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You Can't Win Until You Start To Finish

Ron Waite Photo
Ron Waite, USPTR

If you were to travel to many of the tennis academies that are located in Florida, you would invariably hear a common theme when it comes to groundstrokes and serves. Coaches at these schools make certain that their charges develop consistent and appropriate stroke and serve finishes.

As in most things in tennis, there really is no one right way to stroke a forehand or backhand. Nor is there just one way to hit an effective first or second serve. For instance, some players hit a one handed backhand, while some players prefer the two handed variety. Some players hit their forehand using a full western grip. Others may use the Pete Sampras-like eastern forehand grip. Some of us like to crank up the big, flat first serve. Many of us are content to spin our first and second serves into the box. John McEnroe was a consummate serve/volley player. Andre Agassi has the big groundstroke game.

My point is simple. There are many "right" ways to play the game of tennis. However, if you want your strokes and serves to be more reliable, you need to focus on making your "finishes" more consistent.

Look at the pros when they are taking their five minute warm up before a match. As they hit their practice groundstrokes and serves, they are deliberately (and sometimes exaggeratedly) making certain that they finish each of these fully and properly. Why? They want their muscle memory to be certain to execute these proper finishes in the heat of the match.

When I observe players who are new to the game of tennis, or when I am seeing an accomplished player begin to "breakdown," I frequently note that the stroke and serve finishes are incomplete and/or erratic. It is my firm belief that one important way to get your game back on track during a match is to focus on finishing each stroke and serve fully and appropriately.

Videotaping one of your matches will give you a very good idea how well you are finishing your strokes and serves. The proper finish for each of your strokes and serves should be determined, whenever possible, with the help of a certified teaching pro. She or he will know the way your stroke should look, given your grip, stance. etc.

Every year, I photograph professional tennis tournaments. The Pilot Pen is a particular favorite, because it is played in the city in which I live. For over a decade, I have had the opportunity to shoot this great event, and I have learned much from my images.

This year, in addition to shooting the Pilot Pen, I shot the Bronx Classic qualifying event. This Challenger-level event is one that has both a men’s and a women’s draw. I strongly encourage every reader to attend any of these USTA sponsored events. You will see great tennis in a venue that allows for close-up viewing.

Drawing upon the images from these two events (and some from last year’s Pilot Pen), this month I will show you images that demonstrate the most common "proper" finishes. If a picture can say a thousand words, I hope that some of these images provide you with the necessary information to improve your own finishes.

Let’s begin with the forehand. In the modern game, the most common grips used are the semi-western and full western. Now, don’t get me wrong. The traditional eastern forehand grip can still be seen, and we all know how well it worked with Pete Sampras. However, in a game that relies increasingly upon topspin, my guess is that this eastern grip will become the exception…not the norm.

If you are using either the semi-western or full western grips, there are two finishes that may be appropriate. The classic finish is with the racquet following through to end the stroke at a position over the non-dominant hand’s shoulder. In addition, the butt label of the racquet handle normally is pointing directly at the opponent’s court when the stroke is finished.

Here are some examples of this finish:

In this shot, we see Tatiana Golovin executing the classic finish for the semi-western or western grip. Note that the sticker on the bottom of the racquet handle is pointing toward the opponent’s court..

This classic finish automatically requires a low to high motion with the racquet. Thus, it is not surprising that this stroke normally possesses lots of topspin.

In this picture below, we see Jelena Dokic executing a similar forehand finish. Again, her grip is in the semi-western/western family.

In Jelena’s forehand finish, I have noted that she does not always finish with the racquet completely over her shoulder. Still, this is essentially the classic finish.

The second forehand finish that I have noticed in the modern game is what I term the Agassi finish. If you watch Andre, he finishes his forehands with a "windshield wiper" motion. His racquet does not really finish over his shoulder. Rather, he finishes with the racquet in front of his body and more at the chest level of the non-dominant side. The advantage to this finish is that it allows for a very short backswing. Yet, there will almost always be some power and lots of topspin associated with balls struck in this manner.

For people who prefer the full western grip, I believe that this forehand finish may be the most appropriate. However, I have seen many semi-western players using this finish effectively.

In the shot below, we see Jelena Jankovic using this type of finish. Note that the racquet is not headed in a manner that will place it over her shoulder. Rather, it comes somewhat across the body.

This is a shot of Maria Sharapova hitting her forehand at the 2004 Pilot Pen. In fact, Maria hits her forehand with both the classic finish and with the "Agassi" finish. In this shot, we see her using the Agassi type of finish.

Sometimes, Maria’s forehand seems to breakdown. I am somewhat convinced that it is, in part, related to the fact that she uses both finishes.

Here is a Swedish Player who competed in the 2004 Bronx Challenger. His name is Marcus Sarstrand. Again, we see the "Agassi" finish. Note that his grip in this shot shows a fairly full western forehand grip.

