Here it is February, and we are just coming off the first of the four Grand Slams, The Aussie Open. Having photographed many tournaments on the ATP and WTA tours, I can tell you that over the years the pace of groundstrokes has greatly increased! Even with heavy topspin, the men and women on these tours are truly hitting the cover off of their serves and strokes!
Invariably when asked, almost all players desire to increase the pace and power associated with their strokes. Of course, powerful shots are no good if they don't land "in bounds!" Nevertheless, most players would like to add more "umph" to their shots. All things being equal, a ball that comes at a player with significant pace is more difficult to return/reply than one that is not. So, it is not an unworthy goal for players to want to increase their overall stroke production power.
Really, power in this great game of ours can be influenced by factors that are not actually part of the stroke itself.
Racquet stiffness impacts how "hard" a ball is hit. The stiffer the racquet, the more likely the ball is hit with pace/power. With modern racquets, manufacturers are constantly increasing the effective stiffness of frames. When purchasing a racquet, manufacturers use numbers to indicate the level of stiffness. In most schemas the lower this number is, the stiffer the frame. So if you frame has a level of let's say 3, it is going to be more stiff than a frame with a number of 7.
There is always a trade off in tennis... and in life for that matter! Stiffer racquets generally do not provide the same "feel" as racquets that are less stiff. Most pros on both tours are not looking for the racquet frame to be overly significant in generating pace or power. The pro seeks to "feel" each shot well and probably has the form, etc. to generate sufficient pace using a more flexible frame.
If you are a senior player who is trying to hit shots a little deeper or with a bit more pace, increased racquet stiffness may be an easy way to increase the "weight" of the shots you hit.
It should be noted that stiffer frames may impact tennis elbow. I will re-address my thoughts on tennis elbow and its causes in a future article, but the consensus of opinion is that stiffer frames are not friendly to those who suffer tennis elbow. Whether or not the stiffness is the cause of all tennis elbow is still a bit debatable. Clearly, strings that are not pliable (e.g. Kevlar) exacerbate tennis elbow.
Another way to quickly increase the potential power and pace of your shots is to lower the tension of your strings. Even a 2 pound decrease can make some noticeable difference in the pace and "weight" of the balls you hit.
Here again, the "trade off principle" comes into play. By lowering the tension of your strings, you increase the "trampoline" effect of the string bed. Thus, balls are more likely to have pace, but lower string tensions make "controlling" your shots a bit more tenuous. Go too low, and you may lose control entirely.
Parenthetically and anecdotally, I must share with you the string tension of my good friend, Peter MacPartland. Pete has been nationally ranked in both singles and doubles over many years of competition. He uses a frame with a 98 square inch head. However, he strings his racquets (at last inquiry) at 42 pounds! Somehow, he can control the direction and depth of his shots. Most of us would be sending balls into another zip code if we used such a low tension.
Modern string technology (particularly polyester strings) has enabled players to impart more spin to their shots. By increasing the amount of topspin associated with groundstrokes, players can hit "harder" while still not hitting balls out. Today, there are many combinations of strings that enable players to find the right blend for their particular games.
Generally speaking, oversized head frames impart more power than smaller head frames. Not many pros are seen using a frame with a 110 inch head. More often than not, pros prefer head sizes that range from 93 to 98 inches. Still moving up to a frame with let's say a 100 inch head from a 98 inch head will provide a bit more "juice" to your shots. Although the "sweet spot" in frames with large heads is increased, there is probably a bit of trade off with respect to control. For most players, the smaller the racquet head, the more control you have over your shots.
Apart from the above, all power can be ultimately traced back to what is called racquet head speed.
To fully understand racquet head speed and why it is so important when it comes to generating pace, we need to review a little basic physics. Not to worry! There is no quiz at the end of this column.
Momentum is a key concept in understanding pace and power in the game of tennis. We are always moving a racquet head forward to intercept and strike an oncoming ball. The only exception to this would be when we serve and we toss the ball up. To understand in "real" terms what momentum is, let me offer the following.
Assume you have a bus and a motorcycle. Both of these are traveling at let's say 60 MPH. Assume you are driving in your car and one of these two is going to collide with your car making a let's say a side impact. Which would likely cause the most damage to your car? The bus of course!
The motorcycle would likely bounce off of your vehicle leaving damage, but it would probably be reparable. The bus given its size and weight (mass) would definitely cause major problems for your car and probably endanger you the driver.
In this example, both vehicles are traveling at the same speed. Both impact your car at the same exact place. However, the bus causes much more damage because it had greater momentum at the moment of impact. Why? Well, the bus has greater mass.
The physics formula to explain this is:
Momentum = mass x velocity. (Where velocity is the speed of the vehicle in our example)
So, let's apply this formula to a tennis racquet.
Assuming that two racquets are moving at the same exact speed, the heavier racquet (the one with greater mass) will impart more energy to the ball sending it back with greater velocity and pace.
(Those of you who are really into Physics will want to remember the whole concept of kinetic energy and one formula associated with kinetic energy which is KE = 0.5 x mass x the velocity squared. If this doesn't make sense to you, don't worry. It is not essential to understand this concept.)
Back to our example, this is often times why some pros put lead tape on the heads and shafts of their racquet frames. By adding the lead tape, the racquet head increases in terms of mass. The more mass the racquet has, the greater impact it will have on the pace of shots hit with this racquet.
Sometimes, you will see pros who have lead tape on their frames because a racquet technician has "weighted" and "balanced" each of the pros frames to a preferred standard. Mass produced frames do not always come off the "molds" exactly the same. So, pros go to racquet specialists to make sure that each of their frames is identical in weight and balance.
