The tennis forehand stroke has changed drastically over the last 10 years. Today's players seldom use the traditional forehand. Instead, the majority of the top amateur and professional players use the modern topspin forehand stroke. Changes in the forehand technique have been attributed to new racket designs. Rackets are bigger, lighter, and stiffer than the traditional wooden rackets allowing the players to hit the ball with more power and control. These changes in the forehand technique have influenced the type of grip, footwork and racket backswing and forward swing of today's tennis players.
The functions of the grip are to provide the proper racket orientation at impact, place the wrist in a favorable strength position, and, depending on the type of stroke used, allow for hand mobility. Most researchers agree that grip firmness is a crucial factor for off-center impacts.Most tennis professionals advocate the use of a western or semi-western grip instead of the traditional eastern forehand grip. The western grips are preferred because it is easier to generate topspin and maintain racket orientation at impact.
One disadvantage of the western grip is that it is difficult for players to hit low bouncing balls. Other researchers promote the use of the eastern forehand grip highlighting that it provides for greater wrist stability and allows the players to achieve the proper racket orientation at impact regardless of ball height. In a study by Elliott, the effects of using the eastern and western forehand grips on the rotational contribution of the upper limb segments to racket head velocity were investigated. Players using the western grip were able to produce higher forward (toward the court) and sideways (along the baseline) velocities than the players using the eastern forehand grip.
Today's players must react faster and are forced to hit on the run due to the power developed in the groundstrokes and the serves. Hence, they adopt an open stance. The traditional square stance takes longer to execute but it generates linear momentum; as the player steps forward toward the ball, and angular momentum; from the rotation of the legs, hips, and trunk. In contrast, in the open stance there is little or no transfer of linear momentum since the step is taken side ways, and only the segment rotations are used to generate power for the forward swing.
Another point of controversy among players, coaches, and tennis professionals has been which type of backswing provides more racket velocity and control. It was thought that the traditional straight backswing provided more control, and the loop (large and small) backswings provided greater racket velocity. Although a large-loop backswing has been shown to increase racket velocity, racket control and timing are more likely to be affected.
In contrast, the small-loop backswing seemed to increase racket velocity without affecting the timing and control of the stroke. Regardless of the type of backswing used, for more power and efficiency, the transition between the backswing and forward swing should be a fluid motion since it enhances the player's ability to utilize the pre-stretching of the muscles.
The Forward Swing
The type of forward swing has also been modified by the changes in the game. Many of the top professional players use a multi-segment forehand technique in which individual segments of the upper extremity are used to generate racket velocity. In contrast, in the conventional forward swing the segments of the upper extremity move as a single unit from the shoulder.
Research by Elliott revealed no major differences in the type of grip or initial footwork preferred by the players using multi-segment or single unit forehand swing. Clear differences were observed during the backswing phase; the multi-segment group had a more compact arm, and later, during the forward swing, generated higher racket velocities (22.5 m/s) than the single unit group (19.3 m/s) resulting in greater ball velocities.
Racket Trajectory and Orientation
Aside from the differences in the type of stance, grip, and/or forward swing, the key elements in the topspin forehand stroke are the stroke arc and the racket orientation at impact. The trajectory of the racket (stroke arc) can be separated into horizontal and vertical planes. Most researchers agree that the horizontal motion of the racket should resemble a flattened arc near impact . The optimum angle of the racket in the vertical plane has been suggested to be 28o. This angle provides good spin production and speed. Smaller angles tend to produce less spin while larger angles sacrifice ball speed and the depth of the shot. Changes in footwork and type of forward swing can influence the stroke arc. For instance, the use of the multi-segment forehand swing produces a smaller stroke arc and a steep verti cal trajectory at impact (47o).
According to Brody a smaller stroke arc is less accurate since it reduces the margin of error due to the smaller swing radius. Most researchers agree that hitting with an open stance is not more efficient but is the result of lack of preparation time for the forehand stroke. Research by Knudson and Bahamonde showed that the closed stance allowed a group of teaching professionals to maintain a more accurate racket path in the horizontal plane. When the players used an open stance it resulted in a 60% reduction in the time in which the ball could be successfully hit on the racket face in the horizontal plane.
Linear and Angular Momentum
One of the most common concerns of tennis players is how to develop more power and control on the forehand stroke. Both power and control can be achieved through the proper development of linear and angular momentum. Linear momentum is the quantity of linear motion that a body possesses. In the forehand stroke, linear momentum is developed through the forces generated from the ground as you step forward and transfer your body weight from the back leg to the forward leg (for a closed stance footwork). Angular momentum is the quantity of angular motion that a body possesses.
