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Get A Handle On Your Game

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Ron Waite, USPTR

Some years back while watching a tennis match on TV, I heard the commentator make a statement that was attributed to the tennis legend, Rod Laver. Essentially (and I am paraphrasing), the Laver comment was as follows. In the final analysis everything in the stroke boils down to the "grip."
 
The commentator was referencing Laver's belief to explain an errant shot that was hit by one of the contestants. The player's movement to the ball, stance at the moment of impact, timing and finish were seemingly perfect. Still, the ball was hit just a bit wide on this "down the line" shot.
 
Truly, tennis is not a game of inches, but a game of fractions of inches. Even the slightest variation in a player's grip on the racquet handle while executing a shot can make a big difference in the direction and depth of the ball's trajectory!
 
Many factors come to play when we are attempting to hit any stroke in our wonderful game of tennis. One factor that most players do not evaluate enough is whether or not each grip used for executing a particular stroke is well chosen and is executed with perfect consistency.
 
As we enter into the month of April, I am assuming that many of you are beginning or well into your outdoor, tennis season. Some of you may be just attempting to "reclaim" your tennis form from last season. If so, you will need to "reacquaint" your hands to the racquet handle. In all probability, you will have different grips that you employ that are determined by the specific stroke.
 
Others may have never really taken time off from our great game. Indeed, some readers will probably have competed in a relatively non-stop manner throughout the last 12 months.
 
Of course, there are those who fall somewhere in between these two extremes.
 
Regardless of whether you have been away from the game or training daily throughout the year, I strongly encourage that each player takes serious assessment of how consistently precise he/she is in forming each grip during match play situations. In addition, I am strongly suggesting that each player take inventory of her/his grips and re-evaluate their appropriateness and effectiveness.
 
Regardless of what grip you choose to use for any given stroke, tennis players don't always "get" or "secure" grips in a truly consistent manner. This is particularly true when we are under much stress in a match, are fatigued and/or are moving very quickly to get to a ball. Whenever you seem to have "lost" a particular stroke in a match, examining and assessing your grip is a good place to start to find an answer.
 
When we change grips from, let's say a backhand to a forehand, the change must be quick and seamless. We don't look at our hands as we make this change. Rather, we are using our sense of touch to "feel" our way to the right grip. This is done in fractions of a second, and our conscious mind is usually not engaged. Instead, our non-conscious mind (where we store our muscle memory) comes into play and determines when things "feel" correct.
 
Grip problems can occur when we switch to using a new racquet model. If a player has switched to a new racquet model, there is a bit of time needed for the player to become acclimated to the new handle. (Other factors like racquet weight and balance also take some time.) The actual shapes of racquet handles vary from manufacturer to manufacturer. Frames from two different manufacturers may be the same size in terms of circumference (let's say 4 1/2), but Head racquet handles are a completely different shape than those associated with, let's say, Prince frames. Thus, grip for a forehand groundstroke with the Head frame requires a slightly different grip positioning than that is needed with the Prince racquet. (If you compare these two brands, I think you will be able to "feel" that the Head handle is a bit "thinner and elongated." The Prince frame will probably feel as though the handle is "thicker and more round.")
 
Many pros on both tours customize their racquets. The player and the racquet technician will determine what is the perfect racquet handle size and shape. Every frame that the pro uses will be customized to these exact specifications. (The same will be true with respect to ideal racquet frame weight and balance.)
 
No two racquets that come off the assembly line in China can be assumed to be identical!!! My guess is that, if you are a serious player, you probably have three or more "identical" frames in your racquet bag. Still, I would suggest that if you pick up each, one at a time, with your eyes closed. I believe that you will be able to actually "feel" the slight differences in each racquet handle.
 
When a pro uses an overwrap on her/his racquet handle, it is always the same brand and usually wrapped in a very precise manner to increase consistency. "Tacky" overwraps have a different "feel" to them as opposed to overwraps such as Tournagrip. Each of these two varieties has a unique "feel."
 
Also, overwraps can and do vary with respect to thickness. Applying one brand of a "tacky" overwrap may result in a slightly different "playing size" than a "tacky" overwrap that is thinner or thicker.
 
While playing a long match, a pro sometimes changes the overwrap because it has become too wet and slippery. If your racquet handle is too wet and slippery, it is very difficult to maintain consistently proper grips. In addition, the "thickness" of these overwraps can and do change as they become moist. This is another reason for making a mid match change.
 
My point is fairly simple. Grip size and shape are critically important when it comes to "getting" the right and perfect grip during a match. Most players do not really consider "grip" errors or problems when they are looking to answer a question like, "Why is my backhand slice landing wide so often?"
 
