Tuesday, October 3, 2023

World’s leading racket stringer retires from PSA Tour after suffering stroke

The PSA Tour has lost a familiar face after the world’s most highly qualified racket stringer Nick Down was forced to quit due to the after-effects of a stroke. 

For 15 years, Down was the on-site stringer at many PSA Tour competitions with top players including world No.1s Mohamed ElShorbagy and Gregory Gaultier entrusting him with fine-tuning their weaponry. 

Down, from Herefordshire, is Grand Master Stringer and Squash Manager of the Global Racket Stringing Association. He was the first and only holder of the Master Pro Tour Squash Stringer award. He hasn’t just passed all the exams, he wrote the exams! 

The 61-year-old still strings while sitting on a stool at home, as well as overseeing qualifications, testing and running workshops. However, his stroke in 2018 has affected on his speech and balance, so he is no longer able to work on-site at competitions.

Over the years, he has strung many thousands of rackets for professional and amateur players alike – and every single one gives him a sense of pride. 

“You know that feeling you get when you do something well? In my job, I get that about every half an hour,” he chuckles. “People who build houses might get that experience once a year, but every time I finish a racket, and I check it to make sure I haven’t made any mistakes – usually I haven’t, fortunately – I get that little feeling of satisfaction.” 

Down’s journey to stringing eminence in his current Global Racket Stringing Association roles – and previously as Squash Education Manager and Certification Examiner for the European Racquet Stringers Association – began by reading an advert in Squash Player magazine. In it, he saw an advert for a stringing machine for sale in west London. The seller gave him a quick lesson. 

At the time, Down was in the Metropolitan Police. Before long he was topping up his wage by stringing for all his mates in the four teams he played for throughout the late 1980s (as a junior he won three county titles and was in the Wales Under-19 squad). 

It wasn’t until years later that he found out about the existence of the UK Racket Stringing Association (UKRSA), run by Liam Nolan, formerly head stringer at the Wimbledon Tennis Championships. After getting in touch, Down attended a two-day stringing course and realised he had been “doing it wrong” for years. 

Nolan invited his new friend to the 2006 British Open in Nottingham to shadow him as the tournament’s stringer and Down fulfilled the role himself every year thereafter. He retired from the police in 2012 – “after 30 years and one day, to ensure I got my pension!” – and thereafter was on-site stringer at nearly all the UK-based PSA Tour events, plus the Nationals, juniors, Masters and several top events overseas. Pre-Covid, he was also the contracted stringer at Hurlingham, the UK’s largest tennis club. 

Down is responsible for aligning squash’s racket stringing qualifications with tennis and badminton. There are seven levels, culminating in Pro Tour Levels one and two, then Master Pro Tour, for which you must have 10 years’ experience. As well as being the only holder of squash’s top certificate, Down is in charge of testing all over Europe and is a Pro Tour Level One tennis stringer too. 

He has some surprising revelations from the PSA Tour. While he strung for him, Mohamed ElShorbagy used a very thin Tecnifibre DNAMX 1.1mm string (now discontinued) to give him more cut on the ball. Gregory Gaultier also used 1.1mm and had them strung at just over 14 pounds – “ridiculously low” – to give him more power. 

“Greg tends to play most of his squash as far up the front of the court as possible and has very little backswing. He tries to volley everything. He can only get his power because his string tension is so low,” Down explains. “However, his strings are so thin that he breaks them in almost every match!” 

At the other end of the scale, Down remembers stringing former world No.1 John White’s rackets at 33 pounds with a thin Ashaway Micro gauge string. “For most people that would be almost unplayable,” he explains. “But for him as one of the Tour’s hardest hitters, it was all geared towards control and touch.” 

Down is critical of factory-strung rackets and has strong views about the “90%” (his estimate) of stringers who have not taken any ERSA qualifications. “I can guarantee some of them aren’t doing as good a job as they think they are,” he states. 

“Rackets should always be strung top down,” he says. “Doing it from the bottom up means the sweet spot will be lower down the racket. For top pros and good amateurs who often hit the ball very close to the side walls, they want that sweet spot as high up the racket face as possible.” 

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