First invented in 1875 by Pierre Babolat, the same year that the Marylebone Cricket Club's 1875 Rules of Lawn Tennis had been drawn, natural gut is one of the oldest tennis string types on the planet.
To this day it remains one of the most frequently used strings on the pro tour despite that fact polyester and other synthetic strings have entered the market.
So why are they still used? How is natural gut made? What characteristics does it have and which companies produce the best natural gut string today? Let's take a look.
Where Did Natural Gut Originate?
Pierre Babolat manufactured the first set of natural gut tennis strings in 1875. Babolat was in the musical instrument business making strings for cellos, violins and other string instruments.
He was approached by a man called Walter Clopton Wingfield, one of the pioneers of the modern game of tennis. Wingfield asked him to produce strings for his new sport called “Sphairistike”.
Babolat took up the task, producing a string made from sheep's gut and Babolat as a racquet string company was born.
From there, sales took off as the sport grew and in 1925 Babolat launched the VS string which was used by Rene Lacoste during his French Open and Wimbledon wins that year.
What is Natural Gut Tennis String Made From?
Although Babolat's first incarnation of natural gut string for a tennis racquet was made from sheep's gut, it was quickly decided that a cow's intestine (the serosa) was the better choice.
The primary reason here is that the tensile strength and length of sheep gut doesn't perform as well when compared to a cow. This was the case even back then and is even more apparent in the modern game as racquets require more string due to bigger head sizes, and more tensile strength because of how hard players hit the ball.
If you have ever purchased natural gut strings, you'll know that quality control can vary depending on the manufacturer. Different breeds of cows are better suited to producing higher quality strings and also the region + diet of the cattle can all impact the performance and quality of the end product.
One theory is that cows raised and fed in pastures have tougher intestines compared to corn-fed cows. It's believed that the intestinal material is stronger to deal with the impurities in the soil.
What Makes Natural Gut so Special as a Tennis String?
It's the molecular makeup of natural gut that makes it ideal for tennis. Within the serosa, the collagen's molecular makeup can withstand the stretching and contraction of the intestine.
Without getting too scientific, the collagen of a cow serosa is made of a triple helix molecular structure. If you think of a braided rope made from three strands of cord, this is the same design.
The braided composition provides elasticity but also gives a cushioning effect. The result is that a natural gut tennis string produces both power, thanks to its elasticity when under tension in a strung racquet, but it is also very easy on the arm when compared to some of the modern harsher strings like polyester or kevlar.
If you have ever played with a natural gut strung at 55lbs+ and then played with a nylon or polyester at the same tension, you'll immediately notice that the latter plays with a stiffer and less forgiving stringbed when compared to natural gut. That's why it's the arm friendliest string available and used commonly by senior players or those suffering from tennis elbow.
Does Natural Gut Provide Any Advantages When it Comes to Playability?
Because natural gut plays softer than its counterparts that translates into increased playability due to the dwell time of the ball on the strings.
This is often called ‘ball pocketing' amongst players and refers to how long the ball is in contact with the strings. With ball pocketing increasing on gut strings, many players find that this leads to a greater sense of control of the ball. The added feel of natural gut means players feel more connected to what is happening with the ball as they make contact; boosting the player's confidence when hitting full-blooded shots or when a deftness of touch is required.
Natural gut tennis string also holds tension better than synthetic strings are able to. For example, if you string with polyester, the string is mostly dead after a few hours of play; natural gut, on the other hand, remains playable for the duration of its life.
For players who don't break strings often, they may find natural gut to be a better value than synthetic strings despite the higher upfront costs. Rather than having to cut out and replace dead strings, a racquet strung with a high-quality natural gut can play with the string until it breaks.
In summary, natural gut has the following advantages:
- Tension maintenance
- Arm friendliness/comfort
Are there any Downsides to Natural Gut?
Even though for a large number of players natural gut is the holy grail of tennis strings, no string is perfect and depending on your game style then it can have a couple of disadvantages.
The first is that generating topspin is harder when using natural gut string when compared to polyester. That's one of the big changes in the modern game with poly's making wicked levels of spin possible and is why gut is frequently combined with polyester strings to form a hybrid setup to give the best of both worlds.
Limited durability is another downside and if you're an aggressive player with heavy topspin, you will burn through gut strings in a short space of time. Once the strings begin to fray, they get even spongier, so control becomes an issue. String savers and a denser 18 x 20 string pattern are ways to negate that problem, but eventually, the strings will need frequently adjusting between points.
