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Ron Waite, USPTR
Let's be honest with ourselves. I doubt sincerely that there isn't a player who is reading this who wouldn't want to increase the power associated with her/his strokes and serves. Indeed, the level of power seen on both sides of the pro tours is rising every year given new technology, training techniques and the "physical stature" of the pros competing. Believe me, I have photographed pros on both tours for over 20 years. I am always amazed at the increased level of power I see each year!
This said, I am going to dedicate this month's column to examining what components go into making for more power in a player's game. However before I do, I must put forth a warning and reminder.
Power is the last component in what I call the building blocks of winning tennis. As a brief review, these are the realities of building a winning tennis game.
- Simple as it may seem, the first rule of tennis is to get the ball over the net. Errors that result in netting balls are far more significant (and may indicate a real stroke production flaw) than those errant shots that land long or wide. One can always take a little off a stroke and elevate its trajectory, if he/she is netting balls.
- Get the ball to land within the lines. Again, this seems straight forward and obvious... and it is. However, consistently hitting balls wide or long is an indicator that something is awry with your stroke production. Correction(s) are needed if the ball is consistently landing out during points.
- Control the direction and placement of the ball. There are many techniques to help a player find ways of consistently placing a tennis ball in the direction that she/he wishes. If you are "on" with respect to your game, you will be able to actually place the ball exactly where you wish on the opponent's side of the court.
- Impart spin. Topspin is the mainstay of the modern game of tennis. However, slice or backspin should not be abandoned. With respect to serves, all spins are desirable. Every player who wants to play truly competitive tennis must recognize that spin is essential, and she/he must master the imparting of spin.
- Power. This is the last and in many ways the least important of the five building blocks of tennis. Assuming that the first four "blocks" are in place and reliable, the would-be tennis winner should definitely work on developing more power. Regrettably, power is usually the first building block of tennis that players attempt to perfect.
Perhaps, an easy way to remember these building blocks is written below:
OVER NET > IN BOUNDS > PLACMENT > SPIN > POWER
Now that we have placed "power" in its proper order of stroke priorities, let's identify the factors that influence power in this wonderful game of ours.
- Racquet head speed
- Length of backswing.
- Racquet weight.
- Racquet stiffness.
- Racquet String and Tension.
- Proper shot anticipation.
- Good kinetic body flow through the entire stroke.
- Body Strength.
Racquet head speed is one of the most common terms heard by players and by TV commentators. Some time back, I spent lots of time using high speed video analysis to see if I could truly understand what this concept means. Truthfully, this was an exercise in futility.
I then spent lots of time analyzing the strokes of pro players using televised slow motion and by personal observation when I photograph pros at ATP and WTA events. It was through these latter techniques that I began a theory on racquet head speed.
The essential concept of racquet head speed is simple. The faster your racquet head is moving at the moment of impact, the more power you will generate. As is the case with most things in this great game of ours, isolating elements is not easy, and truthfully, tennis is a game of integrating many components in a positively synchronous manner.
When I initially wrote a column on this topic and explained my theory, I received many e-mail responses. Most were very supportive. In truth, there are those who believe that my theory does not have merit. Still to this day, I have never taught a player to use the basics of this theory who has not increased his/her power capacity.
Essentially, racquet head speed can be greatly affected by when our arm and hand are relaxed and when they are tightened as we produce most strokes. A relaxed arm and hand allow any player to move the racquet forward faster than if one attempts to "muscle" the movement. Clearly, most of us realize that having a relaxed arm and hand during the service motion provides a faster racquet movement which results in a more powerful serve. In fact, many teaching pros, text books on tennis instruction and pros playing on both tours will keep their little finger off the racquet handle while serving to assure that the arm and hand are relaxed throughout the service motion.
When hitting groundstrokes, my theory is very similar. The player should try to keep her/his arm and hand as relaxed as is possible while taking the racquet back and while moving the racquet forward to make contact with the ball. However at the moment of impact with the ball, the player should tighten her/his grip and muscle the racquet forward a bit. Once contact has been made and the ball has left the strings, the player should once again attempt to relax her/his arm and hand as she/he goes through a complete stroke finish!