Of course, some pros add weight to the heads and shafts because they simply prefer to hit with a heavier frame. Generally speaking, most racquet manufacturers are developing lighter frames. Why? Well, there is always a trade off. Lighter frames may be less powerful, but they are easier to maneuver. This latter attribute can be very significant when volleying and/or when you are stretching to hit a ball that is a good distance from your body.
Changing the weight of your racquet frame will result in changes in your timing and/or the amount of "take back" you need to make when preparing to hit a shot. Unless you are making a really significant change in weight, it should not take you too long to "adapt" your stroke production to the new configuration. So, one way to increase the power of your strokes is to simply add a bit of weight to the frame. Most players do not pursue this approach to increasing power.
So, the other variable which we can alter to increase the momentum of our shots is to increase the velocity... going back to our original formula. This is where racquet head speed comes into play.
We are constantly changing the racquet head speed of our racquets without consciously realizing that we are. For example when we warm up, we generally hit groundstrokes at a three quarter pace. We may hit the stroke so that the ball clears the net a bit higher to be sure to get it deep to our opponent during the warm up. But, we will be slowing down the speed of our racquet head at the moment of impact when we want to hit these pre-match, practice shots.
Conversely if we want to impart more pace to a shot, we need to increase the racquet head speed at the moment of impact. If the racquet head is moving forward with greater velocity at the moment that it strikes the oncoming ball, the momentum of the racquet is greater and the resulting shot is returned with greater velocity and pace.
For all intents and purposes, the tennis ball does not change in terms of mass. (Purists will rightfully argue that the fuzz that falls off the ball as we strike it makes it diminish slightly in terms of mass.) Since we cannot change the mass of the ball, the only way we can affect its momentum is to increase the velocity at which it travels. If the racquet head that strikes the ball is moving faster, the ball will come off the strings moving at a faster pace.
Thus if you seek to increase the pace of the shots you hit, you are clearly able to achieve this by increasing the racquet head speed of your frame as you make contact with the ball. As we have seen, this is not the only factor that influences the pace of shots, but it is clearly one that every player should be able to apply.
So all of this begs the logical question: How can I increase my racquet head speed?
Here are my answers to this key question.
1. Keep a very loose arm, shoulder and grip throughout the take back of the racquet and after making contact with the ball. However at the moment of impact, I have found that squeezing my grip on the racquet handle exactly at the time that the strings make contact with the ball gives the "stability" one needs to truly "strike" the ball firmly.
Do not attempt to muscle the ball to generate power. A relaxed arm, grip and shoulder will allow the racquet to move forward faster than if you grip tightly throughout the stroke (or serve).
I explain this process in greater depth in a previously published column entitled "The Need for Racquet Head Speed."
YOU WANT TO READ THIS PREVIOUSLY PUBLISHED COLUMN TO FULLY UNDERSTAND HOW I DISCOVERED THIS APPROACH TO RACQUET HEAD SPEED ENHANCEMENT!!!
2. Use your entire body to generate the forward motion of the racquet. Good tennis strokes and serves are a result of a fluid and integrated "kinetic chain of motions." You will constantly hear tennis commentators on TV speak about the need for hip/body and shoulder rotations. When rotating these body parts in a synchronous/unified manner, you automatically will generate more racquet head speed.
3. Try to get your legs into the shot. When hitting serves or hitting ground stokes that impart topspin, using an upward motion of your legs at the moment of impact will increase racquet head speed and power. For many players on both pro tours, you can see them actually lifting off the ground as they hit a forehand or two handed backhand groundstroke. In these situations, they are literally helping to impart some of the shot's topspin by this leg and body motion. In the modern game of tennis, topspin is a necessity. More and more, you can see players who go "airborne" as they hit their "groundies." One handed backhands do not really lend themselves to the player coming off the ground, but still a deep knee bend while preparing for this stroke will help impart upward body motion.
4. Don't forget body weight transfer. "Leaning into your shots" (especially when hitting one handed, backhand slice) can help impart a little more "umph" to your strokes. Practice leaning forward and transferring your weight forward at the moment of impact. If you are going airborne with a stroke, just move forward as well as up.
5. Flick your wrist on forehands and two handed backhands. If you watch many modern pros, you will invariably see that when hitting topspin groundstrokes, the wrist is often used to enhance racquet head speed. A player like Raphael Nadal is an excellent example of this. He will use his wrists on both forehands and two handed backhands to increase the upward racquet head motion associated with his topspin groundstrokes. One handed backhands generally do not lend themselves to anything but a firm, static wrist at the moment of impact. Two handed backhand groundstrokes, however, can definitely employ this technique.
6. Finish your strokes and serves fully. What we do after the moment of impact is really important. Although the ball has left our strings, we still need to fully finish each stroke and serve. In doing so, the continuous "flow" that is really part of every good stroke or serve is assured. If you are using the technique that I describe above in point 1, a full finish is critically important. You want to relax the grip after the moment of impact and in a fully relaxed manner you want to follow through fully.
Perhaps, the only strokes in our game that do not really need or benefit from racquet head speed are volleys! By its very nature, the volley is more of a blocking and/or "punching" like stroke. Long take backs, big swings and massive follow throughs are not part of good volleying.
Those of you who read my column regularly will know that I value depth, direction and spin far more than I value power. In truth, power should be the last of our concerns. But indeed, it should be a concern.
We don't need to change racquet frames, add lead tape, adjust string tension, etc. to increase the power in our shots. Each of us, however, can increase our racquet head speed and increase the pace of our serves and strokes. I assure you that if you do increase your racquet head speed that you will soon become a