August, 1999: Nate Ferguson is Pete Sampras' personal stringer and racquet technician. He is responsible for "setting up" all of Pete's racquets - customizing weight & balance, molding handles and stringing. After working in the racquet customizing business for over a decade, servicing many of the top ATP and WTA tour players, Nate now travels with Pete to tournaments throughout the year and was with him during Pete's record 7th Wimbledon title (and 13th Grand Slam) win. We caught up with Nate during a few quiet moments in his hotel room somewhere on the ATP Tour.
TW: How did you land this gig?
NF: I have been in charge of building Pete's racquets since the summer of 1990, a few months before he won his first Grand Slam. Over the years we built a trusting and respectful relationship, almost entirely over the phone. During this time, it became apparent to me that Pete was unable to get his racquets restrung with the high level of expertise he requires while at some tournaments. Although he braved the world of "tournament stringers" for many a year, there came a time when the matches he lost because of strings that were too loose outweighed the cost and complication of adding a full-time racquet expert to his team. At this time, I came to an agreement with Pete's agent, Jeff Schwartz, so that Pete could have not only a full-time travelling stringer, but someone who could successfully build and customize his racquets to the smallest of tolerances.
TW: Is Pete Sampras your only client?
NF: Pete is the only player I do work for while we are on the road. I have several pro clients for whom I build racquets while I am home. I proudly build their racquets with as much attention to detail as Mr. Sampras' frames.
TW: Pretty cool. So, you travel to many of the major tournaments to string and service Pete exclusively. How do you get there and what equipment do you have to lug around?
NF: Yes, I travel not only to the major tournaments, but every tournament in which Pete is playing. If Pete is on the road at a bonafide tournament,then I am with him. As for getting to each city, I am generally on my own. I usually plan to arrive on the Friday evening before a tournament, allowing time to set up and be ready for what ever comes my way for practice on Saturday. Now, on some special occasions, when we are already at a tournament, and proceed directly to another tournament, there is another way for me to travel other than commercial flights. If Pete decides to hire a private jet, and he has enough room for me and all my gear, I sometimes am lucky enough to be invited to travel with him. Let me tell you, when we were in Europe, travelling as we did last fall, seven weeks in a row to seven different countries, catching a ride with "The Champ" to each tournament was DELICIOUS! No waiting in line. No checking extra luggage. No early check-in... for that matter, no check in at all! No crappy airline food. No immigration. No customs. No waiting for luggage. Generally, no waiting for anything. I am never so thankful as when I get the phone call with an invitation to the private jet. It is especially nice because I travel with so much gear. The biggest item I carry is my Babolat Star 4 electric stringing machine. I decided, even before starting my first tournament with Pete, that having one stringing machine on which I restring all his racquets will almost entirely eliminate tension variation, and therefore solve almost all his string tension problems. Having a single person duplicating his string jobs repeatedly on the single most accurate and durable electric stringing machine takes most of the guesswork out of a very important part of my job.I have two custom made hard-shell flight cases in which I pack my machine and most of my other gear. I travel with all the string I might need,including several gauges of his Babolat Team gut. I also am prepared to do grip work, weight and balance work, as well as routine and not so routine racquet maintenance while on the road.
TW: There's still a lot of discussion concerning Pete's racquets. Tell us what you know about their origin (St. Vincent) and what you can about his racquet specs.
NF: As long as I have known him, Pete has played with the Wilson Pro Staff Mid. The Pro Staff 6.0 85 is identical to Pete's racquets, except for the factory in which it is made. Pete likes the original St. Vincent racquets mostly because they are what he is used to. Yes, there are differences between the three versions produced over the years, but most significantly, Pete wants to stay with what has worked so well over the years. In this case, different is bad.
The differences, although perhaps imperceptible to the average club player, are in the "feel" the racquet gives him. The St. Vincent made Pro Staff is the stiffest and what I call "harshest". Other versions of the racquet are more comfortable and softer. Any difference in power level is not significant. What Pete likes is the level of control that he gets because the racquet responds predictably. He doesn't have any doubt in the back of his mind, that is created when a player switches racquets. He has never said, "That shot would have been in with my old racquet." The most important thing that the Wilson Pro Staff 85 gives Pete is control. I custom "build" his racquet to take as much of the power out of the racquet as possible. It is a stiff racquet, has a very small head size, weighs nearly 400 grams/14 ounces and is strung with gut at around 75 lbs. He adds the power. I make the paddle, Pete gives the spanking. He whips that "log" of a racquet around like a swizzle-stick. Only he has the strength to crack serves in the high 130's with a racquet that most guys couldn't even get around.