It takes a little practice and focus to develop this technique of relaxed movement and tense moment of impact. However, eventually the player can make this a mindless component in his/her groundstroke production. Indeed, I have found that learning this technique actually helps a player improve overall focus when striking groundstrokes. So even if this technique did not produce any additional power (and I would be surprised if it doesn't for you), there is the benefit of better focus on the ball and the timing of your groundstrokes.
Without changing much, anyone can improve power with respect to groundstrokes by utilizing my racquet head speed technique!
The length of your backswing can affect your power capabilities. The farther back you take your racquet, the more time it has to move forward to make contact with the ball. The racquet head naturally builds up more speed. However, there is a major drawback to long backswings. Unless you are very fast of foot, and have great anticipation of your opponent's shots, you probably will not be able to prepare your groundstrokes early enough to be effective. It is my opinion that shorter backswings offer far more benefits... even though these shorter backswings may result in less power.
Racquet weight is a variable that most players really don't consider much when trying to generate more power. Modern racquets can be extremely light (under 10 ounces unstrung!). Wooden racquets were much heavier. 15 + ounce, wooden racquets were not uncommon.
Lighter racquets provide great maneuverability as you play. Indeed if you are a serve/volley player or a doubles specialist, lighter racquets will favor your game style. In my opinion, heavier racquets are far better for the vast majority of players.
Simple physics comes into play when considering racquet weight and power. P=MV.
Power equals Mass times Velocity. By simply increasing the weight (and related mass), a player can automatically increase groundstroke and service power.
The use of lead tape on the sides, tip and base of the racquet head can greatly increase power. Of course, the addition of this added weight changes the balance of your racquet. Still, adding more weight to the racquet's shaft and even under the racquet grip can allow you to achieve the original balance that you prefer. I assure you, that through trial and error, you can find a "pattern" of lead tape addition that works well for you.
Don't be surprised if you find that you are taking a shorter backswing after adding the aforementioned lead tape. You won't need to have a long backswing to generate lots of power. With a shorter backswing necessary, your stroke preparation time goes down slightly. Thus, you have a little more margin for error with respect to stroke preparation.
Although, I have NO scientific evidence to support the following statement, anecdotally speaking the following has proven true for me.
Whenever I have experienced any arm, elbow, wrist or shoulder pain; I have found that adding weigh to my racquets have helped immensely as the healing process takes its course. Frankly, I have no clue as to why this is true for me. But in coaching, I have found that this principle has worked equally well for the younger, collegiate players on my teams who have arm, shoulder, elbow or wrist problems.
Racquet stiffness is a variable that many racquet manufactures tout to promote their frames. Indeed, stiffer frames do provide more power. Each manufacturer has its own rating system to measure racquet stiffness. Usually, the higher the number assigned to the frame, the stiffer it is.
My personal problem with very stiff frames is that they seem to cause more arm and elbow injuries. Again, I have no scientific evidence to support this hypothesis. Still, I have known many recreational players and senior players who have gone to lighter and stiffer frames... seemingly to have the best of both worlds with respect to maneuverability and power. I can relate countless stories of these players having arm, shoulder or elbow problems that arise after the change to a lighter and stiffer frame.
I don't suggest you avoid stiff frames. However, I don't personally believe a light and stiff frame makes sense for the vast majority of players. But again, this is opinion not fact.
Racquet string and tension are significantly important with respect to generating power and spin. Even today, I would argue that natural gut strings are the best strings for producing power while not generating arm or elbow problems. Here again, I have no scientific evidence to support this position. But, every senior player I know prefers natural gut for one simple reason. It generates power without causing injury.
The creation of polyester strings has revolutionized the game of tennis in much the same manner as graphite racquets did decades back. Polyester strings truly do produce power, but also, they generate much more spin. This combination allows pros to hit even harder while imparting topspin to keep their groundstrokes within the lines.
