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The Need For Racquet Head Speed

Ron Waite Photo
Ron Waite, USPTR

Let me begin by wishing each of you a Happy New Year. In the past, I have written about tennis New Year’s resolutions and the like. Like most New Year’s resolutions, many of us have probably fallen short of our expectations and hopes.

I am sure that you’ll be glad to know that this month’s column will not be addressing resolutions!

In fact, I have been sitting on this column for quite awhile. Why? Well, I spent the summer really researching, analyzing and testing what I am about to discuss. It seemed only fitting that my first column in 2007 present the fruits of this effort.

We all have heard the term, "racquet head speed." It is one of those concepts that we hear mentioned by tennis commentators, coaches, teaching pros, et al. They are three simple words. One would think that their meaning would be equally simple. Not so.

Without getting into lots of physics, the concept of generating power when hitting a tennis ball involves quite a few variables. First, we have the stiffness of the racquet. The stiffer the racquet the more power your strokes will have. Remember the era of wide body racquets? Clearly, they were marketed as a means to increase one’s power potential on the court.

Second, we have string tension. The lower the string tension the more power is generated when making contact with the ball. Of course, if you go too low in your string tension the "trampoline effect" becomes such that your balls are probably heading into another zip code.

Third, we have backswing. The more you take your racquet back in preparing for the shot, the more momentum you can produce when making contact with the ball. The problem here is that taking your racquet too far back makes early and proper preparation difficult. Most teachers of the game, including myself, would encourage players to shorten their backswing…especially when returning serve.

Related to this, we have trying to "muscle" the ball to make it move with more power. The problems with muscling the ball is that you can actually lose control over the shot, and you probably become fatigued more quickly. The only exception to this may be when players generate more pace by going "airborne." Their upward motion is translated into more pace.

Fourth, we have racquet weight. The heavier the racquet the more mass is moving when making contact with the ball. If a Mini-Cooper and an 18 wheel tractor trailer were moving at the same speed, which would cause more damage, if one was to hit your car? It is simple physics.

Given these factors, the end consequence is to get the racquet head to be moving as fast as is possible during the moment of contact.

If I recall my physics, momentum = mass x velocity. When people refer to racquet head speed they are really talking about the velocity part of this equation.

But, here was the problem and question for me. "How can one generate racquet head speed and still maintain control over the path of the ball?" In other words, how can you generate power without losing control?

None of the so-called "expert" commentators on TV ever answer this question. They simply put forth the goal.

Well, being a curious individual, I had to see if I could find the answer to the above question…regardless of racquet stiffness, string tension, backswing, or racquet weight.

As many of you know from subscribing to the Tennis Service Photo Feed, I am a sports photographer. In truth, much of what I have learned about this wonderful game has come to me by looking at my images of the pros on both tours.

These still images, however, did not provide me with any insight regarding racquet head speed. So, this summer I did two things. I began taping televised matches and compiling a collection of the slow motion replays. In addition, at the 2006 Pilot Pen Tournament, I brought my own video gear which has high speed taping capability. This feature enables me to tape things at extremely slow motion. (Don’t think of buying your own high speed camcorder…they are very expensive!!!)

I literally spent hours looking at all this video material. Then, one day while watching these videos for the umpteenth time, I noticed something.

Whenever the pros that can really crush the ball (male or female) go for a power shot there is a moment of muscular expenditure that occurs a fraction of a second before they make contact with the ball.

I noticed that Andre Agassi would take his racquet back slowly and begin his stroke with a very relaxed forward motion. However, just a fraction of a second before he would make contact with the ball, Andre seemed to apply more muscle to the racquet’s forward and upward motion. This muscle application would end almost immediately after this contact, and Andre’s stroke finish would be fast but relaxed.

I began examining footage of other big hitters on both tours. Almost without fail, I could notice a muscular contraction a fraction of a second before the player would actually make contact with the ball. Once the contact was made, the muscles (shoulders, pectoral, etc.) would noticeably relax and continue to be relaxed through the rest of the stroke.

I replayed and replayed the sequences, and sure enough, there was a relaxed backswing, a muscling of the ball for a fraction of a second before making contact, followed by a relaxed follow through.

For me, this was a true epiphany. I was excited and had to test my theory. I began to hit with my ball machine and tape my own strokes. I would keep my entire arm, should and chest muscles as relaxed as I could while taking my racquet back. I continued to keep them relaxed as I began my forward motion to the ball (for me this was not easy). It took me a little while, but I finally was able to time the "muscle" part of my stroke to be in sync with making contact with the ball. Once I made contact, I would deliberately "freeze" any motion of my head, and attempt to complete my finish with a relaxed arm and body.

The result was incredible. I began to notice that my balls were hit with what I guess to be about 50% more pace. But more amazing to me…the balls were dropping within the court boundaries!!!

I began to view the video footage that I took of myself. Sure enough! Whenever I hit a powerful but controlled shot, my arm, shoulder and chest were following the same pattern that I first noticed with Andre.

I began to set up targets on the court. Again, I used my ball machine. I would use a very relaxed backswing and finish in my strokes. But, I would really muscle the ball for just a fraction of a second as I made contact. Not only did I find my power increasing, my accuracy with respect to the targets didn’t diminish. If anything, my accuracy (control) increased!

Needless to say, I was more than excited. I began to experiment with this technique when hitting flat, topspin or slice groundstrokes. Though the timing of the muscling needed to be varied slightly with each of these spins, the results were the same. More power with more control.

I found that this process worked equally well with serves and overheads. I would guess that I added a good 10 to 20 mph to my first serve with no loss in accuracy or control. With my kick serve, I would muscle the wrist snap necessary for every spin serve. My balls initially were landing a little short in the box, but they had plenty of kick. After adjusting my toss a little, I found that I could get the kick serve to land deep in the box and jump up another 2 or 3 feet!!!

So, I now know "how" to generate the infamous racquet head speed. I must confess that it does require some practice and adjustment. Taping yourself as you practice will help immensely. The key thing to look for is when your shoulder, arm and chest muscles are constricting to impart power. This power expenditure is really only for the briefest of moments. The rest of your stroke from beginning to end should be done with totally relaxed muscles.

The only strokes that do not benefit from this technique are the volley and half volley. But this makes perfect sense, if you think about it. These strokes are more about "blocking" and "punching" than stroking the ball.

I would be curious to learn of your success, or lack thereof, employing this technique and welcome your e-mails. Be patient. This is really a matter of timing. However, once you get it down, you can really put all your might into a shot (for that brief fraction of a second) and find your "heavy" ball lands just about where you wanted it to land. I guarantee you that on put away shots, you will love this technique.

So, learn to understand how to generate racquet head speed, and I assure you that you will become that 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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