In summary, the downsides of natural gut are:
- High price tag
- High maintenance
- Low durability
What is the Coating on Natural Gut String?
The earlier iterations of natural gut string were susceptible to the elements. If your string got wet, then the strings were essentially ruined.
This meant using gut in humid climates or where rain showers were frequent then moisture penetrating the string, rendered them unplayable. However, modern gut strings are now coated with a protective layer, usually a poly resin, to prevent moisture ingress and weather damage.
Whilst this coating does prevent problems, you still need to avoid moisture and it does eventually wear off, exposing the gut underneath and you'll notice fraying when the coating is no longer present.
Manufacturers of natural gut are also working to improve durability by tweaking their processes, Babolat, for example, has introduced a line called Thermogut which is a heat treatment designed to increase the cohesion of the gut fibres.
How to Care for your Natural Gut Tennis Strings
To further prolong the playable life of your string, you can apply a wax to the strings after play. This is a good idea in humid climates as it helps keep moisture out.
It's also worth cleaning the strings down with a cloth before applying the wax as this helps reduce friction and notching between strings.
If you play on clay on, for example, grit lodged between the strings can increase friction. Friction creates notches on the surface of the string, leading to premature breakage.
Some stringers also use baby oil during and when they have finished stringing the racquet with the theory being it stops the strings drying out as much. I haven't tried it but if you have a bottle to hand it might be worth a go.
The other consideration is storage; you want to store your racquet in an area that's not damp but not overly dry either. Don't leave your racquet in a hot car when not in use, and this ruins the strings. The ideal temperature is your standard room temperature around 17-20 degrees Celcius.
Finally, you may also want to look into string savers. They are small pieces of plastic that slide between the strings and decrease friction and prolong string life.
How is Natural Gut Tennis String Manufactured?
Producing natural gut string is a lengthy and hands-on process, which is why it's the most expensive tennis string on the market.
When the serosa has been removed from the cow, it's cut into long ribbons. The serosa ribbons then go through a lengthy wet cleaning process. This is bathing the ribbons to remove impurities without harming the collagen gently. Some manufacturers also use a light bleaching process to remove some of the orange colour.
One the serosa has been washed, they then undergo a thorough quality control to ensure they are up to scratch. It is also at this stage that different colours can be added, which is why you can see red, black and other coloured natural gut on the market.
If the ribbons pass through quality control, they are bound together in tension racks and are left to dry. The drying process is a lengthy process that takes several days and is done in a climate-controlled room for consistency.
Once dry, the ribbons finally start to look like string, but the outer surface needs to be smoothed and polished. It is then checked to make sure it meets the correct gauge specifications. At this point in the process, most manufacturers will conduct another quality control check and coat the string with a special polyurethane coating to improve abrasion and water resistance.
Back in the day, some players were known to request string without the protection of a PU coating as they preferred the extra performance, in this case, the string was wiped down with a light coating of coconut oil.
Finally, the string is prepared for it's packaging whether it's a reel or in a single pack.
For a visual take on the process, take a look at the video below:
Tips for Stringing a Tennis Racquet with Natural Gut String
When it comes to stringing natural gut it's the type of string that requires proper care and attention. I wouldn't say it's hard to string but you need to be on the ball to prevent kinks and too much friction when weaving crosses.
Based on my experience, the key for stringing with gut is to take your time and do it when you have ample time to spend stringing. While you can often rush a poly string job and it turns out a-ok, rushing with gut can produce an inferior result. A few other tips to avoid some of the more common mistakes when stringing natural gut I've picked up along the way are:
Check your grommets to make sure they're in good condition and not misshapen. Over time grommets get worn and out of shape due to the tension. Rough or sharp edges can damage gut easily when you pull it through the hole. If your grommets have seen better days, consider replacing them.
Make sure you're careful when uncoiling the natural gut from its packaging to prevent any kinks. To further lessen the chance of kinks, I recommend pre-stretching gut string. While not essential it does help with tension maintenance and if it's part of Roger Federer's string setup, then why not? 🙂 To do it you'll need to loop the string around a door handle for example and pull it in a straight line. Try to avoid wrapping it around objects, you ideally want to have the middle of the string looped onto a smooth rounded object then pull on each cut end with your body weight.
The next tip before even commencing stringing is to make sure your clamps aren't set too tight. If you clamp gut too tight, then it can damage the fibres so you want the clamp to hold the string firmly, so it doesn't slip but not the point you can teeth marks from the clamp or squashing. The best way to test this is to clamp an offcut of the gut and see how it impacts the string.