Polyester strings, however, do create a rather "solid" string bed. They seem to amplify the effects of stiff racquets. If you suffer arm, elbow, shoulder or wrist problems, you probably do not want to use polyester strings... unless you use them in a hybrid manner.
Personally, I like to have my main strings strung with polyester, and my crosses to be strung with natural gut. I know of pros who use the exact opposite configuration. The major string manufacturers, in order to make stringing more affordable and durable, now offer all synthetic hybrids where one of the strings is polyester. I know of many younger players who are prone to breaking strings easily, who opt for these hybrids.
String tension is critically important with respect to overall power. The lower the tension, the more power the racquet will generate. I tend to like tighter stringing where there is less "trampoline" effect which results in a bit more control. I keep my stringing in the mid 50 pounds range. However, I know of a successful senior player who strings his powerful frames with natural gut at 42... yes... 42 pounds of tension! With virtually no backswing, this nationally USTA ranked senior player can generate lots of power when he wants. When rallying, he claims that he expends less energy in hitting strokes by using such a low tension.
If you want to increase your overall power, experimenting with different stringing combinations and tensions may pay big dividends. The good thing with this approach is that you can increase power without changing or altering your preferred tennis frame.
Learning to anticipate your opponent's shots can help increase your power. I know... your immediate question is: "How?" Well, early preparation means that you are most likely to be able to execute a more perfect stroke. The more perfect your stroke execution, the more likely you can hit with power and still control placement.
How can you improve your anticipation? Well first, begin to keep records on your opponents. Most of us play the same opponents over and over. Simply writing down preferred shot selection patterns can go a long way toward helping you get an edge on where your opponent is going with his/her shot. If the player is a new opponent, try to observe one of her/his matches. Scout your opponents, or if you have a coach, have him/her scout for you. At pro tournaments, I am constantly seeing player's coaches scouting possible opponents... even though their player may have played this opponent many times. The more you know about your opponent's game the better your anticipation will be.
Every good stroke requires a proper series of kinetic, body movements. Frequently, you will hear coaches and teaching pros yelling things like, "Bend your knees." "Stay down through the stroke." "Finish the stroke completely." "Don't move your head while making contact with the ball," etc.
Each of us has a unique series of body motions that must be put into a flowing pattern if we are to maximize power and control. Isn't this really the goal? To hit every shot with as much perfect form as is possible is what we seek. Not all of us walk, run or move the same way. Each of us has unique strokes. Some of us hit one handed backhands while others hit two handed varieties.
Regardless of your idiosyncrasies, there is a kinetic body movement flow that is the best for YOU. Teaching pros, coaches and hitting partners can be great sources for understanding what you need to do to maximize this flow.
However, videotaping yourself is in my mind the very best tool for stroke improvement. Once you see yourself executing groundstrokes or other shots, you will immediately cringe. Once the shock of seeing yourself is behind you, you will begin to see where you are not using your body's energy and movement correctly. You can begin to make simple changes and videotape yourself periodically. You will note the improvement and make note of what still needs to be done. If you can videotape yourself in real time and in slow motion, you will have the most amount of information for improvement. For me, videotaping oneself playing tennis is the single best tool for improving stroke production.
When you discover the proper fluid and flowing motion you need for stroke production, you will automatically increase your power capacities.
Lastly, there is much to be said for increasing strength. All things being equal, the stronger player hits the more powerful shot. I know of no pros on either tour who do not dedicate training time to strength conditioning. In fact if you visit the academies in Florida or Spain, I assure you that you will see many young, aspiring pros working hard to improve not only their strokes and speed... but their strength.
Muscle mass is not the answer. Rather, strength is the goal. Granted, becoming stronger usually involves more muscle and more defined muscle. But, you don't see many "body builder" types competing on the pro level.
Each of us who love this game finds ourselves dreaming, at one time or another, of taking our power game to the next level. This is normal, and really is a goal for which one should strive.
Keeping power in its proper perspective and exploring each of the eight, influential factors I have identified in this month's column will increase your power without destroying your ability to control placement and spin. Once all these elements come together as an integrated whole, you will be well on your way to becoming a tennis overdog!
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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.