I begin this New Year with a series
of columns that will address the fundamentals of stroke production regarding
all the essential shots in the game of tennis. Before I get into the
specifics of any particular stroke, the reader should realize that I
am tailoring my advice toward the modern game. To better understand
what I mean by “the modern game of tennis,” I would ask the reader to
refer to my previously published column entitled Newfangled Tennis.
For those of you who are part of the “Old School of Tennis,” please
realize that I do not mean to cast aspersions upon the traditional styles
and approaches to the game. However, I think you will agree that the
players of today are playing with different racquets, on different surfaces,
and using a somewhat different tactical approach to competing.
Having said this, it is important to remember that any advice is
only as good as it works for you! If you try my stroke mechanics
and they do not work for you, by all means abandon them. However, it
is important to remember that changes in this game take time, and require
a unique kind of patience. In light of these realities, I might refer
the reader to my previously published column entitled Surviving Change.
My suggestions regarding stroke production may or may not work for you…but,
you need to give them a reasonable period of time to settle in, before
you pass judgment.
I will begin the stroke series with a discussion of the forehand.
I begin with groundstrokes because they are the foundation
of the modern game. Serve and volleyers may prevail on some surfaces.
Still, most matches are played on medium-slow hardcourts or on slow
clay surfaces. Neither of these common surfaces makes serve and volleying
easy. I would suggest that this is why you see so many big groundstrokers
on both the Women’s and Men’s Tours.
If you are like most players, your forehand is your better wing when
it comes to groundstrokes. Given the muscle groups involved in producing
this stroke, it is not surprising that it is often times the preferred
If you have a fairly weak forehand or want a more powerfully consistent
forehand, this month’s column is for you. Having photographed virtually
all the pros on both tours and having coached for some time now, I can
with confidence tell you that the following are the essentials to a
great forehand. I have included illustrations in the form of photos
to assist you in understanding these principles.
There are only two grips that I recommend for the forehand groundstroke:
the semi-western forehand grip and the eastern forehand grip. Now,
some players will use a continental grip and others a full western.
However, these latter two grips are so severe that they limit the ability
of the player to quickly switch grips, as is necessary when volleying
or hitting a groundstroke in an “emergency” situation. In addition,
these two grips are very vulnerable to high and low bouncing balls, respectively.
Here are some images that show each of the four grips. You will note
that I have flipped the right-handed image to allow lefties to visualize
the grips more easily.
The Continental Grip: Here, your palm is essentially
on the top bevel of the racquet handle. Note where the V in the player’s
hand is located…it is essentially on the top of the racquet handle near
the seam created by the top plane of the racquet handle and the top
The Eastern Forehand Grip: With this grip,
your palm is basically on the side of the racquet handle. Note that
the V in the player’s hand is essentially on the top bevel of the racquet
The Semi-Western Forehand Grip: This is by far the most
popular forehand grip among the pros. It places the palm of the hand
on the lower bevel of the racquet handle. The V of the hand usually is
somewhere on the side bevel of the racquet handle.
The Western Forehand Grip: This is a great forehand
grip for high bouncing clay surfaces, but is a bit difficult to wield
on faster surfaces. With this grip, the palm is actually under the
racquet handle. You must severely bend your wrist if you want to use
this forehand grip. Note that the hand’s V is on the side of the racquet
handle almost on the lower bevel.
In addition to being comparatively “flexible” grips (meaning
that they can be used effectively when hitting balls of low or high
bounce height), the eastern forehand and the semi-western grips will
make it easy to impart topspin. Topspin is an essential ingredient
in the modern forehand in that it permits the player to hit the ball
hard and still the ball is likely to bounce in-bounds. The topspin
actually brings the ball down more quickly and forces it to bounce higher.
These two actions give the player a good margin for error. In
the modern game, one wants to be able to hit the forehand with as much
pace as is controllable…topspin makes this possible. If you are confused
about spin, please refer to my earlier column entitled, Become a Spin Doctor.
Jana Novotna uses a continental grip when striking the forehand.
Consequently, she is often times forced to slice the ball back…particularly
if it bounces high. These slice forehands are great on low bouncing
surfaces like grass, but are rarely powerful or effective on higher
bouncing surfaces. It is no surprise that Wimbledon was Jana’s only
grand slam championship. It is extremely difficult to hit topspin using
the continental grip on the forehand side.
Pete Sampras uses an eastern forehand grip. Note in the picture below
that Pete keeps his racquet face down on the take back (a closed face).
This helps him to strike the ball in such a way as to impart topspin.
Anna Kournikova also uses the eastern forehand grip.
However, she tends to hit the ball flat (meaning without any spin).
Note how the racquet face is perpendicular to the ground (opened…not
closed). Although the flat, eastern forehand stroke can be deadly,
it is risky. I think Anna has had so much trouble on this wing, in
part, because she does not tend to hit the forehand with much topspin.
The following players, Patrick Rafter
and Karol Kucera, are using the semi-western grip. Patrick’s grip leans
a little bit toward the eastern forehand side and Karol’s leans a little
toward the western forehand side. It is
possible to have grips that fall in-between two “adjacent” grips.
