Coming to grips with today's forehand
By Christopher Clarey International Herald Tribune
Published: June 25, 2006
Tennis technique develops incrementally. Watch thousands upon thousands of forehands being hit by top players over the years and gradually you will come to realize that most of those strokes are no longer finishing the same way.
The prevailing wisdom on the forehand used to be that you started the stroke low and relatively loose and finished high and relatively firm, thus generating pace and topspin. But somewhere on the long, sweat-stained path that led from Chris Evert and Jimmy Connors to Maria Sharapova and Roger Federer that truism has developed an extra twist.
Tune your television (or laptop) to Wimbledon this year, and you will see player after player making contact with the ball and then letting their racket head wrap loosely and very quickly around their opposite shoulder or arm where the racket head sometimes even finishes pointing down at the well-groomed turf.
Watch a while longer and you will see some of these same players hitting what is known as the reverse forehand, in which the racket rises on a much more vertical plane and finishes with the entire instrument above the player's head and the top of the racket pointing backward.
All this will be easier to grasp in images than in words, but what seems clear is that the game has taken another technical leap with spectacular shotmakers like Federer and Rafael Nadal serving as role models and stroke models for the juniors who will try to build on their legacy.
"I think what's changed now is really not so much the pace the guys can put on the ball but the spin the guys can put on the ball," said Patrick McEnroe, captain of the United States' Davis Cup team. "And I think part of it is obviously the rackets and the new strings where guys can literally take huge cuts at the ball every time and keep the ball in play.
"Your margin for error now is no longer, 'I need to take a little pace off and roll it deep to play it safer.' Now, it's, 'Let me spin it full force.'"
Factor in the wrist-bending, trunk-twisting torque generated by today's open-stance forehands and it is no mystery why players' follow- throughs are wrapping around their bodies like scarves. All that kinetic energy needs an outlet.
"Lots of things have changed," said Miguel Crespo, the Spaniard who is head of the International Tennis Federation's coaches education program. "In the past we used to see strokes that were pretty much using just one segment and that segment was rotating around the elbow or the shoulder. Now what we see are players using lots of segments of their body to create this power and spin."
According to John Yandell, a Yale-educated tennis teacher and analyst based in San Francisco, all this is not entirely new.
"I think it's much more prevalent now, but I've got a piece of video of Bill Tilden turning his hand over and finishing with his racket pointing at the side fence and slightly down, and this was filmed in the 1920s," Yandell said.
"I think that anything a gifted tennis player can do in the year 2006 has been done by gifted tennis players before. It's hard to say how much it was done and how much when because there is so little historical film to look at, but every shot in the modern game that is hit, I can point to one or multiple examples in the limited amount of film we have.
"I could show you Rod Laver finishing a forehand in the WCT Final against Ken Rosewall in the 1970s where his left hand is over near his right shorts pocket. There's a bit of a myth that modern tennis is something completely new and so-called classical tennis is sometimes set up as a straw man to be knocked down. However, the one thing that definitely has changed is the extremity of the grips and the amount of topspin."
Those grips, known as "semi-western," in which the heel of the palm is nearly perpendicular to the plane of the strings, have helped generate another component of the postmodern forehand: the radical twist of the forearm at contact that is sometimes called "the windshield wiper finish."
Yandell examines tennis, in part, by examining high-speed film, which contains 220 frames a second instead of the usual 30.
"You can see it very clearly in the video," he said. "It's not a wrist snap; your hand and arm are rotating as a unit. What happens is that the more underneath you are on your grip, the more you will naturally tend to wiper or turn the hand and arm over. So that is far more pronounced in this era, if not new."
Some coaches, including the Frenchman Patrice Hagelauer, no longer describe it as hitting the ball; they describe it as slapping the ball. "Nadal does it all the time," said Hagelauer, a former national technical director in Britain and France. "The extension of the wrist plus this internal rotation of the arm generates great racket speed and it can do so without a very long swing. It's a great innovation."
What makes Federer unusual and devastating is that he makes use of the windshield wiper effect on his forehand with a much more neutral grip: more modified eastern, or classical, than semi-western.
"If you look at people whose grips are similar to Roger, like Andre Agassi or even Pete Sampras, they tend to finish with the racket more on edge more of the time, and they tend to turn it over radically less," Yandell said. "What Roger has done is really synthesize the advantages of the classical and extreme style."
His grip allows him, like Agassi, to play closer to the baseline than most and take the ball early. But his hand and forearm rotation and open stance allow him, according to Yandell, to generate spin averaging 2,500 total revolutions per minute on his forehand versus 1,800 rpms for the likes of Agassi and the now- retired Sampras when they were filmed.
"Roger's hitting it as hard but with thirty to forty percent more topspin," Yandell said. "That allows him to find places on the court that nobody since John McEnroe has found, in my opinion."
"Nobody else looks like Roger," he added. "I don't think anybody else has the natural ability to play with the conservative grip and be able to rotate their hands and bodies that way, at least not yet."
To give an idea of what Nadal's competition is up against, Yandell's measurements show an average spin value on the Spaniard's forehand of 3,200 rpms with a maximum reading of close to 5,000.
"That's equal to or slightly higher than the spin values on the second serve of Pete Sampras," he said. "It's incredible."
Nadal often generates that spin with the reverse forehand: a buggy whip of a shot that was popularized on the run by Sampras in the 1990s but is now being employed in more static positions on court.
"Nadal takes it to another level," McEnroe said. "That's probably why his bicep is so huge, even though he says he doesn't do a lot of weights."
Robert Lansdorp, a coach based in California, has taught the reverse forehand for more than a decade, after picking it up from Sampras, and it is no coincidence that two of his most successful pupils - Lindsay Davenport and Maria Sharapova - make frequent use of it.
In theory, the shot allows the player to make more out of a vulnerable situation, trading horizontal swing speed for vertical swing speed and generating more spin and angle - and perhaps more pace - in the process than a shot executed by swinging across the body from an extended position.
Sharapova sometimes uses the reverse forehand from a position of strength in midcourt. She also uses it when she feels rushed, or has to deal with a low ball, because it allows her to generate racket speed in an uncomfortable position. But some wonder whether she and other aficionados are taking a good thing too far.
"I don't necessarily think it's the best shot when you're stable," McEnroe said.
Still, it bears remembering that today's doubter is tomorrow's tennis convert.
"When I was 15, my coach told me I was crazy to hit an open-stance forehand; he told me to get off the court," said the former top 10 player Brad Gilbert. "What I promise is that when I'm 60, if the players are doing something that looks crazy and it's working, I'm not going to say they shouldn't. I'm going to say, 'I'm behind the times.'"