String is Strung

String is StrungString is Strung

C hris Gaudreau grabs the loose end of a roll of tennis racket string and measures four arm-spreads with the speed of a practiced pro. His fingers play so fast across the weave of the racket that it looks like magic. A swift pull, and then his stringing machine does the heavy lifting—or tightening, as it were.

Gaudreau has strung countless rackets in his day, starting in the hall outside his college dorm room, where he’d set up his stringing machine at night and refresh rackets for teammates and friends. Today his biggest gig is stringing for the pros at the French Open along with up to 17 other professional stringers, who work night and day to keep several hundred players with ready rackets. “Your average player… might have five or six rackets per match,” Gaudreau explains. “And those rackets, after the match, will then get ripped out and restrung for the next match.” It’s intense work, he says, but fun, and stringers get to know each other “like family.”

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He’s also strung for the International Tennis Hall of Fame in Newport and the Association of Tennis Professionals doubles championships in Hartford, and he plans to work at an upcoming tennis tourney in Japan. For 24 years he strung rackets at New Haven’s own Connecticut Open—this year’s tournament happens from August 17 to 25—but he gave it up two years ago in order to avoid leaving Racquet Koop, his Whalley Avenue shop, for so long in the high season. On a recent afternoon, about two dozen rackets were hanging behind the front desk waiting for attention, and several customers visited the shop in the course of an hour.

“I like stringing,” Gaudreau says when I ask whether those swift, repetitive movements ever become meditative for him. “I also have a machine at my house… It’s not uncommon for someone to come into my house [in Branford]. I will string their racket while they wait. You know, their kid has a tournament, it’s an emergency, they need it, the racket broke…”

While Gaudreau is showing me around, a customer comes in with a 1970s vintage wooden racket which probably still has its original strings. “This is going to be fun!” Gaudreau says, even though the racket looks hopelessly old-fashioned next to today’s light, sleek models with larger heads. Whether players prefer the newest model or an antique, Gaudreau’s advice is to restring often; a rule of thumb is once a year for a once-a-week player. “Fresh strings really improve the performance of the racket,” he says.

Stringing rackets may be one of Gaudreau’s strengths, but it’s not all he offers at Racquet Koop, which is still in its original location 27 years after he opened it fresh out of college. The shop stocks apparel, balls, string, grips, overwraps, vibration dampeners, shoes and Gaudreau’s “pride and joy”: rackets. He says he has more rackets in stock than “almost any other tennis store I’ve been into.” In addition to tennis, he carries rackets for racquetball, squash, pickleball and platform tennis. A demo program allows people to borrow and try out even the more expensive models. When people come in looking for a new racket, he says he asks if they’d like to donate their old one to local high school kids in need, then refurbishes and restrings it at his expense.

Gaudreau knows what it’s like for those kids. He grew up playing tennis as a fringe benefit of his mother’s front desk job at an indoor tennis facility. A tennis scholarship paid for half of his college education at Central Connecticut State University, and he continued to play on the competitive circuit after he graduated. He opened Racquet Koop with a partner and is now part of a trio of independently owned but cooperative shops of the same name, with one in West Hartford and another in Springfield, Massachusetts.

Ironically, owning a tennis business keeps him from getting out on the court these days. “I love to play, I still have good playing muscle memory,” Gaudreau says. But it’s summer, and “I need to get other people to play.” In the winter, he’ll have a little more time for himself.

But for now, the activity of the day—every day—involves more quick finger action than serve or volley. Gaudreau drops another spool on the floor and whips out four more lengths of string. Then he’s on to the next racket.

Racquet Koop
908 Whalley Ave, New Haven (map)
Mon-Fri 10am-6pm, Sat 10am-4pm
(203) 389-1900 | cgkoop2@aol.com
www.racquetkoop.com

Written and photographed by Kathy Leonard Czepiel.

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About Kathy Leonard Czepiel

View all posts by Kathy Leonard Czepiel
Kathy Leonard Czepiel is Daily Nutmeg’s associate editor. She’s also a fiction writer, writing teacher and book club troubleshooter at KathyLeonardCzepiel.com. Her favorite New Haven scene is a packed summer concert on the Green with dinner from the food trucks, and she loves that there’s always something new to discover here.

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