First-stringers in tennis

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The tanned, good-looking Serbian in flip-flops dropped his stuff on the counter and said, "23-23. Tomorrow at 3?"

The tanned, good-looking Slovakian in a T-shirt that read "Find What You Love" dropped her stuff on the counter and asked, "Is it possible to do it in two hours?"

The tanned, good-looking Frenchman dropped his employer's stuff on the counter and said, "for tomorrow."

This was either the world's most global next-day dry cleaners or the racket-stringing shed at last year's BNP Paribas Open in Indian Wells. On Wednesday, the main draw for the 2017 tournament begins at the annual affair casually referred to as "the fifth major" because it sometimes draws 450,000 people -- as many as the French Open. It's a smoothly running machine, thanks to a corps of specialists like those working in the stringing shed. Their customers are the best tennis players in the world, and here is where they or their coaches deposit the tools of their trade in a nondescript trailer behind Stadium 1.

bnp racket string8 Vandeweghe doubles champ 3-16 - Copy.JPGAll pro tennis tournaments provide racket-stringing services, and the big ones, like the BNP Paribas, draw not only the best players, but the best stringers. They understand the numerical shorthand of string tension and player preference for the number of cross and main strings. Like tennis, superior stringing demands speed, power, endurance and consistency. It takes about 15 minutes to restring a racket, and about 12 if you do it during a match. Players, like last year's women's doubles champ Coco Vandeweghe, leave spools of strings in the shed, stacked near their stringers' tension machines, for easy access.

Julian Li is a stringing star. The owner of Racquets Rackets in Arcadia has been stringing for 24 years, working all of the four major tournaments, as well as other premier events, including the Olympic Games last year in Rio de Janeiro. He gave stringing seminars at the 2016 U.S. Open, worked the Australian Open this year and is back at Indian Wells today as director of stringing service.

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Players at this level hit the ball so hard so many times a day and their games are so refined that maintaining string tension to their exact specifications requires daily restringing, for which they pay $27 per racket. Some might restring as many as eight each day. To ensure consistency, stringers are assigned to the same stringing machine and to the same players as long as they remain at the tournament. "Of the thousands of rackets we've received at [the 2016] tournament," Li said last year, "no two players string their rackets the same."

Stringers cut out the old strings, set the machine to pull at the required tension, and manually knot and weave nearly 40 strings, generally polyester. (Most club players use nylon -- it's easier on the arm.) A few players prefer "natural material," which means cow intestine. Strings were never made of cat gut, a description coined from the screeching sound issued by musical instrument strings made from the same material.

If a stringer works the whole tournament, he (they're generally men) handles about 300 rackets. He's paid per racket with the rate dependent on his experience. During one BNP Paribas tournament a few years ago, stringer John Perez's fingertips got so callused he couldn't log into his iPhone for two weeks until his print re-emerged.

Different conditions demand different string tension. Here, balls fly with abandon in the dry, thin desert air, demanding higher tension for greater control. Lower tension affords more power.

But stringing isn't just about tension, or even the number of strings, which also is an individual preference. Sometimes it's about serving a master no one else but the player perceives: A player once asked Li to elongate the frame. He complied. Another player asked him, on successive days, to leave his rackets unsealed in a plastic bag ... then in a paper bag ... then to string them at night and leave them sealed in a plastic bag. He complied.

The stringer as exorcist.

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Photos: Ellen Alperstein

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