While tennis players battle it out under the bright lights of Arthur Ashe Stadium, it's in the underbellies of Louis Armstrong Stadium where their weapons of choice are primed and prepared for the combat that lies ahead.
The stringers room in Louis Armstrong Stadium (formerly housed in Ashe, before 2018) is the transient home to the most important piece of equipment in a tennis players' life: their racquets.
While there, it's only entrusted to the world's most elite, and the man sitting atop the stringing game is the "Racquet Wizard," Roman Prokes.
World-renowned racquet-stringer Prokes has been a stalwart on the professional circuit and at the US Open for over 25 years, stringing for the likes of such US Open champions as John McEnroe, Jim Courier, Andre Agassi, Andy Roddick and Lindsay Davenport.
USOpen.org recently caught up with the King of String at the USTA National Campus, where his stringing company, RPNY Tennis, manages the Racquet Bar, a state-of-the-art stringing shop.
Below, we talk with Prokes about his incredible journey in the world of tennis, from his humble beginnings, arriving in New York with only eight dollars to his name, to his current status as the ultimate stringer in the game.
USOpen.org: You’re the preeminent stringer in professional tennis, with a client list that includes John McEnroe, Andre Agassi and Andy Roddick. How did you start stringing?
Roman Prokes: It’s a long, weird story. When I immigrated from communist Czechoslovakia, we crossed the border, went through the woods, went to the west, went through Italy, went to the United States.
When I arrived in New York, I had eight dollars in my pocket and didn’t speak any English. I started looking for work, and doing various, different jobs. I was a cab driver back in the early 80’s. My ex-wife worked in a beautiful tennis club in New York City, and the guy who was doing the stringing there was good at what he did, but he was better at generating business than doing the work. That was his style, and he started working with pros like [John] McEnroe, [Ivan] Lendl, [Martina] Navratilova, and all these top people. He needed someone with him to do the job. So I started working with him, and learned to string from him. I always played tennis, but on a recreational level. So I started working with the club service. It was the largest club in New York, and since the other guy was working with the pros, I was working with him.
He was great at promoting, and I am good with my hands, and we started working with all the pros. We went to all the Grand Slams, Masters and smaller tournaments. Then we started working with Andre Agassi when he was 20 years old. I traveled with him to every single tournament until he retired. I have gone to his home to train, and to this day still, work with him. I just talked to him yesterday. We work with some other players and help them with their equipment. Andre [Agassi] is absolutely fantastic at understanding the equipment, game…everything about it. He always phones me and asks me what I think about the racquet. He gets me a sample, and we analyze, fix and change things for the players.
I also do a lot for the USTA. I have been stringing for the Davis Cup team since the 90’s. My wife strings for the Fed Cup team, so it’s a family business. And now my son is the head of the racquet bar at the USTA National Campus. I work with USTA Player Development, giving them 50 days a year to help the pro players. We recently worked with Madison Keys and changed the specs on her racquet, the strings and a few other things.
For Cori Gauff, we changed the racquet strings, tension – everything. She just won the French Open juniors. Sloane Stephens came to New York to do a consultation. We changed her strings, and sure enough, she’s doing really well.
Again, an athlete’s success on the court is not just because of the racquet and the strings. They still have to play tennis and do the work. It’s a minor component, but you cannot overlook it these days.
USOpen.org: When did you realize you were good at stringing?
Roman Prokes: People tell me that I’m good, but I think I’m normal, to be honest. I don’t think I’m that great, I just do the normal stuff and people tell me I’m good.
You try to do your best, to learn, to study and to improve.
I always keep learning, nonstop, all the time. I listen to players, to coaches and I never think that I know it all. I think that’s the key to being good at what you do, the constant realizing that there’s someone who always knows more.
I try to do my best, and if I do my best, I’m happy.
USOpen.org: What made you stay in the stringing career?
Roman Prokes: I was young and I always loved tennis. I was never going to be a tennis player, so what do you do? You start working with equipment, and from day one it was just super-interesting.
If it was stringing for me and nothing else, I would get tired of it. However, because it’s equipment, weight, balance, designing racquets, advising pro players and companies on what to do, it involves more than just stringing. My family owns a couple of shops in New York, so it has the business component. You have to pay people, you have to pay rent. So all that combined is very interesting and still enjoyable.
