realised that he was just getting that racket and putting it at the back of the queue. He had all his rackets there which I’d done in the morning. It was just insurance all the time so why rush it? Because you get a different result if you’re rushing than when you’re at your normal pace, it wouldn’t be how he wanted it – not that you tell them any of that – but in the end I just started doing them at my normal pace, sending them back, not trying to rush it too much.”

It takes around 30 minutes to string a racket, although it can be done quicker in an emergency. And at the major events, there is a team on hand with one stringer cutting out the old strings, someone else stencilling the logos on the new strings and another bagging up the finished product. That saves a little time but the whole process cannot be done in the twinkling of an eye. Which is why Rog doesn’t hang about when he’s on Davis Cup duty.

“I have to try and grab the rackets off them as soon as their match is over,” he said. “They want to go and shower, want to do press. I say, ‘give me the rackets first’. I can talk to them like that now. Or I just go to their bag and take them. Otherwise they’d go to press, have a shower, have an ice bath, come back to the hotel, have some food and maybe think ‘oh, I need some rackets tomorrow, we’re playing a match at 11 o’clock’. I don’t wait for any of that. I say: this is what I need, I’m taking them now. It’s usually two rackets for practice. When we had 11 o’clock matches in Madrid, they were starting to practice at 8 or 8.30 and then I get those back and it’s five or six for the match.”

And what about that Serena dust up? How did he avoid a major international incident?

“She turned up early at Wimbledon on one occasion,” Rog said. “We normally give her the same stringer, for years she’s had the same person so it was like having her own personal stringer. And he hadn’t arrived yet because she’d arrived quite early. 

“She wasn’t happy and I had to have a little word with her about it and just placate her a bit and tell her look, your stringer is arriving tomorrow. I’m sure you’ll be completely happy then. I don’t know what was wrong – something very minor, I think. I was right in front of her. I was quite calm and said, look, it’s fine. And it was only practice; it wasn’t the end of the world.”

Novak Djokovic’s team, who usually uses a private stringing service, was shown the ropes at Eastbourne a couple of years ago – when to deliver the rackets, how the timings needed to be – and took the instruction well. But at Queen’s this year, both singles finalists and both doubles teams turned up on the morning of the finals and expected that Rog and his colleague could drop everything and turn around their rackets immediately. That did not go down well in the stringing room.

Queen’s club clearly holds a special place in Rog’s affections, particularly since the arrival of a barista this summer. Now fuelled with decent coffee, Rog is a happy man. It is also where he has met royalty.

“I didn’t know anything about it,” Rog said. “I was sort of looking the other way and I turned round and suddenly there’s Prince Edward in front of me. And he was asking me a few questions – no one told me this was happening. 

“But my other royalty was David Beckham – his son, Romeo, plays tennis. I said to Romeo, come in and I’ll show you around. So he was having a little go at stringing and stuff. And David was outside so I said, ‘Oh, David come in’. 

“I don’t normally ask people for pictures but I thought I can’t let this one go so I got a picture of him and us, the team, in the Queen’s stringing room. He was really nice. All the players were getting pictures with him, they all wanted one, and he didn’t turn anyone down.”

Football is one of Rog’s major passions and one of the perks at the recent Davis Cup finals was a personal tour of the Bernabéu stadium, the home of Real Madrid. Then there were the Paso Doble lessons for the whole team (Murray Junior, it turns out, shows little aptitude for the art of dance; his brother, Jamie, on the other hand, is not half bad). And through every Davis Cup stint, there are endless – and hugely competitive – games. The team’s current favourite is cornhole but there has been everything from five-a-side football to 10 pin bowling (at which Rog excels and Andy Murray doesn’t, much to Rog’s amusement and Muzza’s frustration. He seldom lets Rog forget this fact).

But what about the 2015 Davis Cup win? Admittedly, Rog had a gammy hip at the time and the thought of being in the middle of a mass of humanity, jumping up and down and getting over excited, was not particularly appealing. Even so, simply taking care of business, collecting Muzz’s racket and carefully putting it to one side, was an understated way of celebrating, even by Rog’s quiet standards.

“I’m a quiet person anyway, I don’t really like the limelight,” he said. “And, anyway, I’d spent a lot of time on that racket!”

Then again, he always does. Because that is what Rog does: he does rackets. And that’s what makes him one of the best in the business.