Review: Wilson Steam 99S

I’m not a born (or is that Björn?) tennis player. My backhand stroke looks more like I’m going ape-shit with a flyswatter.

Recently, I heard about a new tennis racket called the Wilson Steam 99S, which claims to add more spin to the ball for a wickedly precise shot. With visions of chalking up wins at the local community center, I was primed for total court domination.

See, over the past 10 years, ball spin has taken the spotlight away from the pure power stroke. Roger Federer wins by dropping the ball over the net like a magnetically controlled ping-pong ball. Wilson, in an effort to cash in on this trend, went to work on a new design intended to increase ball spin as much as possible. Normal rackets use 16 main strings and 20 cross-strings, a setup meant to deliver raw power. But the Steam 99S uses five fewer cross-strings (or 16×15 total) for a faster “snapback” — one of the key behavior variables of a racket that affects ball spin. The Steam’s reinforced frame is designed to support a strikingly abrupt arc, and the whole racket, at 11.3 ounces, is much lighter than the average axe. The result is a secret weapon that Wilson claims adds between 200 and 500 more revolutions per minute to each shot.

To create this radical new design, Wilson set up a testing lab and recorded the exact position and velocity of the ball at all times using a Doppler radar. The company also used a “speed test dummy” ball that reported its exact spin and location during test shots. Experimenting with the cross-strings on the racket, the design team arrived at the ideal pattern, placement, and number to achieve the highest ball spin rate. Two years of research followed, including test matches and frame-by-frame analysis of shots hit by non-pro players.

When you look at the new design, it almost seems like there are too few strings. And the racket feels almost too light, as though it would be easier to drop or fling across the court by accident (Wilson also makes the Steam 105S, which has the same string arrangement but a slightly larger head size).

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