It's 9 a.m. on the first Monday of the U.S. Open, two hours before the Hi initial point will be played. The grounds at the National Tennis Center are quiet, save the hum of the landscaping crew's mowers as they make final preparations for the year's last Grand Slam tournament. In the catacombs of Arthur Ashe Stadium, however, Jay Schweid, midway through his second cup of espresso, has been working frantically for hours. "Every year I tell myself it's going to be easier," he says. "But it never is."
Schweid is in charge of the tournament's on-site stringing, and this is his holiday rush period. During the tournament's two weeks, he and his staff of 30 will tend to some 3,500 rackets, using enough catgut to stretch the length of a marathon course. Charging $25 per racket for labor (average time: 20 minutes) and charging retail prices when players don't furnish their own string is a lucrative gig. But it comes with a price. "It's a given that we won't get much sleep," Schweid says. "The worst was a few years ago when I was stringing a racket for Andres Gomez and fell asleep standing up, leaning against the machine."
A native New Yorker, Schweid, 35, is celebrating his 20th year as a stringer. He began as a teenager at the Open, making spending money stringing rackets in the pro shop. At 17 Schweid was "discovered" by Martina Navratilova after he strung her Yonex racket. "She told me I had talent and should go into business for myself," Schweid recalls.
He heeded her advice and a few months later founded Jay's Custom Stringing, Inc., a Manhattan shop that also offers touring pros, as Schweid puts it, "every imaginable service related to the racket." The business grew exponentially—it has 10 full-time employees and revenues in the high six figures—and Schweid counts among his clients most of the world's top players. They demand everything from standard string jobs to racket customization, a labor-intensive process that can cost hundreds of dollars per racket.
Before customizing, Schweid watches his clients hit balls with the model they're paid to endorse. After analyzing the players' strokes and receiving their input, he uses software and hardware he has patented to make slight alterations in the length, weight and balance of the racket. He then sends the specs back to the racket company so that Head, for instance, knows exactly how to set up the titanium model that Thomas Enqvist uses so that Schweid can modify it. "These players are like artists," he says. "They may waffle about buying a car, but with their racket they know immediately whether it's right or it's wrong."
With the precision of a virtuoso tuning an Amati, Schweid has a sixth sense for adjusting tension based on the surface of the court, weather conditions, even the brand of ball being used. Five years ago the USTA contracted his company to provide stringing for the entire field during the Open. The biggest challenge is catering to players' idiosyncrasies. Andre Agassi, who takes Schweid or one of Schweid's stringers with him to every tournament, requires that his rackets be strung the same day as his matches. When Agassi is assigned an early court time, Schweid is on the job at 3 or 4 a.m.
Perhaps no player demands as much personalized attention as Mark Philippoussis, who requests that his graphite Dunlops be strung at the ridiculously high tension of 85 pounds. What's more, he demands that each racket he uses be strung fresh for every match and practice. Often at practice he'll use just one of his two or three rackets, and Schweid will then clip away roughly $250 worth of unused string. "For me, it's worth it," says Philippoussis, who has earned $45 million in prize money for his career. "If I wanted to cut costs, the last place I would do it is in my racket. This is what I need to make a living."
Throughout the Open, players will break strings during a match, summon a court attendant to deliver the racket to Schweid and hope he can work his magic by the next changeover. During a night match between Michael Chang and Carlos Moya several years ago, both players needed string jobs during a crucial juncture. Desperate to give both players their rackets at the same time—lest one have an advantage—Schweid and another employee raced to finish the jobs. Both rackets were prepared in less than 10 minutes, a tournament record.
Schweid had hopes of being a big-time tennis player but figures that working under Stadium Court is the next best thing to working on it. The drawbacks? Aside from the time away from his wife, Judd, and their seven-year-old daughter, Mimi, there are the constant requests for tickets from family and friends. "Everyone hits me up," Schweid sighs, thumbing through a small pile of tickets on the desk of his makeshift office. When those run out, rest assured he can pull some strings.