TW: Pete seems to break strings often. What string and tension does he use?
NF: You are correct, Pete does break a lot of strings, and thank goodness for it, or I'd be out of a job! Many people see him breaking strings and wonder what I did wrong or what is wrong with the string. Actually, it is part of his game. He plays with the finest natural gut made, Babolat natural gut. Although the natural gut plays and feels better than any string out there, it is not the longest lasting string on the market. Add to that the fact that he plays with Babolat's thinnest gut string and you can understand that he would normally break strings during a match. He also plays at ultra-high tensions, which stresses the string (and stringer) further. The final ingredient is this: he hits the ball harder than almost any one out there. The result is broken strings, both by wearing them out and breaking them in the middle of the string bed and snapping them on miss hits or shanks which cause premature breakage where the stringbed meets the racquet.
TW: We know pro players have extremely sensitive feel when it comes to string tension, etc. How does Pete compare? Is he superstitious about his racquets or have special needs, such as having his racquets strung immediately before a tournament?
NF: I would not say Pete is superstitious, but he knows what he likes. For instance, he doesn't just have his racquets freshly strung before tournaments. He has me string them before each match, whether the strings installed the previous day have been used or not. I cut out a lot of brand new strings so that I can restring the racquets the day of the match! Even most pros find this astonishing. Cutting out brand new gut strings often doesn't make sense even to top players. However, Pete is more sophisticated than most pros. We agree that in order to have all his racquets prepared for a match correctly, they must all be strung consecutively the day of the match. That way, they are all the same, and tighter than hell, just as he likes them.
TW: How about his handles and grips? Are they stock or custom?
NF: The grip work is specifically why I am with Pete. Plenty of guys could travel with him to restring his racquets but there is no one else that has been able to custom make his racquets, including handles, and restring them on the road, all to Pete's satisfaction. Yeah, everything about Pete's handles is custom, from the handle material to the hand shaped endocarp to the specially wrapped leather. The tricky and exciting part is that a few times a year, Pete decides he wants to change his handle specifications, which turns me into a whirling dervish, often requiring long hours of wrapping and hand treating leather in a hotel room.
TW: Will Pete ever change racquets? Has he tried other racquets?
NF: Pete has used the Wilson Pro Staff Mid for as long as he has been a pro, and I believe he always will. He is not a fan of changing things that are not broken.
TW: Does Pete use fresh string jobs for practice?
NF: During practice, Pete will use either fresh or day-old string jobs. Typically, at a new site, we will test how the usual 75 lbs. tension feels, and if necessary, test out a different string gauge. Once we decide on a string gauge and tension and the tournament begins, he will often use any remaining string jobs left over from the previous match.
TW: Do you ever experiment with different strings?
NF: Yes we do but only within the family of Babolat natural gut strings. We will experiment with different string gauges, and on occasion, I will have him test some strings to which I have given alternative or special treatment.
TW: Does he have a favorite specific racquet (is he superstitious about his racquets)?
NF: My job is to duplicate Pete's "model" racquet. I achieve that most often but sometimes have to remake any frame that has a grip that does not feel quite the same. So, no, he doesn't have specific "favorite frames." It is my job to duplicate as closely as possible his "model" racquet.
TW: How picky is Pete?
NF: Many people ask me if Pete is picky. I like to put it this way: He has, by far, the most sensitive feel of any of the players I have ever dealt with and he wants only what feels exactly right. To put it another way, he is the only other guy on the planet who is "into" his tennis racquets as much as I am and I'm thankful for that.
TW: We understand you recently incorporated your business. Tell us about Priority One.
NF: Priority One says a lot about the kind of player I started the company with/for - Pete Sampras. Long ago, it was also the best, fastest FedEx service offered. When it was really important, we sent packages "Priority One".