When we think about proper stroke production, most of us focus upon the principle components of: stance, grip, contact point and finish/follow through. These are certainly of critical importance, and should be the starting point when analyzing the strengths and weaknesses of any stroke. Not surprisingly, these factors always focus primarily upon what we do with our dominant hand during the stroke.
Still, what we do with our "other hand" has a very important impact upon various aspects of proper stroke production and proper stroke preparation. Rarely, do we receive much information about what should be done with our non-dominant hand.
Well in this month's column, I want to spend some time discussing what can and should be done with the non-dominant hand as one prepares for a stroke, executes a stroke and moves to hit the next stroke.
It should be noted that this month's column probably has most benefit for the recreational or relatively casual player of this wonderful game of ours. Usually, intermediate and certainly advanced players have probably developed proper habits associated with the non-dominant hand. Still, I have seen many high school and collegiate players who could benefit from "fine tuning" what they do with their non-dominant hand.
With this in mind, let's take a look at the first stroke in every game of tennis... the serve. The serve should begin with a ritual that has been established as a natural occurrence by each player. For example, I always begin my serve by positioning myself at the proper location at the baseline. I then lean forward, and I bounce the ball exactly 3 times before I begin my service motion. Obviously, these 3 bounces are performed by my non-dominant hand. The next part of my ritual is a pause where I am standing erect with my weight on my rear foot. (Indeed, I lift the toe of my non-dominant side to be certain that my weight is placed on my rear foot.) While in this paused state, I point my racquet in the direction where I want my serve to go, and I place the ball in my non-dominant hand's fingertips.
It is absolutely critical that a player learn to perform her/his service toss by using fingertips... not the palm of the non-dominant hand. Using the fingertips will result in a more consistent service toss, and equally important, it will minimize the rotation of the ball as it moves upward. It has been my observation that the very best servers on both pro tours always toss using their fingertips, and if you follow the ball's upward path there is little if any ball rotation.
During the winter months when I am do more off court training, I often times will sit in a chair and practice my service toss. I toss using my fingertips; direct the ball to my "spot" (the location that is ideal for racquet contact) and I attempt to minimize any spin on the ball. It may seem extreme, but how one uses his/her non-dominant hand is critically important to developing a consistent serve.
Although I don't believe this is a requisite, I also try to toss my serve without bending the elbow on my non-dominant arm. This "stiff arm" tossing motion provides me with much more consistency. However, I have observed pros on both tours who serve with power and consistency that do not use the stiff arm technique that I prefer. I would encourage each reader to experiment with the stiff arm tossing motion, and see if it brings benefits to her/him.
Finally, if you look at most pros when finishing their service motions, the non-dominant hand and arm are located close to the body and generally in the chest area.
The modern forehand groundstroke relies primarily upon the semi-western or western grip. Some players still prefer the eastern forehand grip, but these seem to definitely be in the minority. Given the nature of the forehand and the semi-western/western grips; the non-dominant hand and arm do not play a tremendous significant role. Primarily, the non-dominant hand/arm is extended forward as the player approaches the ball to execute this stroke. Once the stroke has been executed and fully finished, the non-dominant hand should seek to be placed back on the racquet in one of two locations.
If you hit a one-handed backhand, your non-dominant hand should be placed near the racquet face or throat. If you hit a two handed backhand, you want to place your non-dominant hand on the racquet handle... ready to hit a two handed backhand if needed.
When I watch many seniors and players who are new to the game, I often time see that the forehand is completed without the non-dominant hand being returned to help hold the racquet. Instead, the player keeps the racquet at his/her side... of course in the dominant hand.
Proper recovery after executing a stroke is not simply drifting back to the center of the court. Proper recovery requires that the player is back in what is known as "ready position." You are only in ready position when both hands are on the racquet frame.
The non-dominant hand can play a very important role in helping a player focus upon the ball's path as he/she prepares to execute a forehand. I encourage players to actually point at the ball with their non-dominant hand as the ball approaches. This simple action makes certain that proper body balance is maintained (the non-dominant arm needs to be forward before moving the racquet forward to strike the ball). In addition, this pointing action actually helps the player to really focus better and see the ball's path more carefully.
I remember watching the former tour player Lou Gloria. He was a lefty who had a better backhand than forehand. However if he pointed at the ball in the aforementioned manner when preparing to hit a forehand, he invariably struck a more powerful and accurate forehand. In finishing the forehand, the non-dominant hand can end up in a variety of locations (dependent primarily upon the grip used). However, in all forehands the non-dominant hand generally moves in parallel with the racquet hand as it makes contact with the ball and finishes the stroke. This parallel motion automatically results in proper body rotation necessary to generate maximum pace for this groundstroke.
