UNTIL fairly recently the squash racket - like the tennis racket - was a simple oval wooden frame fretted with an open network of nylon string. Like its peer, the squash racket evolved beyond all recognition during the gizmo-driven Eighties: that simple oval frame began to sport a multitude of selling points that the image-conscious, red braces-wearing, power-playing executive could flaunt both on and off the court.
Most significant was the replacement of the wood: the strength and flexibility of even the finest steam-laminated American spruce was no match for advances in graphite composites. The size of the head - previously limited by the relatively weak wooden structure - could now grow, without any loss of the all-important tension in the strings. This allowed expansion of the optimum contact area between racket and ball - the so-called "sweet spot".
The strict rules determining the dimensions of rackets and stating that they must be no longer than 68 centimetres have not prevented manufacturers from adding a bewildering array of features. Hammer systems, dynamic systems and thermo-plastics have made buying a squash racket as baffling as investing in a hi-fi or video. At stake are hundreds of pounds, as well as credibility in the boardroom.
Jaz Karim, professional squash coach at Champneys of London and Canary Wharf Health Club; David Short-house and Spencer Williams, two of his pupils; Sarah Whitelock. Testers had a wide range of playing ability.
The panel gave the rackets marks for flexibility and control, how comfortable they were to hold and to play with, the quality of their strings, their overall appearance and their apparent value for money. Also, crucially, the testers looked for the racket that could propel the amateur into stardom on the squash court.
In fact, all the rackets we tested are made by the same manufacturer - Pro Kennex - as are 90 per cent of all squash rackets sold in Britain. This does not mean they are all the same; the different rackets are made to the design and specifications of individual companies.
**DUNLOP TACTICAL CONTROL
The more experienced players commented that intermediate players would not be happy with this racket but agreed that at the price it would be a good choice for the beginner. The newest player to the game, Sarah Whitelock, however, found the Dunlop bulky, too heavy and awkward to play with. Jaz Karim said: "This is not an easy racket and does not appear to improve playing quality. It is a good for beginners but most players will notice that they do not get a good feel due to the poor quality strings, which are too stiff." This was echoed by David Shorthouse, who thought the Dunlop looked cheap.
***WILSON ULTRA-LITE OVERSIZE
"This racket made a noticeable improvement to my game as it provided added power and flexibility and was very light and easy to use," said Sarah Whitelock. Jaz Karim also found it appeared to yield improved playing quality and that it felt comfortable, with a good sweet spot. "On the down side," he said, "the strings, although better than average quality, are too tight and stiff for beginners."
Most of the panellists liked the racket's squarish but not oversized handle, which was judged to be the best of those tested. David Short-house, however, found the grip too slim and the head too large; he described the racket's appearance as "grotesque" but admitted it felt good to play with.
Both Jaz Karim and Spencer Williams were keen on the racket's looks, although Spencer Williams found the sweet spot poor. "Never-theless," he said, "it appeared to improve playing quality and its better-than-average quality of strings afforded good volley. It is excellent value for money," he concluded.
****PRO KENNEX MIDPLUS
This racket was highly rated by three of our testers, who felt it was impressive for its price. "I would buy this racket," said Jaz Karim, who judged it ideal for the better player. "It has a good feel and is easy to control." David Shorthouse was also enthusiastic. "Very good value for money, good sweet spot and appears to improve my game," he said. Spencer Williams liked the look of the Mid-plus and felt its sensitivity and ease of control improved his game. He also thought the strings of a high quality.
*****PRO KENNEX DESTINY PLUS
The Destiny Plus was Jaz Karim's winner. "A nice controlled racket for a player with finesse, and with better strings than the others," he said. "It is compact and improves playing quality because of its good control." Although all our testers thought it expensive, they considered it better value than the similarly priced Head 140G. David Shorthouse said he would buy the Destiny Plus. "The colours are good and it did not vibrate, although," he commented, "the strings are very ordinary and it is slightly expensive." Spencer Williams disagreed; he found this racket helped his game and in particular praised its grip and appearance.
**HEAD 140G 440
Sarah Whitelock thought this racket "nice and light, with an attractive shape and colour but overpriced in comparison with the Wilson". Jaz Karim described it as "a good racket which is hindered by poor vibration. A hard-hitting player would suffer; this racket needs a good, subtle player." He also deemed it too expensive. Sarah Whitelock, however, came out in support of the higher-priced rackets: "Being relatively new to squash, I found that playing with these rackets improved my game greatly. I would seriously consider investing in one of them. My confidence was really boosted."
Neither Jaz Karim nor David Shorthouse liked the look of the Head. David Shorthouse said: "I would not buy this; although it did appear to improve pace it is very expensive and flash." But Spencer Williams thought the appearance and grip of this racket were good, although both the strings and comfort were unexceptional.
***PRINCE EXTENDER OS FEATHER LITE
Sarah Whitelock crowned this "the King of Rackets". "It is light but strong and flexible, has a good grip and an attractive look, and it added confidence to my game, which appeared to improve vastly."
This praise was not unanimous, however. David Shorthouse thought the Price lacked feel and head control for a racket that's so expensive. Jaz Karim, who also commented on the lightness of the racket, explained that the belief that the lighter the racket the better can be misleading. "If a woman goes to buy a squash racket she will often be advised to buy the lightest one," he said. "But actually a light racket needs a lot of strength behind it, and a weaker player may be better going for a slightly more weighty racket." He did think a beginner would benefit from the extra pace generated from this racket though, and commented on the high quality of the strings, but he was not impressed by its "poor" sweet spot.
All the rackets tested are available from sports' shops nationwide. For your local stockists call: Dunlop, 01924 828222; Pro Kennex, 01628 810595; Wilson, 01294 316200; Head, 01635 48387; Prince, 01539 724740.
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