USOpen.org: Stringing is a family business, with you and your wife stringing, and your son, Sean Prokes, who is the manager of the Racquet Bar at USTA National Campus in Orlando, Fla. Have you always encouraged him to become a stringer, or did he come to you and say he was interested in doing it, too?
Roman Prokes: It was the exact opposite because when he was in his teens, I would kind of say, hey, maybe I can teach you how to string because you can make extra money, and you never know when it’s going to come in handy. Sean always said, ‘Never in my life will I ever string.’
So sure enough, he finished college and he didn’t know what to do. I told him I’d help him out for the first year, but one year only. Come, I’ll teach you what stringing is, and in the meantime, you can go and find a real job. He got so good at stringing and with the multiple shops we own, and he eventually started running and managing one of them. During college, he was already working for Wilson at the US Open, running the front stringing desk.
Wilson liked him so much, they had him in Miami and the Australian Open a couple of times. So they flew him there to do it, and on and on. He likes it, and he’s gotten rather good at it. You have to give 100 percent, and that was his case. He started being really good.
I suggested Sean for the Racquet Bar at National Campus, and I think my son was surprised. He said, ‘You’re going to lose me here in New York,' and I said, ‘I think it’s time for you to leave the nest a little bit and get out there.'
I think he’s doing a great job, flourishing and managing and learning a lot. There are things now that I’m asking him, like the business part of it. The National Campus is a much bigger operation, so it’s fascinating. He’s at home in Florida and he loves it, so it’s a great match.
USOpen.org: What’s the fastest that you can string a racquet?
Roman Prokes: You know I was never fast. People always put importance on the speed. I could probably do it in about 15 minutes.
To me, what’s always more important is, you have to be reasonably fast, yes, but you also have to be very consistent, one after another, after another.
When you string at the US Open, and you’re on your 36th racquet of the day, it still needs to take you 15 minutes, and it has to be as good quality as the first one.
USOpen.org: Tennis equipment is always changing. Has it been hard to keep up with the progression of tennis technology?
Roman Prokes: It’s not hard to keep up, but you have to keep up.
Since I deal with it on a day-to-day basis, it’s very natural for me. New racquets are always coming out. I talk to players, I talk to coaches, I talk to people and I’m on the court with these players, so I see what these changes are and how they are helping players.
It isn’t hard to keep up. If I were to leave for six months and not pay attention to tennis and then come back, you would have to try to catch up, because the changes are ongoing and constant. So you do have to keep up. Otherwise, you will lose a little bit.
USOpen.org: Since you are known worldwide as such an elite stringer, do any racquet or stringing companies come to you for consultation and insight?
Roman Prokes: They do.
One of the biggest consultations my company did was with Wilson, before they went and became the official stringer of the US Open, Australian Open and Miami. We’ve kept in communication for the last 30 years.
Back when we first started working together, Wilson was considering getting into the stringing business, and if it would be worth it to them as a company. Wilson came to me with the goal to be a big stringing business. I advised them on what they had to do, and they did it. I told them, 'If you develop revolutionary and very different stringing machines, then it makes sense to enter the stringing business.' So, I was their advisor. They hired my company to advise them on the stringing machines.
Then me, a gentleman from Wilson, and another man created the whole Wilson stringing team. It involved creating manuals and laying everything out in the greatest detail so that we can teach the stringers how to properly string when we are at these major tournaments. We hire people from all over the world to string at tournaments: Japan, Australia, from all across the globe, and they are all accomplished stringers.
The hardest part about stringing is that every stringer is a very individual person, and they all do their own things. So they all think they are doing it the best in the world, which maybe they are, but it’s hard to get everyone on the same page. It’s like tennis players, individual athletes play individually and now become part of a team. It takes a little work to say, 'You might be the best stringer in the world, you may be the best stringer in Japan, but can you please forget about certain habits that you are doing, because for these two weeks, we’re all going to string the same way.'
So whether it’s me stringing, or another person, it’s identical. Looks identical and feels identical so that the player doesn’t know.
We also redesigned [Novak] Djokovic’s racquet, me and Andre Agassi, together.
We watched how he played and decided the racquet was not built for today’s tennis; it was made for tennis two or three years ago. So we made certain suggestions, created specific demos, models and samples, and sure enough, he loved it right away and switched to it.
My company provides this service to eight-year-old kids, older people, everybody.
USOpen.org: When you attend major tournaments, such as the US Open, where can you usually be found in-tournament?
