“Give me more TOPSPIN!” “Get under the ball!” “Stop compressing the ball!” “Turn the ball!” “No, that’s too flat!”
For years, so many coaches barked out words like this to me over and over. I knew they were right, but every time I wanted to scream:
“YES, I desperately WANT to do that … But HOW? What’s am I doing wrong mechanically that’s preventing me from adding more spin all the time?”
I had been working my tail off for so long with ball machines, trying to analyze video, asking different pros for help. But I kept hitting a wall and I couldn’t pinpoint the problem. My first light bulb moment happened a few years ago thanks to the brilliant pro Saif Syed at Total Tennis. After hitting erratic forehands for about an hour in my attempt to add more spin I was about to lose it. After the morning drilling session we had a private and I vented, explaining my desperate longing to hit more topspin consistently.
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In Saif’s trademark calm and wise Yoda-like manner, he said: “Talk to me. Tell me what’s going on in your head.” I explained:
“I’ve been analyzing slow-motion tape of pros hitting the modern forehand. Say you assigned a number 1-8 to each phase of the stroke, from early preparation to finish: I feel like I’m clear on everything but somewhere around number 5– the part just before impact where something happens fast with the racquet head dropping along with a change in the wrist and the hips start opening up and… well, I’m not sure what I’m doing wrong in trying to imitate that. And I’ve gotten about 5 different explanations and instructions from 5 different pros and now my mind is just cluttered with competing inputs.”
Saif asked me to demonstrate what I thought I was seeing on film. In my mind, I was imagining this video (with the point of confusion being at 0:09-0:11):
When I showed Saif how my body was translating these images into action, he immediately saw the problem and calmly suggested something along these lines:
“Your preparation looks good– good shoulder turn, initial racket head position correct. But then [referring to what would be around 0:09 of the video above] there’s something missing: you need to keep your wrist really relaxed and allow it to rotate clockwise– kind of like the motion you use when opening a doorknob, or likewaving “HELLO” to someone sitting over on the sidelines to your right. This will happen naturally as your hip rotation begins if your arm is relaxed. Your racket face should stay slightly closed the entire time, which it needs to be to generate topspin… then you need to accelerate and swing through with the proper finish.”
I went back to the baseline and… BINGO!!! Dramatic difference. Lots more topspin on every shot.
The next epiphany came a few months later, when I was home for the holidays and took a lesson from Seth Hanapole in Massachusetts. Seth helped me break another habit that was holding my forehand back. Turns out I was unintentionally breaking my wrist slightly at contact (wrist flexion). A big no no. Seth helped me see something that many other pros would reinforce over time: great players don’t make a deliberate effort to do anything with their wrist at contact– when the wrist is relaxed and the set-up is correct, the wrist naturally does the right thing at impact and in the follow through.
What did the “right thing” look and feel like? Turns out, a lot like waving “GOODBYE” — like a wave right to left (I’m a righty) as I brushed up on the ball and followed through. For me, “GOODBYE” worked better as shorthand for what others have called the “WINDSHIELD WIPER” or “CHECK YOUR WATCH” concepts. Here’s how Seth described it:
All of the above helped me enormously, but everything really began to come together after I discovered the video below by Clay Ballard on “Lag and Snap” [aka “Stretch Shortening Cycle”], which adds tremendous clarity to this set of questions around proper wrist action. I strongly recommend watching Clay’s entire free series on the forehand, which puts all of this into a fuller context:
Summary of Clay Ballard’s key concepts Orientation for a right-hander – just reverse if you’re a lefty
#1. Racquet face should be at about 45 degree angle in preparation, pointing towards around 3:00pm
#2. Wrist then rotates clockwise like turning doorknob (e.g. “HELLO” to someone on the right as above) such that the angle of your racquet points back to around 7:30pm. Note: the arm itself stays in front — it’s the racquet face that is “lagging” back and pointing to around 7:30pm.
#3. Then as you release and follow through, the wrist naturally “turns the doorknob” the other way (counter clockwise). Note the racquet head does not move vertically straight up-and down, but rather at a 45 degree angle so it has force.
A few other videos I have found very helpful, each using slightly different terms and analogies to explain what happens to the arm, wrist and racquet during the part of the swing I’ve been obsessing about:
Importantly, all of the above underscore the idea that if you set up properly such that you can correctly “pull” the racquet forward, your wrist (if relaxed!) will do the right thing, the racquet will go down and back naturally on its own, and the butt capp will “find its position” on its own.
Finally, the other absolutely critical insight I’ve gained about great forehand technique (albeit not directly related to generating topspin) is about where power comes from in forehands:
(1) Optimal use of the kinetic chain through which physical energy is stored and released–first through proper loading of the legs and transferred through the hips (see e.g. Tim Mayotte on “What Makes Tennis Technique Modern?“), then finally through the stretch-shortening cycle involving the laid-back wrist that Clay Ballard discusses in the video above. The magic happens when all of this works together seamlessly and naturally– no one part being “forced.”
(2) Speed (not muscling) of the swing, which somewhat counterintuitively can only be achieved through having a loose arm.
(3) Transfer of energy forward and into the court (not laterally, which many of may think we should do if we misinterpret the “windshield wiper” or “brushing up” concept).
Throughout all of this research and trial and error, I’ve encountered a ton of passionate views and controversy. The reality is that all the shorthand terms (windshield wiper, lag and snap, etc) all have shortcomings: they can connote very different ideas to different people, which can easily lead to misinterpretation and bad execution. Many renowned technique experts understandably abhor the term “lag and snap” because (1) the idea of “lagging” is misleading given how quickly everything happens and can make players wrongly try to lag in ways that are unnatural; and (2) similarly, the word “snap” may encourage players to (wrongly) try to flick their wrist at contact. Moreover, the reality is that great players fine-tune aspects of technique in real time depending on what they want to do with the ball– the idea that we should try to hit the “perfect forehand” the same way every shot is a red herring.
Yet there are certain common technical elements to great forehands, and I hope the ideas above provide some of the clues that help you on your journey to discover what works for you.
Two of my favorite guys to model my forehand after are featured below–both excellent pros who I’ve worked with at Total Tennis: Saif Ali and Marlon dal Pont. Watch in particular:
Smooth takeback/shoulder turn
Compact and efficient C-loop on take back: the racquet is in perfect position (not too far back) to execute “HELLO/GOODBYE” the instant the ball is lands in the hitter’s “zip code”
Athletic position maintained throughout, knees bent
MARLON DAL PONT (apologies for the quality- only had my phone that day!)
JUST FOR FUN
In his spare time Marlon performs insane tennis tricks…
*Top Photo credit- I took this at 2012 Wimbledon of Djokovic in quarterfinal against Maier
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