Lastly, we see Meaghan Shaughnessy who hits a really powerful forehand. This picture, once again, shows the "Agassi" finish. Note her grip in this shot.

Generally, I think that two handed backhands are more common today than the classic one handed variety. So, let’s begin our look at backhand groundstrokes with the two hander.

In this image, we see Akiko Morigami of Japan. Akiko hits both a two handed forehand and a two handed backhand. This illustrate shows her finish for the backhand stroke. A good way to think about this finish is to imagine that you are throwing a sack of potatoes over your shoulder. This is the modern, topspin finish for the two handed backhand groundstroke.

Below, we see Elena Dementieva executing this modern backhand finish.

Here is Anastasia Myskina executing the modern two handed finish at the 2003 Pilot Pen. However, she likes to finish with the racquet a bit to the side of her shoulder…not really over the shoulder.

The second type of two handed backhand finish is what I call the "Chris Evert" finish. In this follow through, the racquet does not end up over your shoulder. Rather, it is usually pointing upward and is in front of your body. I think that for flatter shots, this finish is a natural when hitting two handed backhands.

In this picture, we see Pilot Pen 2004 finalist Natalie Dechy hitting the more classic, "Evert" two handed backhand finish.

Mashona Washington is executing this classic finish in the shot below.

Let’s not forget those of you who hit one handed backhands. Generally, there are two types of finishes. The finish depends upon whether the player is attempting to hit a flat or topspin drive, or if she/he is trying to impart slice/backspin.

Here is Amelie Mauresmo at the 2003 Pilot Pen executing the proper finish for the one handed, backhand drive. Note how fully extended her racquet arm is.

This shot is one from the 2004 Bronx Classic. Here, we see Rettenmaier of the USA executing another beautiful finish for the one handed drive.

One handed slice shots are not always finished as consistently as other shots. However, the general finish is dictated by two factors: a high to low stroke motion and a finish were the racquet is in front of the player’s body.

Here, we see the Australian player Magney hitting a one handed slice. Note his non-dominant hand. It is moving in a direction that is opposite to the racquet’s motion for balance.

This is a one handed slice being hit by Rita Grande at the 2003 Pilot Pen. What I think is not so wonderful in this execution is the lack of balance being provided by the non-dominant hand.

Of course there are many times when the nature of competitive play prevents you from being able to finish properly. These emergency situations are unavoidable. However, the goal is to try and finish properly at all times. This will greatly improve consistency in your game.

Here are some pics of situations that do not lend themselves to proper stroke finishes.

If you are on the run and needing to impart topspin, your forehand finish will often times look like these.

So, this leads us to proper finishes with respect to serving. Generally, players hit two kinds of serves in the modern game: the flat and powerful first serve and the kick serve. I grant you that slice serves are another option. But, for the most part, we see slice serves only on grass, fast surfaces or in doubles. The finish for the slice serve is essentially the same as it is for the first serve.

The proper finish for the first serve is to have the racquet cross your body. This is very similar to throwing a baseball. The arm naturally crosses the body and ends up on the non-dominant side of the body. This motion and finish maximize the power associated with the serve.

This is Marcus Sarstrand hitting a first serve. Note that his racquet is crossing his body in this finish.

Here is Lindsay Davenport’s finish for a first serve.

This is Maria Sharapova’s first serve finish.

For you lefties, here is a picture from the 2003 Pilot Pen that shows Angela Haynes’ first serve finish.

The kick serve is the most popular second serve among pros on both tours.

The kick serve has a combination of topspin which makes it bounce high and slice which makes it curve. These spins mean that the ball is more likely to drop into the box. The kick serve allows for greater net clearance, and drops more quickly than a flat serve. In addition, the two spins make it tough for an opponent to really tee-off on the serve. The kick serve is well worth learning, and is certainly a better alternative to a half paced, flat serve…what many recreational players will use as a second serve.

The proper finish for the kick serve places the racquet pointing down and not moving across the body. The racquet finishes on the dominant side of the body. This occurs because of deliberate and exaggerated pronation.

Here is a shot of Lindsay Davenport hitting a kick serve. Look at the finish and compare it to the earlier picture of her first serve motion.

Here is Marcus, again. This time, however, he is hitting the kick serve. Quite a different finish in comparison to the earlier image of his first serve.

The point of all of these images is to help you see how to properly finish a particular stroke or serve. Again, I stress that seeking the assistance of a teaching pro to help you discover the right finishes for your grips, etc. will be extremely helpful.

Once you know the right finishes, you can focus on them in practice. When they become second nature, you will see that your consistency in matches increases greatly…and when you do fall off…you can regain your strokes by focusing on finishing properly.

Every so often, I encourage you to videotape your strokes and serves. Save these tapes. They will become a reference source. You can compare the way you finish today to the finish of the past. If you have lost your forehand, or can’t hit a first serve…the answer may lie in your finishes.

Perfecting the proper finishes for your game will help you to 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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