Roman Prokes: I personally don’t do the stringing at the tournaments anymore because I got too old for it, so I do more advising. I still string when I need to, but as far as the bulk of the stringing, you probably won’t find me there anymore.
For example, last year at the US Open I was already working with the USTA’s Player Development department. I know all the players, so I get the list of who plays when and then I go to the courts and I’m watching them. Watching them, but also watching the equipment, and not just how they did, did they win, did they lose. I am always looking at their equipment, thinking, should I change their equipment? Is the racquet too light? Is it too heavy? Do they have enough power, is the stringing too tight? Too loose? I’m always looking from that one angle, so it almost makes it harder to just go and enjoy the match, to be honest.
Also, as far as being on tour, we have a younger guy who works for my company. I used to travel to all the Grand Slams, all the Masters nonstop, for about 20-plus years. I have a wife and kids at home, and a business to run, so it gets hard with the traveling.
Now I just travel to Davis Cup and the USTA National Campus.
The young stringer in my company is based out of Croatia. He was in Dubai for three years and now lives in Croatia. He travels the tour, goes to all these tournaments and he strings privately for our players.
USOpen.org: You’ve worked at the US Open many times. Do you have a favorite memory from the Open?
Roman Prokes: As my business is based in New York, I live only about a six-and-a-half-minute drive from the US Open grounds, which I really love.
When you’ve been stringing for 18 hours, and it’s 4:30 in the morning, you jump in the car and want to sleep. It’s six-and-a-half minutes door-to-door from where I live, so I can see the US Open from my window. I live in Rego Park, Queens, so I’ve always loved the proximity.
Living in Queens for the last 38 years, and being able to access the best of the sport, right there in your home, always makes it very special.
Plus I think it’s absolutely amazing what the USTA did with the site. I’ve been there from day one. Compared to how it used to be, what it is now is beyond words. It’s an incredible place.
USOpen.org: Out of all the players you have worked with, is there any you have had the chance to hit with?
Roman Prokes: Steffi Graf, my claim to fame.
USOpen.org: How did you fare?
Roman Prokes: She made me look so good that I actually felt like a tennis player. I’m not kidding, it’s true. I was actually at Andre’s home in Vegas. We were consulting, looking at racquets, developing some things. We had a break so I started hitting against a wall. Steffi came along and said, ‘Let’s go hit,’ and I said, ‘I don’t think so, I think you have the wrong idea here.’
She said, ‘No, I don’t care.’
I said, ‘I can’t hit with you; you’re a million times better than me, and that’s an understatement.’
She said, ‘No, don’t worry about it. Let’s hit.’
Steffi was kind enough to hit the ball in the exact same spot. So I didn’t have to do anything but just hit. She said to me, ‘Oh, you hit a good ball,’ and I said, ‘Only with you, because you helped me.’
It was pretty much the best.
USOpen.org: Is there anyone else you would like to hit with?
Roman Prokes: No, I don’t think so. The players will stop listening to me if they see me play. I cannot let them see me play. However, I did play at the French Open. The Davis Cup team played on-site at Roland-Garros, so I hit with the support team on a few courts, including Court No. 2 and Court No. 3.
So when people ask me where I play tennis, I just say, ‘I play at Roland-Garros,’ so they kind of think that I’m a player and I don’t fix it. I let them believe it.
USOpen.org: The tour has brought you all over the world. Do you know how many countries you’ve been to?
Roman Prokes: I believe 65 to 70. It’s a lot of exciting places.
With the Davis Cup team, I’ve been to Chile, Colombia, Brazil, Zimbabwe and India, as well as Serbia, Croatia and more.
You name it, I’ve been there.
Between my travels with Andre to all the tournaments, and with Davis Cup and then the tour, I’ve hit all the big cities.
USOpen.org: What do you love about tennis?
Roman Prokes: I love sports, in general. I would say the lifestyle.
When you are playing tennis, you are keeping fit and hanging around positive people. It’s so healthy.
Also, I have traveled around the world, making friends all over, all through the game of tennis. You meet amazing people.
So the people, basically, and the lifestyle.
USOpen.org: When you immigrated to America, did you think this is how your life would turn out?
Roman Prokes: No. I was just happy to be away from what I was running away from, and I was happy that I was in the United States. Everything is good, every job is good.
There is no bad job and the fact that I love tennis, and I was able to get into tennis and get into tennis at this level. And then to participate in the Davis Cup, to have the uniform on. Representing the flag means as much if not more to me than someone who is born here. It’s pretty special.