By Kayla Pace, Sarah Stone and Claudia Chakamian
David Terry stands by the bleachers wearing Gamecock apparel, and with a stroller in tow, to take in a tennis match. But Terry is not a typical fan. He is the stringer for both the men’s and women’s tennis teams at the University of South Carolina.
One could easily oversimplify the job of a stringer to the act of replacing the broken or aging strings. In reality, the job description compares to that of a caddy.
Tennis racquets need to be replaced frequently. The market for these racquets evolves constantly, and manufacturers tend to discontinue racquet models every 18 months. It is the stringer’s job to help players adapt to changes in their racquets to ensure these changes have a minimum impact on a player’s game.
“[Manufacturers] change something, and the guys and the girls are convinced that it doesn’t feel the same, and they’ll want to switch,” Terry said.
Players usually own four to six racquets. They hit the ball with a ferocity that takes a toll on the strings. As these strings fall into disrepair, Terry restrings each player’s racquet to improve the athlete’s consistency of play.
“I also try to help them pick out strings, what’s going to be best for their arm, what’s going to give them the playability characteristics they want within our array of strings that we have to choose from.”
Stringers must possess and demonstrate knowledge of the game and of the team’s players to do their job effectively.
“You have to kind of figure out what’s going to work for each guy based on the stiffness profile of the string and what playability characteristics you are looking to get out of it,” Terry said. “Some guys are looking for more spin. Others are looking for what amounts to pinpoint placement. Others are looking to be able to feel the ball off the racquet.”
Terry did not grow up with a passion for tennis or the Gamecocks. He was raised in Lexington, South Carolina, and he cheered for Clemson as a child. When he became a student at the University of South Carolina during the height of the Spurrier era, he changed his allegiances.
Terry’s introduction to tennis also occurred during his college years. He picked up a job at Cayce Tennis & Fitness Center out of financial need. Initially, Terry worked at front desk and maintenance positions. His duties expanded to include tennis as time went on. When tennis instructors at the center lacked students, they asked Terry to fill in for these players during lessons. The sport soon progressed from a job to a hobby.
“[I] learned to string based on the fact that I started playing, and I didn’t like other people being able to control my equipment,” Terry said.
As this hobby developed, University of South Carolina psychology professor Mike McCall became one of Terry’s tennis partners. When McCall learned that the Gamecocks’ stringer quit, he suggested to Terry that he fill the vacancy. McCall then placed Matt Lucas, who at the time worked as the assistant coach for the men’s team, in contact with Terry.
“They had a need and I had a need, because it pays, so ended up going ahead and giving it a try,” Terry said.
Terry has been with the Gamecock tennis program for five seasons, and while his job with the team has remained the same, his life has continued to change. Since he first became the Gamecocks’ stringer, Terry has graduated from college, returned to school to pursue a graduate degree, begun a full time job, gotten married and, 11 weeks ago, become a father. Striking a balance between work, school and family can prove challenging.
“I have an 11-week-old infant at home, and so I’ll be stringing racquets and my wife will come in and put him in the bouncer, and put him on the floor beside me, and he’s just sitting there bouncing around,” Terry said. “But he’ll get mad or hungry or need a diaper change or whatever, so he’ll start to freak out, so I have to stop and deal with that.”
The fast-paced nature of stringing can make this balance especially difficult, as Terry strings 40 to 50 racquets each week.
“It’s just very deadline driven, because [players will] turn in racquets on Tuesday and Wednesday and Thursday, and they’ll need all of those racquets done by Friday because they’re either going out of town or they play,” Terry said.
There are times when Terry thinks about quitting the job so that he can spend more time with his son. His experiences with the athletes play a large role in his decision to stay with the team.
“You don’t think about how much older you are than [the players] because most of them don’t know, but realistically I’m five to seven years older than all of them.” Terry said. “And it’s cool to watch them grow as people because they went from being children to being mature adults over the course of the last three years.”
Terry also finds his job rewarding because of the opportunity to learn about the coaching philosophies of men’s head coach Josh Goffi and women’s head coach Kevin Epley. Both coaches emphasize what players contribute to the atmosphere in the locker room just as much as what they contribute on the court.
“Nobody gives the coaches anywhere near enough credit,” Terry said. “You have to work with them. You have to pick their brains to understand that just strategically from a tennis standpoint, they’re geniuses.”
As Terry sits at the match, he reflects on the growth of a team he has come to love. He watches as the players run around the court, hitting the ball back and forth with the racquets he has spent hours choosing and restringing. Strings will continue to be strung under his watchful eye, and both players and coaches will benefit from his passion and dedication to keeping both teams strung together.