Stringing the mains is never a problem, but the crosses require a little more care as you can generate too much friction and easily notch the string when weaving. The video below shows you how to counter that problem:
I also recommend taking care on some of the more acute holes and when stringing near the clamps, which can cause holes to be harder to string depending on which machine you are using. This helps to avoid kinking or wear on the strings.
What is the Best Natural Gut Tennis String?
Although it all looks the same, not all natural gut is of the same quality and depending on the manufacturer and the processes used, the shift in quality and playability can be dramatic.
Generally speaking, the main brands like Babolat and Volkl produce the top quality stuff but there are some smaller manufacturers like Wholesale Natural Gut who seem to receive good feedback across the wider tennis community.
The most expensive gut strings have to meet strict guidelines from the manufacturer, for example, Babolat's premium VS Team product is their flagship product and widely regarded as the best gut string out there.
As you'd expect, VS Team carries a premium price tag, so Babolat, along with most other gut manufacturers, stock a second line of string that might have slight inconsistencies in gauge and colour.
Babolat's cheaper variant is called Tonic+ and whilst still a high-quality natural gut, it does not meet the exact gauge and cosmetic requirements of VS Team.
With that being said, if you stick with the main brands, then you can't go too far wrong no matter what string you use. Hop on the popular tennis forums, and you'll see player favourites from Babolat, Wilson, Pacific, Klip, Volkl and Luxilon. I've listed my three top picks below.
My Top 3 Natural Gut Strings for 2020
Even though gut is still widely used on the pro tour and has stood the test of time, the market isn't flooded with choice. This is primarily due to the tricky manufacturing process, but the good news is the brands that are producing it in 2019 are top quality.
|#1||Babolat VS Team||~$55||Check Price|
|#2||Wilson Natural Gut||~$45||Check Price|
|#3||Volkl V-icon||~$30||Check Price|
Babolat VS Team
Babolat's top of the line Natural Gut is the VS Team Variant. The VS Team is only made in 17 gauge and is used by a number of touring pros on the ATP and WTA tour.
The string has been around for decades but now includes Thermogut Technology – a process of high-temperature finishing that increases the cohesion of the string fibres.
Babolat also used their BT7 technology, which is a new layering structure, which is said to increase durability by 15%, and this is the benchmark string for comfort and playability.
If you want a slightly thicker gauge string that is slightly more durable, then take a look at VS Touch by Babolat which is made in two gauges – 16 (1.30 cm) and 15L (1.35 cm). I personally prefer the Team VS, but if you break it too fast or it wears out too quickly you could try the VS Touch either as a full bed or in a hybrid setup with VS Team
Professional players who use Babolat Natural Gut
- Dominic Thiem
- Marin Cilic
- Novak Djokovic
- Kevin Anderson
- Andy Murray
- Johanna Konta
Wilson Natural Gut
Best known for being the racquet brand of choice for champions like Sampras, Federer and Serena Wiliams, Wilson also have their own string and their natural gut uses only top quality beef serosa to produce one of the most popular gut strings on the market.
How does it differ from Babolat VS Team or VS Touch? The answer is not a lot. In fact, it's long been rumoured Babolat actually manufactures Wilson's Gut String and lets them put it in their own packaging. Many years ago a poster on the Tennis Warehouse Forums claimed to have opened a Wilson pack of string, and the string said Babolat on it 😆
Some players believe Wilson's gut is slightly softer as it's not treated with Thermogut like Babolat's VS. Again this is up for debate with other players thinking it's identical. I prefer the Babolat string but I've bought many packs of Wilson Champion's Choice over the years and it's always been good to use.
Professional players using Wilson Natural Gut Variants
- Kei Nishikori
- Roger Federer
- Serena Williams
- Juan Martin Del Potro
- Grigor Dimitrov
- Phillip Kohlschreiber
Volkl is a German brand known for producing some of the most arm friendly racquets on the market that are ideal for senior players or those with tennis elbow. So it's only fitting that an arm friendly string would make its way into their product lineup and the V-Icon is just that.
The V Icon comes in slightly cheaper than the string offered by Wilson and Babolat and when playtested it's said to provide a crisper feeling than other natural gut strings on the market.
Players using Volkl V Icon Natural Gut
Expensive? Yes. But all things considered, natural gut will play better longer than almost any other string material and if you haven't ever tried it out then give it a go!
Have you played with natural gut strings? What do you think about them? If you have any comments, questions or feedback feel free to leave them below.