Although we are in November and those of us north of the equator are probably experiencing some winter-like weather, this is not the time to abandon proper form development in ones strokes. Indeed, this is probably the very best time to start to work on improving every stroke.
Although we may not be playing this wonderful game as frequently as we do during the warmer months, we should make every effort to hit every stroke perfectly. If we can put the time in now, we can change and improve by the time those spring and summer months roll around again.
Fall and winter are times for assessment and change in my mind. We all can improve our strokes. In fact, one of the things that I love most about this great game is that we never can be complacent. If we are, we may find some of our strokes deteriorate. More importantly, if we are complacent, we do not find ourselves moving forward.
A good number of my readers are folks who are relatively new to the game of tennis. They, like me, are totally addicted to the wonders of this superlative sport! Frequently, these neophytes are in need of building a solid foundation with respect to strokes.
Well, this months column will address what are the essential checkpoints associated with groundstrokes. These checkpoints have relevance to volleys, half volleys, serves and overhead. But, the groundstroke is the "bread and butter" of tennis. Without solid groundstrokes, the player is unable to return serve effectively or rally with authority.
So, whether you are a seasoned "pro" or a novice, it behooves every player to review this checklist periodically. If you work on "discovery" and any associated corrections during your "off season," you will be ready to resume championship play come the spring and summer.
There is a hierarchy to this checklist, and the following aspects are listed in the order of their "position" in this hierarchy. Please notice that I did not state, "in the order of their importance." Every one of these facets is important. Indeed, the last is the most important in my mind. However, things take place in a particular order when hitting a groundstroke. And therefore, first things should be placed first.
- Contact Point
- Stroke Finish/Follow Through
"Grip is everything!" Although I cannot remember where I first learned of this statement, I believe it originated with Rod Laver, although I am not certain that I have quoted him exactly. Even if not an exact quote, I firmly believe that the message is well founded.
Everything in the mechanics of a stroke is built around the grip that one uses for the stroke. In that no two people are exactly the same, it is not surprising that there are differing grips for each stoke. Of course, some grips are more appropriate for the modern game than others.
There are three grips that I would recommend for the forehand groundstoke: the Eastern Forehand Grip, the Semi-Western Grip and the Full Western Grip.
The Eastern Forehand Grip is essentially the "shake hands with the racquet handle" grip that has been taught for many years. Focusing on the base knuckle of your dominant hands index finger (the knuckle that is located where the finger meets the base of the hand), the Eastern Forehand Grip places this knuckle on the side of the racquet handle. To arrive at this grip, simply spread your fingers open across the string bed on your racquet face. Then, just slide down slowly until you arrive at the handle. You should now be holding the racquet in the Eastern Forehand grip.
(Note that you can click on each of the images in this article to pop up a larger, higher-resolution version.)
The Semi-Western Grip is my preferred forehand grip. It places the base knuckle of the index finger on the bevel of the racquet handle that is between the side and the bottom. If you place the racquet handle on your foot with the head on the ground, bend over and pick it up by its handle, you will be holding the racquet in the Semi-Western Grip.
The Full-Western Grip is where the base knuckle of the index finger is resting on the bottom of the racquet handle. If you pretend that the racquet is really a frying pan and hold the handle as you would a frying pan, you are using the Full Western Grip. To hit a forehand with this grip, you need to bend your wrist at the moment of contact to open the racquet face.
Each of the above grips is used by pros on both of the tours. The Eastern Forehand grip is less likely to produce topspin than the others, but was essentially the grip used by Pete Sampras. It is not the most common grip in the modern game. But, this is not to suggest that adopting this grip as your primary forehand grip is wrong.
The Semi-Western Grip seems to be the most common grip among pros. It naturally allows for the imparting of topspin, but is still will allow a player to hit a ball flatly and with power. It is not as "severe" a grip as the Full Western Grip. So switching to a backhand grip(s) is usually not a difficulty.
The Full Western Grip is used by many pros. It automatically imparts lots of topspin. Of course hitting slice with this grip is very difficult. Clay court players often times choose this grip as their primary grip because of its high contact point (to be discussed later in this article). It is a bit more difficult to hit low bouncing balls with this grip if one does not bend ones knees! Moving from the Full Western Grip to a backhand grip(s) can be a bit challenging for players
especially when returning serve.
The decision regarding which of the above grips will be your primary forehand grip should be based on "feel," comfort and determining which grip seems to allow for the most control. Any of these can be hit with pace. So, how the grip "fits" and how well one can control forehand groundstrokes should be the main deciding factors.
One-handed backhands usually take one of two grips, the Continental Grip or the Eastern Backhand grip.
The Continental grip places the index fingers base knuckle on the bevel between the side and the top of the racquet handle. The so called, "Hammer" grip is a great way to arrive at a Continental Grip. Just hold the racquet handle as if you were using the racquet as a "hammer." Pretend that you are hitting a nail into the ground or a wall with the side of the racquet head. Once you have this hammer grip, simply move your index finger up the handle a bit toward the racquet head. You now have a true Continental Grip. The Continental grip is great for hitting slice, but can be use to hit a one-handed, driving shot.
