Career Profile: Lead Racquet Technician
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Joel Disbro has previously worked as the Lead Racquet Tecnician for Wilson. In this Q&A, he talks about his career path and his role at the company.
You can’t play tennis without a racquet, and that’s where Joel Disbro has focused his career for the past ten years. As a Master Racquet Technician, Joel helps professional tennis players get the most out of their game. He does this by matching athletes with the best racquet for their type of play and their particular match. He focuses on every detail from string material, to tension, to make certain their racquet is customized and just right.
How did you choose this career path?
Going back to high school, I’d long been interested in the equipment. I tried developing new products, customizing racquets, even grip- wrapping a racquet to exactly how I wanted it. That’s how I started—I was always a very picky player with my racquets! That interest morphed into wanting to improve equipment for other people. I went into professional tennis manage- ment at Ferris University. There I got certified on the equipment side. At college, I started teaching tennis. I also managed a pro shop in the DC area. The course director at the time heard about the job here at Wilson, and he recommended me for the interview, and it went from there. I’ve been at Wilson since 2007.
What science courses have you taken that most relate to the work you’re doing?
I took racquet technician and USPTA pro courses. I learned about equipment testing with those. There were also the professional tennis management courses as well as what I have learned on my own. I learned a lot once I was on the job. We have a staff that does the design and engineering. I am more of a play tester, providing feedback.
What exactly does a Lead Racquet Technician do?
In Chicago, I work in the Wilson lab. In the pro lab, we take care of our top 150 players that we sponsor. I customize their racquets, the handles, and do pretty much anything you can to a racquet. Some players’ racquets are relatively easy to customize. For other players, I take anywhere from a day to a few days to do six to ten racquets. When I am not in Chicago, I work with stringing on tour. Wilson is the official stringer of the US Open and the Miami Open tournaments. I travel to those two tournaments every year. This year I was on my tenth US Open to do the stringing. I also do testing for product development. That ranges from coming up with ideas to testing new products on the court. We customize to a lot of parameters, so a racquet won’t leave my room without being right on. A typical day is checking emails and talking with our tour team, stationed around the world. They take care of players’ requests. I meet requests for new racquets, or for test racquets if the player wants to try something different. When we’re close to the US Open and Miami tournaments a lot of my day is spent preparing. I make sure we’re staffed and have all we need to run those tournaments.
What’s the best part of the job?
I don’t like to call myself an expert, but I think I’m pretty good at what I do. I like to help players become better and to be more confident in their equipment when they come to us. They can play their game and not worry about the racquets. If they pick up racquet number one, it’s the same as racquet number seven. I take some pride in that. Also, I like to give feedback on new products we’re coming out with and help to make those better. I put myself in the shoes of someone buying the racquet so we can feel good about what we put out there.
It’s sometimes a challenge to interact with players as we don’t see them a lot because they have busy schedules. That’s why it’s good to do those big tournaments and to see the players. It can also be hard to figure out exactly what a player is looking for as they might not know the technical terms—and then decipher what they say into something I can do to the racquet. Tour stringing can be demanding because no matter how well you plan, there are always small things that happen. My job is to make sure the players are confident and aren’t thinking about stringing or the racquets while they’re playing.
What are some of the recent innovations you’ve seen in your field?
I customize the racquets for each of our tour players, so I am building to their specifications.
We have 21 different tests that we run on a racquet before it leaves us. Our engineers mostly deal with finding materials and testing those, to see if they’re suitable in a racquet or not. If something new comes out, and we test it to be beneficial, then it’s my job to try to get the players to try that.
Tell me about the connection between the structure and function of the racquet, and what are the benefits of the different types of strings used in racquets?
These players have usually been playing with the same type of strings and the same kind of racquet for years and years. A lot of them don’t want to change. Another part of the job is to have them try new things but also keep some things the same, such as the specs.
Why do different players have different tensions in their racquets?
Most players change their string tension on the go. If the weather is colder or humid, they’ll string differently. On tour, they can sense the differences, and we can make small changes. Players aren’t going to want five or ten pounds difference in tension. A lot of players ask what the weather’s going to be like, and then I’ll make adjustments based on that.
What advances in material properties have most affected the sport?
Carbon fiber has been pushing the sport forward. There are all kinds of carbon and we can put different materials into the carbon. The K-factor racquet uses a mercury-based technology. The BLX line uses basalt rock to make a carbon composite. Now, we have our new one called Countervail, which uses aerospace carbon fiber technology. The big benefit of carbon fiber has been in power. You can get a lot more power off of these than you can a wooden racquet. The head size is also different, and carbon fiber is more resilient and lasts a lot longer. There are a lot of material advances outside of tennis so, if we think there’s a benefit to players, we see if it will work in a racquet.
What role do human body systems play in the design and development of equipment for the sport?
If a player says, “My racquet doesn’t feel fast enough,” I know what that means and the steps to take to evaluate it and change it. While string tension plays a role, you can only make small subtle changes in a player’s power and control with the string tension.
But for significant changes, are made with the racquet. So when the players start talking about bigger changes, then we start looking at the racquet specifications. That’s when we need to decipher what the players say about racquet specifications and what will work best for their type of play.
Can you share any advice for high school students?
Study anything you can. I did a lot of certifications while I was in college to give myself a head start in this area. I wrote articles for different tech magazines. I had those to showcase when this job opportunity showed up. I also talked to people already in a position like this, to see what their path was. I talked to professional tennis management graduates at college, and I found that useful. Try to learn things on your own as well and experiment.
I experimented with my racquets through the years and tried different things and see what changing something did to my game. I did a lot of experimenting, and that really helped as well.
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