Tennis: Wimbledon '94 / Listen to the sweet sound of a perfectly stretched gut: The leading racket stringers at Wimbledon explain an art that helps the players to strike a winning note. Keith Elliott reports

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I COULDN'T hear a thing. But next to me, the Frenchman was holding a tennis racket to his ear, with rapture on his face. I've always prided myself on my affinity with stringed instruments, so I tried again, bouncing the racket on my knee and holding it to my ear. Nothing.

This wasn't just any racket. It was the Stradivarius of modern tennis, as played by Pete Sampras. But who better to appreciate its musical qualities, called 'sing and sustain', than the man who created the Sampras sound?

Lucien Nogues and his string fellows work for Babolat, a Lyons-based company that has more than 80 per cent of the top players under contract. During Wimbledon, the quintet take over a semi-detached within serving distance of the ground. 'Some times players come as late as 11pm,' says Nogues. And the earliest? 'Too early for us to answer the door.'

But at 9am, all five are working on rackets belonging to Sampras, Chang, Forget, Kafelnikov, Volkov and Ivanisevic. Other players not under contact with Babolat will wander in to buy the natural gut strings used by all the top players. It takes two and a half 'beefs', says Nogues, to make one 11.5m string. A good intestine, he says, should be clear, pliable and lively.

Nogues is the stringer-in-chief. Ivanisevic's coach, Bob Brett, says he is 'the best in the business'. He has been first string for Borg and Connors, McEnroe and Lendl. He speaks 10 languages but plays the part of a bumbling Frenchman with O-level English, calling the tournament 'Veembelldon' and telling tales of early days (he first came here 12 years ago and worked from the car park in a van) when the taxi driver tried to find the 'Glue Stair' (Gloucester) Hotel.

Stringing was done by hand when Babolat started in 1875, two years before the first Wimbledon. Now electronic wizardry sets every string to the correct tension: first the mains, or downward ones, then the crosses. 'It's easy to learn stringing,' says Eric Babolat, grandson of the founder. 'The skill is learning to do it well.'

Top players have all their rackets restrung every day, even if they haven't played with them, because they can sense the slightest decrease in tension. My racket strings haven't changed for two years, I confess to Brian Robins, Babolat's only British stringer. He looks appalled, as if I'd confessed to eating his cat. 'Anyone playing twice a week should have their rackets restrung at least twice a season. And if you're buying a shop racket, have it restrung immediately. Those strings have probably been in for 14 months.'

Gulp. Good job I didn't tell him about my old Maxply Fort, which hasn't been restrung for five years. Louis Corry, Babolat's UK boss, who occasionally helps out when things get hectic, says: 'We're very ignorant about stringing. The UK is one of the few countries still selling ready-strung rackets.'

Even players are often unaware that it takes about 20 minutes to string a racket properly. Some come in minutes before a match and ask for a restring; others puzzle how Babolat's latest machine strings the rackets. (It doesn't. It's a state of the art diagnostic machine, measuring weight, static balance, swing inertia and flexibility.)

Guy Forget is an exception. He tries out rivals' rackets on the new machine, trying to work out who uses what. 'Kalashnikov (Kafelnikov)' he guesses, correctly. He clearly likes the Gallic ambience of the string set, coming in twice for nearly an hour and bringing his son, Matthieu, to play in the garden. On tour, it must be easy to forget your French.

It's not all stringing and no play, though. When things get quiet, Eric Babolat reads a four-wheel-drive magazine (he's getting one instead of his baby Peugeot), Barnard Bernier listens to rock music and Nogues waters the garden. Jean-Claude Boldini, who doubles as chef, prepares a late lunch topped off with eight bottles of red wine (French, of course). Conversation gets increasingly boisterous - and not always flattering to the players.

The atmosphere between players and stringers is generally genial, though there is an unwritten rule; don't speak if they have lost. Not that the stringers always know. All five rarely watch tennis, preferring the rented home's stock of videos. such as Lethal Weapon. 'Sometimes I manage about 30 minutes, if someone's using a racket I've strung,' Robins says.

After Wimbledon, most of the team will head for Gstaad, while Robins has a less glamorous assignment - Felixstowe. Though his year now runs from February to November with scarcely a week between tournaments to see his family in Winchester, he enthuses: 'This is a great life. I worked for IBM for 21 years, and wish I'd known about this job then. It's so satisfying: after all, it's your handiwork they are using to win.'

(Photograph omitted)