In my personal case, I prefer the shape of Prince and Babolat racquets which I find to be fairly similar. I prefer a 4 3/8 grip, and I use Tournagrip as my overwrap. I always wrap my Tournagrip as tightly as I can, and I will change it as it becomes wet. I have a Master Racquet Technician from the United States Racquet Stringers Association customize each of my grips to make them identical. (I have also had the racquet weight, racquet balance and string type/tension made uniform by this same technician.) As a result, I can always "find my grips" quickly, confidently and without variation. I strongly encourage each reader who is a serious competitor in this great game of ours to seek out a USRSA Master Racquet Technician and have his/her frames made uniform. Here is the URL for the USRSA's website where you can inquire about finding a MRT near you: http://www.racquettech.com/
 
I would encourage almost every player to use the absolute smallest grip that feels comfortable. Modern racquets are extremely light and powerful. The frames are so stiff and rugged that there is usually very little "twisting" as a player makes contact with the ball. One can and should avoid a "death grip" on the racquet handle. It is only necessary to grip the racquet tightly a little before and at the moment of contact. Given the nature of the modern tennis frame, a player does not need a very large handle size to maintain stability.
 
It has been my experience that players who have excellent volleys normally use smaller handle sizes. It is my theory (which is all that this is) that larger grips tend to be preferred by those who are big groundstroke players who often times use a two handed backhand. However with modern frames, one can still hit a great groundstroke using a smaller handle size. Thus, it my theory that using the smallest handle size possible enables a player to have great groundstrokes and better "feel" for her/his volleys.
 
I remember an anecdote that Oscar Wegner shared with me some years back. He and Tony Roche were both playing in a South American tennis tournament. One night, Oscar claimed that Tony Roche was literally shaving the racquet handles on his new wooden frames (apparently replacement frames) to make them extremely thin. Oscar described the final product as having "pencil thin" handles. I asked Oscar why Tony liked his handles so thin. Oscar replied that Tony believed that thinner handles provided more "feel" when volleying.
 
Little by little, I spent some time moving from a 4 5/8 handle to what is now a 4 3/8 handle. I did so to improve my volleys. My game is predicated upon consistent groundstrokes. Historically, I have had weaker volleys. However, my volleys improved immensely as I moved to a smaller racquet handle size. I can honestly say that this change has not compromised my groundstrokes. At some point, I hope to progress down to a 4 1/4 grip size!
 
So using the proper grip shape and size are important factors in helping a player have more consistent results when securing and changing grips. Gripping the racquet handle in predictable and consistent ways will almost always improve a player's overall competence on the court.
 
I have coached players who were "off their game" with respect to a particular stroke. On many occasions the player was able to reclaim the "lost stroke" by simply paying some attention to how he/she is gripping the racquet. Remember, tennis is really a game of millimeters!!! Also, remember that as Rod Laver stated: Grip is everything!
 
Next it should be noted that given the modern game, some grips are more likely to bring positive results than others when used for a given stroke. Simply learning to hit with a different, and perhaps more appropriate, grip can improve one's overall tennis performance! This is particularly true with respect to those specific strokes that we tend to mishit, misdirect or that result in weak replies. Later in this column, I will give you a list of what I believe is the "best grip" for each stroke. (I remind the reader that these are usually the best grips. But, there are no "cookie cutter" rules that apply to all players.)
 
Some you may be completely unwilling to experiment with adopting a different grip for a particular stoke. Just the mention of changing a grip can cause trauma for almost any seasoned tennis player! Grips are deeply personal and we usually have arrived at a grip through a trial and error process. Ultimately, we decide upon what grip we use for each stroke based on comfort and upon what "feels" right. This is NOT a flawed approach!!!
 
Still, I would encourage each reader to consider using the "preferred grips" that I list below. Experiment with each. Be patient and open minded when trying out any new grip. If you do decide to make a permanent commitment to a grip change for a particular stroke, give yourself a month or two to solidify the change. You can accelerate the change and have it "burned" into your muscle memory by practicing more. In your practice sessions, don't be afraid to include playing lots of sets or tiebreakers. Match play is the best way to really make the new grip "your own."
 
Below is my "quick" guide for rating grips to be used for specific strokes in the modern game. I have ordered grips for each stroke in the order of what I believe is their importance and usefulness. Again, I remind the reader that there are no "one size fits all" grips in this wonderful game. Each player is unique. However, I do encourage each reader to periodically examine and re-evaluate the grips he/she selects for each stroke.
 
BEST GRIPS FOR THE MODERN GAME
 
FOREHAND GROUNDSTROKES:

  1. The Semi-Western Forehand Grip (All around, this is your best bet.)
  2. The Western Forehand Grip (Maybe a better grip for clay court surfaces.)
  3. The Eastern Forehand Grip (Really not as good as it once was. I would avoid using this grip unless you play primarily on grass or other low bouncing surfaces)
  4. The Continental Grip (Don't even think about it!!!)

ONE HANDED BACKHAND GROUNDSTROKES:
  1. The Full Eastern Backhand (Best choice for topspin, backhand drives.)
  2. The Eastern Backhand (All around best choice.)
  3. The Continental Grip (A good choice for one handed slice but weak for almost all other backhand shots.)

TWO HANDED BACKHAND
 
Dominant Hand:
  1. Eastern Backhand Grip(Best overall choice)
  2. Full Eastern Backhand Grip (Excellent for clay or other high bouncing surfaces)
  3. Continental Grip (Allows you to disguise when you are going to take your non-dominant hand off the handle and hit a one handed slice reply.)