The Eastern Backhand Grip is probably the most common grip among pros who favor one-handed backhands. The index fingers base knuckle is really placed on the top of the racquet handle. To get this grip, simply put the racquet above your head and a bit in front of your body using your non-dominant hand. Keep the racquet head positioned so that the strings are facing directly at the ground. Now, simply reach up with your dominant hand and grab the racquet handle. You are now holding the racquet in the Eastern Backhand Grip. This grip can be used to hit slice, flat backhands and is great for imparting topspin. Thus, it is probably the grip of choice for modern one-handed hitters.
Two-handed backhand grip combinations vary greatly. Regarding the dominant hand, players will hold the racquet with any of the three forehand grips described above. I use a Continental Grip on my dominant hand (right) when I hit my two-handed backhand. Why? Well, every player has to be able to hit one-handed slice. I find that using a Continental Grip in my combination allows me to drop my left hand and be automatically ready to hit this one-handed slice.
Really, the non-dominant hands grip is the more important grip when hitting the two-handed backhand. Spend time finding a grip for this non-dominant hand that feels as though you could hit the entire stroke with your non-dominant arm. Then, add the other (dominant) hand to the handle. One needs to experiment a bit to discover the right non-dominant hand grip. Once this is found, add the dominant hand, and again, experiment with differing forehand grips. Eventually, you will find a combination that feels right.
There are variations within each of the above grips. Your positioning may vary a little bit from the "ideal." Everyones hands vary and different players use different racquet grip sizes. In addition, each manufacturer shapes the racquet handle a bit uniquely. Dont worry about having a "pure" grip. Rather, make sure the grips feel solid and work for you.
The Two-Handed Grip with Dominant Hand in Eastern Backhand Grip
The Two-Handed Grip with Dominant Hand in Continental Grip
The Two-Handed Grip with Dominant Hand in Eastern Forehand Grip
Lets be clear. When playing matches, there are many times when a player is forced to hit a stroke from a stance that is awkward. If a player is scrambling to get to a ball, he/she hits with whatever stance possible. "Emergency" situations occur.
However once a grip is in place for a given stroke, there are stances that are more ideal for this grip than others. This is not to say that if you are out of an ideal stance for a given stroke/grip combination that you cannot hit effectively. Rather, it is to suggest that when you are not in ideal stroke/grip stance, you need to hit more defensively. These are not the times to go for winners. Keeping oneself in the point should be the primary goal.
My nomenclature for stances may vary a bit from other tennis writers. So, I must begin by clarifying what stances I see existing.
- THE OPEN STANCE: Whether hitting a forehand or backhand, an open stance is where a player is facing the net directly.
- THE THREE-QUARTER STANCE: In this stance, the players body is at a diagonal to the net. Usually, a players front foot is facing directly toward one of the two net posts, depending on whether one is hitting a forehand or a backhand.
- THE CLOSED STANCE: For me, any stance where the body is primarily facing sideways to the net is a closed stance. In this definition, I do deviate a bit from what others may call a closed stance.
For each stroke/grip, there is an ideal stance. These ideals can vary a bit, but once you decide upon a grip for a given stroke, you will probably discover that the best shots hit with this stroke/grip combination will be struck from the listing below.
- EASTERN FOREHAND GRIP: Usually, this stoke/grip benefits when the player is in a closed stance or a three-quarters stance.
- SEMI-WESTERN FOREHAND GRIP: Almost always, players using this combination discover that the open or three-quarters stance is the ideal.
- WESTERN FOREHAND GRIP: A player almost necessarily must use an open stance to hit ideal forehands using the Western Grip.
- CONTINENTAL BACKHAND GRIP: Players are virtually required to hit from a closed stance if they wish to hit a backhand ideally using this grip.
- THE EASTERN BACKHAND GRIP: Usually closed stances or three-quarters stances are the ideal for this grip when hitting a backhand.
- TWO-HANDED BACKHANDS: There are many grip combinations for two-handed backhands. Almost without exception, the two-handed backhand can be hit effectively from any stance, in that the two hands permit myriad adjustments when making contact with the ball. Still, most players adopting the two-handed backhand find that the closed and three quarters stances are the ideal.
I should note that most players do not vary their forehand grips when in a less than ideal stance. By this I mean that a player is not likely to move from a Western or Semi-Western Forehand Grip to an Eastern Forehand Grip when she/he is out of an ideal stance. There simply isnt sufficient time, and thus, such changes can find the player midway in a grip change when actually making contact with the ball.
On the backhand side, a player who hits with a two-handed backhand may benefit from having her/his dominant hand grip the handle with a Continental Grip. Why? Well, if the player is forced to stretch for a shot or decides to hit the one-handed slice (Every player needs to be able to hit the one-handed, backhand slice.), she/he need simply take the non-dominant hand off the racquet handle. Now, the player is properly prepared to hit the one-handed, backhand slice.
