Babolat has taken some notes. In the twilight of Federer's career, Wilson capitalized on their GOAT's popularity by releasing an actual specked-out version of his racket, and now the French brand is doing the same.
It's no secret that professional players customize their rackets to a weight that isn't optimal for amateurs; that's why the word "endorsed" matters so much in tennis sales. Still, the fact that they are forbidden fruit makes pro player rackets all the more enticing, and the RF 97's success is proof of that.
But what exactly is going on with these two brand new cotton candy paint job Rafa rackets?
The Babolat Pure Aero Rafa Origin will be the big boy, the holy grail, Rafa's real racket.
There have been rumors surrounding the Spaniard's stick throughout his career, but here is what we know about the Origin. It's modeled after the "original" Aero Pro Drive, albeit with a, quite frankly, insane amount of customization. The 100 square-inch head size and 16x19 string pattern remain the same, but the racket will weigh somewhere between 315 and 320 grams and have a 330-millimeter unstrung balance. That might not technically be head heavy, but it might as well be in today's day and age. Let's not even mention the 370-strung swing weight.
But the Origin will come at a premium price, a limited stock, and will be much too demanding for the average consumer. (Re: the above swing weight)
And, for now, you can forget about that racket because that's not what we're reviewing today. Instead, we're looking at the much more readily available, lighter offering: the Babolat Pure Aero Rafa. To better understand this racket's role, think of it like Babolat's version of the Pro Staff 97. It has the same shape as its bigger sibling and looks similar in many ways, but at the end of the day, it's a far more user-friendly, viable option for the general public.
But where does it sit compared to the rest of Babolat's rackets? Is the 2023 Pure Aero already on its way out?
No, that racket is staying right where it is. The 2023 Aero is still the latest, most technologically modern Pure Aero. Instead, the Aero Rafa replaces the 2019 Pure Aero — turned Pure Aero Rafa — as its own separate Nadal special. The Standard Aero Rafa is loosely modeled after the Origin and original Aero Pro Drive, but some key differences make it a stand-out stick in its own right.
For one, the Rafa only weighs 290 grams. Now that's incredibly light for a "standard" Babolat racket, as they usually come in at a minimum 300-gram weight. Why is it so light? Because Babolat is matching its balance and weight distribution to the Origin's. The balance is also at 330 millimeters, which means it concentrates plenty of weight in the head. Consequently, the swing weight is also very high, and our demo swung at 332 strung. A 332 swing weight in a 290-gram racket is basically off the charts, so you can bet the Aero Rafa is geared toward a more advanced player.
The Rafa also has a much more open string bed than both the Origin and 2023 Pure Aero and is much closer in density to the 2019 Aero it replaces. I instantly noticed this because the 2023 Aero and Origin have only one main string skip, whereas the 2019 Aero and Aero Rafa have two.
But before we move on to the nitty gritty, I'm going to clear up, once and for all, the confusion behind Babolat's lineup.
The Drives and Strikes are well-defined and have their own lines, but the Aero just got a heck of a lot more confusing, so here is the breakdown.
Pure Aero Rafa Origin: Rafa's spec, molded nearly identically to the original Aero Pro Drive, heaviest in the line.
2023 Pure Aero 98: 305 grams, 98 square inch version or the…
2023 Pure Aero: The current, in-line 300-gram Aero, the "standard."
2023 Pure Aero Rafa: Toned-down, user-friendly alternative to the limited Origin, replaces the 2019 Aero (renamed Aero Rafa)
From now on, we'll call this racket the "Rafa" and the heavier one the "Origin."
Now that we've settled that, here's how the Rafa played.
Swing Pattern and Maneuverability
If you've read one of our Aero reviews, you know I can't stop harping on about how quickly these rackets move through the air. The Aeromodular throat is by far the most effective aero throat design on the market today, and that's still true with the Rafa. When you whip the racket through contact with its head parallel to the ground, it accelerates like crazy.
What's different about the 290-gram Rafa is its balance. The racket might have a low static weight, but so much of that weight is concentrated high up in the hoop that it simply doesn't swing like either the 2023 Aero or the 2019 Aero it replaces. The racket feels like a hammer and is more sluggish for general movement around the court and when you bring it through contact.
It always takes me time to get used to the swing pattern of a Pure Aero, but it took me even more time with the Rafa. This balance is not something I'm used to because so few rackets are specked out this way nowadays.
If it feels so different, why has Babolat decided to go in this direction? The answer is actually quite simple; with this balance and static-to-swing weight ratio, Babolat is trying to mimic the feel of the heavier Origin, just at a lighter spec. When the general populous swings the Rafa, they will feel the closest sensation to what Rafael Nadal himself feels swinging his own racket. Our strength, timing, and precision are weaker than the Spaniard's, so the racket is lighter. It's a brilliant idea from the French brand.
It took me a while to get used to how the racket moves through the air, but once I did, I loved that I could experience what Rafa feels every day and came to some realizations along the way.
If you know Nadal, you know exactly how he hits 90 percent of his forehands. When the point is tight, and he can't afford to miss, he lassos his follow-through over his head instead of bringing the racket across his right shoulder. After play testing this racket, I understand how it helps him do that. When this much weight is concentrated in the hoop, it produces a ton of everything — especially spin and power — but it also adds an element of risk. It's harder to complete a full follow-through because the racket feels so heavy that, with the slightest inconsistency, the ball could shoot anywhere.