Non-Dominant Hand:
  1. Eastern Forehand Grip (Best overall choice.)
  2. Continental Grip (Makes hitting topspin a bit more difficult)
  3. Semi-Western Forehand (Topspin is enhanced but low bouncing balls can be tough)

NOTE: When hitting a two handed backhand, try different combinations of grips with respect to the dominant and non-dominant hand. For some players, they "conceive" of the two handed backhand as a "forehand" that is hit by their non-dominant hand/arm. Thus, this non-dominant hand's grip is most important in the combination. For other players, they "conceive" of the two handed backhand as a one handed backhand that is struck primarily by the dominant hand. In this latter case, the non-dominant hand is really on the handle just to add some needed support. So, the dominant hand grip is of more importance.
 
Either of these two "conceptions" is fine. A player needs to know how he/she "conceives" the two handed backhand in his/her mind.
 
VOLLEYS
  1. The Continental Grip. (This is the ideal grip for volleying. There may be some slight changes made in this grip when hitting backhand vs. forehand volleys. However for all intents and purposes, the grip is the same.)
  2. The Hammer Grip (This is a great grip for volleys and is the same as a Continental Grip but the index finger is not extended up the racquet handle.)

NOTE: Some players may do better using an Eastern Forehand Grip for forehand volleys, and moving to an Eastern Backhand Grip for backhand volleys. There is a trade off if you adopt this approach. The switch may not be executed quickly enough when you are trading net volleys, as may be the case in doubles matches. On the positive side, these two grips when used for volleys almost always provide for a "firmer" wrist at the moment of impact. The switching time may not be as important. Most players do not opt for this "switching" technique. However if you have trouble with volleys, it is worth it to experiment with this "switching" technique.
 
SERVES AND OVERHEAD SMASHES
  1. The Eastern Backhand Grip (Overall the best choice. It allows for an easy "breaking' of the wrist. It can be used for any type of spin serve and can allow for powerful first serves that are relatively flat.)
  2. Continental Grip (Not a bad choice for flat first serves and is a very good choice for sliced serves.)
  3. Eastern Forehand Grip (This grip is great for flat serves, but does not allow the wrist to bend which is needed for spin serves. Boris Becker used this grip for his serves when he played on the tour. It is how most beginners attempt to serve.)

NOTE: Many players will use a Continental Grip for first serves and an Eastern Backhand Grip for second serves (usually a kick serve). The disadvantage to this approach is that the type of serve you may be putting forth is not easily disguised.
 
I realize that some of you who are reading this may be confused and need more visual information to determine what each of the above grips look like. In addition, the reader should know that each grip/stroke combination has its own "perfect" stance and "contact point."
 
Many years back, I wrote a column that addresses these aspects with images. I encourage the reader to click on this link to access this past article: The Grip: Picture Perfect.
 
So, it is important to realize how critically impactful having a precise and proper grip is to producing consistent strokes. In addition, it is imperative that each player knows exactly what grip works best for her/him for each stroke.
 
In our quest for better strokes and more wins, we tennisphiles examine, re-examine and assess virtually every aspect of our games. However, we rarely if ever take a close look at how precise and consistent our grips may be when we compete. Nor is it likely that we ever re-evaluate what grip we are using given a particular stroke. In my opinion, both of these areas should be periodically scrutinized and receive "open-minded" consideration.
 
Pete Sampras made a major change in his game as a teenager. He changed from a two handed backhand to a one handed version!!! This had to be a difficult transition for him. But, he realized that he would never be capable of being a consummate serve/volley player using a two handed backhand. If Pete could make this kind of a change, I am confident that each of you who are reading this can make any necessary and/or desirable grip changes with far less difficulty.
 
I have a good friend who is ranked nationally by the USTA. Growing up in this game, he used an Eastern Forehand Grip for all his forehand groundstrokes. As the game moved to more modern racquet frames and courts became more often than not hard courts or clay courts, he realized that this forehand grip had become a liability. Balls were bouncing a bit higher and were hit with greater pace. He realized that he needed to impart more topspin to his forehand groundstrokes. He ultimate has switched to the Semi-Western Forehand Grip and his forehand is now a clear and formidable weapon!
 
I assure the reader that once you get a firm "handle" on your grips that it is only a matter of time before you become a tennis overdog!
 

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This column is copyrighted by Ron Waite, all rights reserved. Questions and comments about these columns can be directed to Ron by using this form.

Ron Waite is a certified USPTR tennis instructor who took up the game of tennis at the age of 39. Frustrated with conventional tennis methods of instruction and the confusing data available on how to learn the game, Ron has sought to sift fact from fiction. In his seven years of tennis, Ron has received USTA sectional ranking four years, has successfully coached several NCAA Division III men's and women's tennis teams to post season competition, and has competed in USTA National singles tournaments. Ron has trained at a number of tennis academies and with many of the game's leading instructors.

In addition to his full-time work as a professor at Albertus Magnus College, Ron photographs ATP tour events for a variety of organizations and publications. The name of his column, TurboTennis, stems from his methods to decrease the amount of time it takes to learn and master the game of tennis.


 

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