It's 9 a.m. on the first Monday of the U.S. Open, two hours before
the initial point will be played. The grounds at the National
Tennis Center are quiet, save the hum of the landscaping crew's
mowers as they make final preparations for the year's last Grand
Slam tournament. In the catacombs of Arthur Ashe Stadium,
however, Jay Schweid, midway through his second cup of espresso,
has been working frantically for hours. "Every year I tell myself
it's going to be easier," he says. "But it never is."
Schweid is in charge of the tournament's on-site stringing, and
this is his holiday rush period. During the tournament's two
weeks, he and his staff of 30 will tend to some 3,500 rackets,
using enough catgut to stretch the length of a marathon course.
Charging $25 per racket for labor (average time: 20 minutes) and
charging retail prices when players don't furnish their own
string is a lucrative gig. But it comes with a price. "It's a
given that we won't get much sleep," Schweid says. "The worst was
a few years ago when I was stringing a racket for Andres Gomez
and fell asleep standing up, leaning against the machine."
A native New Yorker, Schweid, 35, is celebrating his 20th year as
a stringer. He began as a teenager at the Open, making spending
money stringing rackets in the pro shop. At 17 Schweid was
"discovered" by Martina Navratilova after he strung her Yonex
racket. "She told me I had talent and should go into business for
myself," Schweid recalls.
He heeded her advice and a few months later founded Jay's Custom
Stringing, Inc., a Manhattan shop that also offers touring pros,
as Schweid puts it, "every imaginable service related to the
racket." The business grew exponentially--it has 10 full-time
employees and revenues in the high six figures--and Schweid counts
among his clients most of the world's top players. They demand
everything from standard string jobs to racket customization, a
labor-intensive process that can cost hundreds of dollars per
Before customizing, Schweid watches his clients hit balls with
the model they're paid to endorse. After analyzing the players'
strokes and receiving their input, he uses software and hardware
he has patented to make slight alterations in the length, weight
and balance of the racket. He then sends the specs back to the
racket company so that Head, for instance, knows exactly how to
set up the titanium model that Thomas Enqvist uses so that
Schweid can modify it. "These players are like artists," he says.
"They may waffle about buying a car, but with their racket they
know immediately whether it's right or it's wrong."
With the precision of a virtuoso tuning an Amati, Schweid has a
sixth sense for adjusting tension based on the surface of the
court, weather conditions, even the brand of ball being used.
Five years ago the USTA contracted his company to provide
stringing for the entire field during the Open. The biggest
challenge is catering to players' idiosyncrasies. Andre Agassi,
who takes Schweid or one of Schweid's stringers with him to every
tournament, requires that his rackets be strung the same day as
his matches. When Agassi is assigned an early court time, Schweid
is on the job at 3 or 4 a.m.
Perhaps no player demands as much personalized attention as Mark
Philippoussis, who requests that his graphite Dunlops be strung
at the ridiculously high tension of 85 pounds. What's more, he
demands that each racket he uses be strung fresh for every match
and practice. Often at practice he'll use just one of his two or
three rackets, and Schweid will then clip away roughly $250 worth
of unused string. "For me, it's worth it," says Philippoussis,
who has earned $4.5 million in prize money for his career. "If I
wanted to cut costs, the last place I would do it is in my
racket. This is what I need to make a living."
Throughout the Open, players will break strings during a match,
summon a court attendant to deliver the racket to Schweid and
hope he can work his magic by the next changeover. During a night
match between Michael Chang and Carlos Moya several years ago,
both players needed string jobs during a crucial juncture.
Desperate to give both players their rackets at the same
time--lest one have an advantage--Schweid and another employee
raced to finish the jobs. Both rackets were prepared in less than
10 minutes, a tournament record.
Schweid had hopes of being a big-time tennis player but figures
that working under Stadium Court is the next best thing to
working on it. The drawbacks? Aside from the time away from his
wife, Judd, and their seven-year-old daughter, Mimi, there are
the constant requests for tickets from family and friends.
"Everyone hits me up," Schweid sighs, thumbing through a small
pile of tickets on the desk of his makeshift office. When those
run out, rest assured he can pull some strings.