Lassoing the shot is Nadal's way of managing that risk, and having so much weight in the hoop helps those relatively less potent shots still have plenty of effect, most notably spin. I, too, found myself whipping the racket over my head during this play test because I didn't want to go for a thunderous but risky killer blow. The resulting shot, however, had some of the most spin I've ever managed to produce.
The more you lasso your shot, the more you brush up on the ball to create topspin. Add to that all the weight concentrated in the head, and you have a racket that annihilates the ball on contact. I've never seen so much felt tear off so quickly from my shots.
The Rafa is one of, if not the most, spin-friendly frames on the market today. It's significantly more spin-friendly than the 2023 Aero and Aero 98 and more along the lines of the racket it replaces. Remember, this is modeled after the original Aero Pro Drive, so there are no massive Spin Grommets at 12 and 6 o'clock. That means slightly less string movement than there was on the previous version, but I would argue it's just as spin-friendly because of the weight distribution.
As you can imagine, with this much weight concentrated in the hoop, the 2023 Pure Aero Rafa is an absolute powerhouse. It has all the ingredients to generate easy access to power — low static weight, high swing weight, thick beam, stiff flex (69 RA unstrung), and it lives up to all those stats.
Also, the Rafa has a very high launch angle because of that wide-open string bed. You can really get hold of the ball, and it's significantly more potent than the 2023 Aero with its new, tighter string bed.
There is so much potential to crush the ball here; the question is, do you go for that shot knowing that it's low percentage, or do you use that weight to add spin to your game? The choice is yours.
I talked about 90% of Rafa's forehands, but I didn't mention the other 10; that's when Nadal drops the hammer and goes for the killer blow. When everything comes together for that style of shot, the Rafa is one of the most powerful rackets out there; you just need to control it.
Control and Stability
Pinpoint directional control was never going to be the Rafa's strong suit. All those things that make it so powerful and spin-friendly also take away from classic control. The racket can be a little wild, making the margin for error thin on flat shots. One minor irregularity and you can easily shoot the ball into the stratosphere. Still, it's slightly more precise than the 2019 Aero because Babolat has done away with the Spin Grommets. Those are great for amplifying string movement but also make for a less solid response on impact.
Also, stability is lacking because there is so little weight in the Rafa's handle. I added a leather grip to boost it up to what I thought was manageable, especially on volleys and put-away shots; the racket tended to flutter.
But classic pinpoint control isn't the only kind of control in the modern game. We're able to hit so hard nowadays, with so much more margin for error, because of spin. The Rafa is modeled after one of the very reasons why spin is such an important factor for modern control. The original Aero Pro Drive was so spin friendly that it begged and required players to modify their strokes and hit with spin to optimize their experience. The same can be said about this racket.
You need to hit with spin to optimize the Rafa's control, but as long as that's your game style and you know what you're getting yourself into, you won't have an issue with it.
Many feel purists (Head and Wilson purists especially) have always discussed the Babolat brand with an air of pretentiousness. Like with most complex issues, that's a far too simplistic view, especially towards the brand that manufactures the best natural gut on the planet, but the main culprit for that generalization is the Pure Aero line. It has always been stiff, and over the years, it has gotten more dampened and "different" feeling to what's considered "good."
The Rafa eliminates all those dampening technologies, bringing its feel back to the original Aero Pro Drive.
The racket is very stiff and has a big sweet spot, which gives it a raw and slightly hollow feel that is different from other Pure Aeros today. The feel isn't dated, but it does have more of a classic Babolat tweener vibe. Some people will love it, and those who have hated it before will probably feel the same way about it now.
I will say that there is no other racket on the market that rewards you with such incredible feel when you hit its bread-and-butter topspin shot. You get those strings moving and snapping on themselves, and the stringbed opens up and releases the ball with so much pop; it really is a unique sensation.
You can hit other shots with this racket, but if you like when a racket lets you know you did something well, that'll come on spinny groundies.
"Babolat causes tennis elbow": another fun generalization I've enjoyed shutting down over the years. That said, if you're not careful with the Rafa, it could cause some issues.
As you can imagine, a racket this stiff with little to no dampening tech can cause discomfort. Especially because it's so light, the racket itself takes less impact and transfers that jarring feel up the arm.
Is the Rafa uncomfortable? Not necessarily. If you string it with a stiff poly at 60 pounds, you'll probably have issues, but go lower with something soft or slick, and you'll give yourself the best chance to avoid arm discomfort.
Who's it for?
The Pure Aero Rafa can work for a lot of people. For one, if you're a Rafa fan, who wants to try a reasonably user-friendly stick that's close to what he swings, you will not be disappointed.
If you're a player who used the 2019 Pure Aero and enjoyed the uber-spinny feel of that racket, you'll have a similar experience with this one. If the balance throws you off, you can always add ten grams to the handle to match more to that racket.
Finally, if you're a spin player in general, you'll have a great experience swinging the Rafa. It's always been the OG spin monster, which hasn't changed with this one.
This goes without saying, but at this point, most tennis players have tried an Aero and know whether they like the feel or don't. If you're a flat hitter, or a serve and volley specialist who wants classic control, this won't be the racket for you. But you already knew that.
It's pretty awesome that we've finally got another of "the big three's" rackets to play with. While I don't know when we'll be getting the Origin, the 2023 Rafa is the closest experience to playing with a Rafael Nadal spec — or at least, balance. I love what Babolat has done with this frame. So many players want to play like Nadal, and providing us with a weight distribution this close to his own is perfect for mimicking his style, just in a more toned-down package.
If you'd like to try out the racket, they will be available for demo soon in-store or for purchase online.