By the way, when a player is stretched out on the backhand wing, he/she is most likely to be in a closed stance. This is the ideal stance for hitting with the Continental Grip.
When making contact with the ball, there is an ideal contact point for each stroke/grip combination. Now, this is not to say that one can always find a way to be making contact perfectly. But knowing where the ideal contact point is for each of your groundstrokes is critically important information.
I see many players going for winners when the situation does not allow them to make ideal contact with the ball. To me, this is very foolish.
My rule is simple. I will not go for a winner nor will I hit a ball with maximum pace unless I am certain that I can make contact with the ball given the stroke/grip combinations ideal contact point. Adhering to this rule will automatically help a player play percentage tennis, and thus, make fewer errors. Lets face it. Tennis is not a game of winners. It is a game where the victor probably makes fewer errors.
Here, however, are the general guidelines that seem to be associated with the aforementioned stroke/grip combinations.
- EASTERN FOREHAND GRIP: The ideal contact point is at around knee height or a bit higher with the ball being at the side of the player or slightly in front of the body.
- THE SEMI-WESTERN FOREHAND GRIP: Here, the best contact point is somewhere around waist height and slightly in front of the body.
- THE WESTERN FOREHAND GRIP: This stroke/grip combination likes balls that bounce high. Thus, the ideal contact point is at about waist to chest height and definitely in front of the body.
- THE CONTINENTAL BACKHAND GRIP: The height of the ideal contact point is usually a bit low
between the knees and the waist. In addition, balls that are hit at the side of the body or in front of the body are usually best.
- THE EASTERN BACKHAND GRIP: Ideal contact point for this stroke/grip combination is around waist height and slightly in front of the body.
- TWO-HANDED BACKHANDS: Once again, a great advantage of the two-handed backhand is that there is a wide range of possible, ideal contact points. Each player needs to discover where her/his ideal contact point may be. The two grips used in holding the racquet will dictate where this ideal contact point may be. Still, two-handed players can hit with authority and pace even when the ball is outside the ideal "strike zone."
My friend, David Ranney, constantly promotes the importance of stroke finishes, and I think he is correct in giving this aspect of a stroke such emphasis.
When I have traveled to the famous tennis academies, I have noted how frequently the coaches at these schools will remind players to finish correctly.
If for each stroke a player finished exactly the same (assuming the finish is correct), the player would invariably experience greater consistency and control. Of course, there are times when each stroke cannot be finished ideally. But, the goal should be to try and make each finish as proper and consistent as is possible.
Each grip/stroke combination has its own ideal finish. Your ideal finish may vary a bit from what is pictured below. But, it should probably be pretty close.
EASTERN FOREHAND GRIP FINISH
THE SEMI-WESTERN AND WESTERN GRIP FINISHES (Both of these grip/stroke finishes have very similar attributes. Each player must discover for herself/himself exactly how the finish should be completed. The most important attributes are to make certain that the finish is either an over-the-shoulder finish, or a bit less common but more likely to be appropriate for strokes using the Western Forehand Grip, players may finish in a windshield wiper-like manner. In this latter finish, the racquet crosses the front of the body very similarly to the motion of a cars windshield wipers. However, the more common finish for both of these grip/strokes is what is pictured below.)
THE EASTERN BACKHAND GRIP FINISH
THE CONTINENTAL GRIP FINISH
TWO-HANDED BACKHAND FINISHES (Here again, the finish for the two-handed backhand should be pretty much the same regardless of the grip combination used.
There will be variances in the ideal, to be sure. However, the concept of finishing as if the player was throwing a sack of potatoes over his/her shoulder is a good concept to keep in mind as he/she discovers the exact finish that works best.)
My strong belief is that each player should constantly work on improving her/his stroke form. Certainly, there are many things that need to be considered in perfecting these stroke forms. Footwork and backswing are just a few of the elements not addressed in my column this month.
However, the key factors that to which each player must attend are grip, stance, contact point and finish. If these are in proper form and executed on a consistent basis; the player will invariably make fewer errors. Errors, not winners, at every level of the game determine who wins.
Recognizing that newer players may have difficulty arriving at grips, I have prepared a video (albeit not too sophisticated) that will illustrate some simple ways to arrive at holding the racquet in the aforementioned grips. Use these techniques to start at using a particular grip. Then, check your grip against the still images provided above.
All grips must be tailored to suit a player. Some grips may be totally inappropriate for some players. However, seasoned players may find that adding some grips to their options allows for greater success on the courts.
The bottom line is clearly that synchronous strokes are essential to playing better tennis. No one can hit every groundstroke with the ideal elements in sync. Still, the goal should be to try.
Synchronous stokes yield more consistency. More consistency yields fewer errors. Fewer errors yield more wins. More wins will invariably make you a tennis overdog!
PS. I have produced a little video that will hopefully help those of you who believe that finding the aforementioned grips confusing and difficult. Hopefully, these simple ways to "get a grip" will make finding these grips easier.