I hit my forehand primarily with the semi-western grip. My forehand
grip is very similar to Karol Kucera’s.
Gustavo Kuerten hits his forehand with
a grip that is in between a semi-western and full western grip. When
he first came on the tour, he was using a full western forehand. Now
that he has moved it “back” a little bit, he is better able to compete
on surfaces that are not likely to provide high bouncing balls.
Lastly, we have players like Sergei Brugera and
Ruxandra Dragomir who use the full western grip on the forehand side. Both
of these players are at home on red clay. Given the high ball bounce
on this surface, it is no surprise that they adopted the western grip.
In reality, a player must be able to hit a forehand from virtually
every stance possible. Why? Well, opponents will invariably put a player
on the run, and she/he must be able to strike the ball when somewhat
out of position.
The best stances for the forehand groundstroke are the open and
An open stance is one where the player is facing the net. A closed
stance is where the player is sideways to the net. In the semi-open
stance, the player is about half-open and half-closed.
In open stances and semi-open stances, the player is able to generate
much power from the muscles in her/his arms, shoulders, body rotation
and legs. In addition, the open stance and semi-open stance make
it easier for a player to stop and recover (meaning move back to the
center of the court) after hitting a shot.
This is a closed stance. Here, Brent Starzyk is facing the camera,
which is positioned at the net.
Although the camera position has changed in this shot, we can see that
Brent has opened up his stance a bit. This is the semi-open stance.
Moving back to our first camera position at the net, we see that Brent
is now using a full open stance. (What grip is he using?…you guessed
it, a very severe, full western grip.)
Whenever possible, try to hit your forehand from an open or semi-open
stance. These stances work with every forehand grip except the continental.
The continental can only be hit effectively when using a closed stance,
and on occasion, a semi-open stance.
Here is Pete Sampras using a semi-open stance to hit a forehand off
a low bouncing ball.
Here is a shot of Pete Sampras using an open stance to
hit a forehand. He uses what is essentially an eastern forehand grip.
Notice that he is keeping his racquet face closed (facing the ground)
as he brings the racquet back. This will enable him to impart the needed topspin.
Slava Dosedel in this shot is using an eastern forehand
grip as he hits from an open stance. Once again, notice that he keeps
his racquet face closed on the backswing.
For you lefties, here is a shot of Greg Rusedski
hitting a forehand…again from an open stance. By the way, he is using
a semi-western grip. Semi-western and western grips automatically make
the player hit in a way that imparts topspin.
If you want to hit hard, penetrating, topspin forehands you must learn
to lift your body at the moment of impact. If you watch the pros carefully,
you will see that most of them are off the ground when they have finished
the shot. By trying to lift your body while striking the ball firmly,
the player will find that he/she can hit blazing forehands that almost
always seem to land in bounds.
To illustrate my point, here are some images of Lleyton Hewitt, Todd
Woodbridge and Steffi Graf going airborne during their forehand groundstrokes.
If you don’t go airborne during the forehand groundstroke, you can
still impart topspin. However, the power of your stroke will diminish.
This can be a way of settling your forehand down if you ever start to
spray this shot. Watch the pros. When their forehands are off, they
stop going airborne for a while. When the stroke returns, they go airborne
If you have ever trained at the Nick Bollettieri’s camp in Florida,
you know the importance of finishing the stroke properly. Traditionally,
players were taught to point the racquet in the direction of the ball’s
path when finishing the shot. Well, I do not advise this.
If you are using an eastern forehand grip, a semi-western grip or a
western grip for your forehand groundstrokes, there is one and only
one finish that I recommend. Try to finish the stroke with the racquet
over your shoulder. This part of the stroke is absolutely critical
for consistency. If you finish every forehand in this manner, I
promise you that your forehand will improve by leaps and bounds in no
Here is a picture of Lindsay Davenport executing what is the perfect
forehand finish. We all know how powerful and consistent her forehand
QUIET THE HEAD
The final ingredient to a great forehand is keeping the head motionless
at the moment of contact. The temptation is to look where the ball
is headed…presumably to make certain that it landed in and to be ready
for the opponent’s reply.
Well, believe me -- you have more time than you realize. Pausing the
head’s movement at the moment of impact will make your strokes consistent
and predictable. The best way to control where the ball goes is to
hit the ball off center opposite of the direction in which you want
the ball to go. I know. This is confusing. Not to worry. My past
article entitled Rock Around the Clock will make this facet of ball
So the keys to a great forehand are:
- Use the right grip (eastern forehand or semi-western)
- Use the right stance (open or semi-open)
- Impart topsin (with the eastern forehand grip remember to keep the
racquet face closed during the backswing… the semi-western grip automatically
- Go airborne for power, finish each forehand properly (with the racquet
over your shoulder)
- Be certain to keep the head quiet through the shot.
A great way to practice these components and to implant them into your
muscle memory is to hit off a backboard or wall. If you prefer to train
with a ball machine or hitting partner, just be certain to hit every
forehand to a target on the court. For more information on this topic,
refer to my previous column entitled Target Practice.
If you adopt these principles and practice them faithfully, I assure
you, in no time, you will have a killer forehand. And when you do,
you are sure to become a tennis overdog.