Angular momentum is also developed from the ground reaction forces (GRF) and tends to produce a sequence of body rotations (legs, hips, trunk, upper limb, and racket). Optimal trunk rotation is one of the outcomes of angular momentum. It has been shown that trunk rotation is significantly correlated with racket velocity regardless of the type of stance used or skill level (professionals or intermediates). The rotation of the trunk not only contributes to the racket velocity (about 10% of final racket velocity) but is also used in the pre-stretching of the shoulder muscles to allow them to produce a larger tension.
What can coaches or players do to produce explosive forehands? Coaches and players need to understand the basic biomechanical principles and how to apply them to the different components of the strokes. There is no doubt that one of the most important sources of power for a tennis player comes from the racket. The new rackets not only allow the players to hit ball harder, they also provide more control. A firm grip near impact is necessary to control the racket during off-centre hits. Use a square stance whenever possible, it not only seems to be more effective in generating linear and angular momentum but it also seems to produce a more accurate racket path.
Try to develop a smooth and continuous small-loop backswing. Select the forward swing (multi-segment or single unit forehand) that best suits the player's physical and motor skill abilities. Regardless of the type of forward swing, stress the importance of using trunk rotation and the legs throughout the forehand stroke and explain to the players the importance of a proper follow-through.
Of all tennis strokes, the forehand features the greatest amount of diversity even among professional athletes. These variables include:
- Open and closed stances
- A great variety of grips
- A variety of backswing patterns
- A variety of pre-shot and post-shot footwork patterns.
This diversity has created a promulgation of such a wide variety of teaching beliefs that many in the teaching community have assumed that “there is more than one way to hit a tennis ball correctly.” And this is true. However, it must be understood that this is not an open-ended statement. That is, there is not an infinite number of ways to hit a ball that will result in both player progression and, eventually, skilled play. In fact, there are many methods that actually lead to player stagnation, or at best, mediocre play.
The grip I advise is the Eastern Forehand. This grip is not only used by a number of highly skilled players, it also allows players to evolve to the semi-western or even a full-western grip should players feel compelled to use those grips. I have found that this evolution occurs naturally and is based on several personal characteristics.
- Players who prefer an aggressive baseline game tend to migrate to more severe topspin grips. (Semi-western and full western.)
- Players who develop more of a serve and volley, or attack and volley style will favour the Eastern forehand grips.
These are generalities and don't always apply to all players. However, the eastern forehand grip in and of itself, can be taken to the highest level and does not need to be abandoned, as a player becomes more competitive. After all, there are dozens of top professionals who use all three of these topspin grips. The problem with starting off with a semi-western or western forehand grip is that these grips are so very foreign to almost all players, they end up creating some problematic stroke pattern to compensate for this unfamiliarity
I have found that, almost without exception, players who learn a straight back swing pattern can—and will—evolve their backswing technique, (loop, semi-loop), to meet their particular grip and personal swing preference. However, I have seen many players struggle with various aspects of a topspin forehand when first introduced with a loop backswing.
Notice in this old video of Jimmy Connors the take back on his forehand, no reason that you if having difficulty with the loop, take it back like this.
NOTE: Prior to the actual racquet backswing, it is critical that the player learns to first make a “Unit Turn.” This is the act of turning the shoulders and torso towards the forehand stroke prior to the racquet actually being taken back with the arm.
By making the unit turn, the player will tend to create a proper stroke pattern that integrates the upper body correctly. Several problems can arise when a player initiates the backswing with the arm without integrating the unit turn.
The aspect of backswing type is a feature that is, again, self-working and self-regulating. Players will almost always develop a personal preference as to loop size. (Among the pros, while most do indeed use some aspect of a loop swing, it is clearly a diverse component and not a core stroke pattern that is similar across all pros.) However, I have found that when the student is forced to learn a loop swing from the start, many players don't develop the physical understanding of getting the racquet down below the ball for the low-to-high swing pattern necessary for topspin development of the forehand.
The above Federer forehand, shows the modern style with an over loop take back.
Footwork and Stance Patterns
It may be old-school, but players who first develop the forehand with a closed or neutral stance will almost always develop situational open-stance stroke patterns without specifically being taught this pattern. I have seen many players, however, who have been taught to hit forehands and/or backhands with an open stance develop some very bad upper body movements. (Opening up the upper body too soon, lunging at the ball, coming across the body instead of hitting through the ball, etc.)