The two handed backhand is a stroke that is very unique when analyzing the non-dominant hand. In reality, the non-dominant hand becomes the dominant hand. When hitting the two handed backhand, it is really a forehand hit with the non-dominant hand. The dominant hand is a stabilizing element in the stroke. Most two-handed players put their non-dominant hand in what would be an eastern forehand grip. The dominant hand is either in an eastern backhand grip or continental grip. Regardless of which combination you use, ultimately the non-dominant hand provides the power and force in the stroke.
The finish of the two handed backhand usually results in both hands remaining on the racquet handle. The stroke usually finishes with the racquet head ending up moving over the dominant side's shoulder.
One exception to this was Bjorn Borg in his career. In actuality, Borg was hitting a one handed backhand where the non-dominant hand simply provided support. Once contact was made with the ball, Borg would release the grip of his non-dominant hand and finish the stroke as one would a normal one handed backhand. In watching Borg play in the senior circuit, he has abandoned this two handed backhand for the more modern form, and he does not release his non-dominant hand from the racquet handle as he finishes the stroke. Truthfully, I think Borg has lost something by making this change.
The one handed backhand, whether hit flatly, with topspin or with slice; requires two things from the non-dominant hand. First, the non-dominant hand supports the racquet during the backswing. The non-dominant hand is usually positioned on the throat of the racquet near its string bed. Once the take back is fully established, the dominant hand takes complete control of the stroke and moves the racquet forward to make contact.
The second and critical aspect of the non-dominant hand and arm during the one handed backhand is to provide balance through the shot. To achieve this, the non-dominant hand moves away from the forward motion of the racquet. I call this "spreading one's wings" because when the stroke is completed, the player has her/his arms fully extended to each side. This "backwards" motion of the non-dominant hand makes certain that the body's balance is maintained during the entire stroke, and if used properly it can help generate power. The more force you put into bringing the non-dominant hand/arm backwards, the more power your stroke will have.
This "spreading of one's wings" is something that is evident when a player is executing a backhand volley. Regarding forehand volleys, the non-dominant hand plays a less important role, as is the case with the forehand groundstroke. Still, I have found that people who have difficulty hitting an effective forehand volley can enjoy almost immediate benefits if they move the non-dominant hand toward the chest as the racquet moves forward to block or "punch" the ball. It is not a fool proof tip, but it can help in many instances.
Overhead smashes should almost always result in a winner. Many writers and teachers state that the overhead smash is very similar to the serve. I strongly disagree.
The serve is a shot where you control the ball with your toss. In overheads, you are hitting a ball that is moving toward you. When serving, you are not really moving your body in the same way as when hitting an overhead smash. Generally, the overhead requires that you move backwards using crossover steps until you actually position yourself to make contact with the ball. Finally, the court position when making contact with the ball while executing the overhead smash is very different than that associated with the service court position.
The non-dominant hand is extremely important when hitting the overhead smash. First, it should be used as a tracking device. Pointing at the lobbed ball as it moves is a great way to use the non-dominant hand. I use my dominant hand to pretend that I am trying to catch the lobbed ball... much the same as would be the case if one was playing baseball. By pretending that I want to catch the lob, my body is forced to move in perfect position for executing the overhead smash. In addition, my focus of attention remains on the ball at all times.
Oscar Wegner, with whom I trained some years back, always believed that movement on the court should be "mindless." One should never take her/his focus off the ball and focus upon on how one is moving. In his book,
Play Better Tennis in Two Hours, Oscar puts forth some very unconventional but extremely well founded ideas on how to produce strokes. Mindless court movement is just one of these.
Finally, the most difficult shot in tennis, the backhand overhead smash, can benefit from proper use of the non-dominant hand. First, the racquet needs to be prepared to make contact early with the ball, as movement is more difficult. I like to point the bottom of my racquet (where the logo is located) at the ball as I prepare to hit the backhand overhead smash and move to setup for the execution of the shot. The non-dominant hand is at the throat of my racquet and is used to support it as I move. As I make contact with the ball to execute this smash, I "spread my wings" similarly to the manner described above when I discuss the one handed backhand.
As you can see, the non-dominant hand/arm plays a very important role in every shot in this wonderful game of ours. However, we rarely dedicate much practice time or attention to improving how we use our non-dominant hand.
We spend lots of time adjusting grips, working on stances, perfecting our timing and contact points, finishes, and how we move to the ball to execute our strokes. These are what we normally believe are the critical elements to be considered in improving or perfecting every stroke. Indeed, they are.
But, I assure the reader that if you spend time perfecting what you do with your non-dominant hand you will invariably find yourself becoming a