Even as severe grips require much greater upper body rotation—and obviously more of an open stance as a generality—these players can learn how to create excellent torque and angular momentum working within neutral or closed stance patterns as a practice tool.
One important concept regarding footwork deals with the prevention of over-rotation at contact. Right-handed players who swing their back (right) leg around during contact, (or pull the front left foot away), tend to end up pushing the ball towards the target instead of stroking a topspin drive.
While advanced players have developed the timing to integrate these steps—usually as recovery steps—beginners and intermediate players tend to develop bad stroke patterns as well as poor balance if they indeed allow these footwork patterns to occur.
I have found that players who work to keep the back foot back, and the front foot down, generally develop proper balance and footwork to complement their stroke development. I have never had a player not be able to develop a “break step” or a “reverse pivot” correctly after learning to maintain a closed stance initially.
One of the major stroke pattern problems beginning and low-intermediate level players encounter is the actual conception of a low-to-high swing. We seldom encounter players who can't hit a slice forehand. It seems that high-to-low swing patterns tend to be closer to natural human movements and swing associations. Also, because of gravity, it is more natural for a player to let the racquet fall during the swing than it is to physically swing up against gravity.
To help those who may have difficulty associating the proper low-to-high swing pattern, I have players actually touch the tip of the racquet to the ground on the backswing, hold it there until they initiate the upward swing pattern. By feeling the racquet touching the ground, the player has a physical “Key Position Point” they can associate. Too often, players can be told to get their racquet down on the backswing only to raise the racquet unconsciously prior to the start of the forward swing. Because the backswing is technically out of the player's sight, (since they are—or should be—looking forward to the incoming ball!), players lose focus on what the racquet is doing at this point.
This is an example of a “corrective tool” and does not necessarily fit in terms of actually developing the overall advanced swing pattern. However, players who can't associate the low-to-high swing path will have difficulty developing any proper topspin stroke.
Most follow-through patterns tend to be dependent on grip and specific swing intention. That is, if a player wants to hit a massive topspin that dips fast and has minimal pace, this follow-through will usually be different than a forehand that is hit flatter as a drive for depth.
One of the big problems on the follow-through is when players try to finish with a “wrap” finish too early in the follow-through. A wrap finish is when the player allows the racquet and arm to come across the body after contact and ends up almost around the neck. Players must work to drive up and through the trajectory line long enough that the player doesn't lose the linear aspects of the shot. However, many pros over-stress this linear aspect and end up teaching the player to simply push the racquet through the ball with minimal angular momentum. If a player remembers to hit out towards the target and then finish with a wrap finish, they will usually develop proper and powerful forehands!
It is readily apparent that while touring pros hit with many idiosyncrasies—most of which are subtle personal embellishments—with very few exceptions the skilled players hit within a foundation that is similar among all players. The identifiable differences are usually in the preparation phase of each stroke: From the backswing on the forehand and backhand, to the backswing motion on the serve, the pros have developed diversity in this segment of stroke production.
Such differences have led many teaching pros to believe there must be more than one way to hit a tennis ball. And they are right…to a point. However, such idiosyncrasies are seldom taught; or need to be taught.
Players who develop the framework of strokes are free to develop these peculiarities that are usually complimentary to their particular personality and their strengths and weaknesses. To assume that any one of these aspects—from loop backswings to open stance footwork patterns—are the one-and-only, could indeed thwart players from developing to the best of their potential.
Players who work within the core stroke patterns I have recommended can be assured that the majority of idiosyncrasies will indeed contribute to overall stroke confidence and effectiveness.
Some photos to help you understand this modern forehand.
Gives you an idea of the distance needed to take the racket back on a forehand from the back of the court.
The above photo tries to show how the hand, wrist, and forearm move if you want to flex your wrist and pronate. First photo left shows the hand/wrist, laying back, or cocked, about to swing up and forward. Second photo left tries its best to reflect the amount of lateral forward movement of the wrist, very little, and that's it, that movement stops right there. Simultaneous with the mild lateral wrist movement is the forward rotational element of pronation, shown separately in the third photo from the left in order to see it better. The last photo shows the post-contact signature pronation before the follow through tails off to the left.
To generalize, a follow through finishes with the racket below your chin, facing down either a bit or a lot to your left and above the hand in height above the court surface, and the arm is bent in toward your body. Assuming you want to hit the ball hard and keep it in.