Hopefully after last month's column you are seeing the ball better. Well now its time to address how you
position your body to strike the ball...in other words, let's talk about stance.
First, let's be clear about what general catagories of stances exist: open stance, semi-open stance, closed
stance and severely closed stance. How do you know what stance you are using? I think the clearest and
most foolproof method is to focus upon your hips and navel (a.k.a. bellybutton). In an open stance, the hips and navel are facing straight ahead...toward the net...at the moment of impact. In a semi-open stance, the
hips and bellybutton are facing at a 45 degree angle to the net...often the navel is pointing right at one of
the two net posts. With the closed stance, you face sideways and the hips and bellybutton are perpendicular to the net...facing one of the two sidelines. The severely closed stance positions the hips and navel almost toward the fence behind the player...here, you actually have your back to the net.
At any given time, each of these stances is appropriate and court situations (particularly "crisis" situations)
may force the use of one of these stances...even if it is a stance you rarely or never use! But when we do have a choice in choosing a stance, what stance should we use? Several factors must be considered in
answering this question: forehand, one-hand or two-hand backhand?...continental, eastern (forehand or
backhand), semi-western or western grip?...groundstroke, half volley or volley?
Let's look at the forehand groundstroke first. Generally, pros today hit almost all forehands with an open or semi-open stance. Why? Because open stances are more natural, require less preparation are more deceptive and provide for power. If you give a racquet to a student who has never played tennis before and ask her/him to hit a forehand, they will invariably hit with an open or semi-open stance. I think this is our natural stance for this shot. My belief is to keep things as natural as possible...another tennis universal. Although you'll hear teaching pros tell you that the open and semi-open stance require that you take an additional step to the ball, my studies do not bear this out. Rather, you move to the ball naturally and do not have to prepare as much by turning your body sideways... unnaturally. If you have ever played an opponent who uses either of these stances, you already know how difficult it is to read where he/she is going with the shot. Finally, open and semi-open stances force you to rotate the upper body before striking the ball. This is why these stances provide so much power. Thus, I recommend that you try to hit most of your forehands from one of these two stances (remember...sometimes you just can't, given the situation). If you use a western grip, the open stance will be extremely effective. With semi-western grips, either the open or semi-open stance will work well. If you are an eastern forehand player, you are limited to the semi-open and closed stances. Unfortunately, if you still hit groundstrokes with a continental grip, you are forced to hitting in a closed stance...unless you desire reconstructive arm, wrist and shoulder surgery...especially, if your opponent hits high bouncing balls to you. (Actually, Stefan Edberg can hit the open stance forehand with a
continental grip. It's his weakest shot, but a testimony to his skill and prowess. Don't try this at home!)
Two-hand backhand groundstrokes permit the use of closed or semi-open stances. I recommend the semi-open whenever possible for the same reasons associated with forehand grounds. Look at Agassi's backhand. Whenever possible, he hits it from a semi-open stance. I think this is why his returns on this side are so good. The same holds true for Jimmy Connors, even though his stroke is much flatter or perhaps sliced. With returns, you rarely have time to hit with anything but a open or semi-open stance unless you are pulled wide. This holds true for all forehands and backhands, regardless of grip. The short racquet takeback found when hitting from an open or semi-open stance lends itself to the return!
One-hand backhands provide many options. Open stances are definitely out, but an occasional shot from a semi-open stance can be struck reasonably effectively if you are hitting slice or a slice lob, and if you are using a continental grip. For the most part, one-hand backhand groundstrokes require the closed stance...regardless of grip. When trying to impart heavy topspin, I think you'll benefit from using a severely closed stance. Just look at Vilas, Muster, Philippoussis, Yzaga or any of the great clay-court one-handers. They setup with their backs to the net when they tee-off on these shots. ItŐs truly a beautiful sight to watch every millimeter of body rotation being thrown into these shots. Watch how these masters prepare for the shot and how they finish. You'll learn a ton!
If you do not already use open or semi-open stances, there is a drill that will help you to become acclimated to them. Find a backboard or wall. Hit groundstrokes from backhand to forehand to backhand, etc. However, let the ball bounce twice before you hit it. This will give you enough time to move carefully and deliberately. Pay attention to your stance! Whenever possible try to hit the ball from an open or semi-open stance (obviously, this does not apply to the one-hand backhand). In no time, you'll find yourself hitting shots from these stances effortlessly and without thinking. Playing tennis is like driving a car. The only time you should be really conscious of what you're doing is when you have to be. The more automatic your strokes, footwork, etc. become...the better!...another tennis universal.
In future articles, I'll address stance as it applies to the approach, half-volley and volley. For now, focus on
developing proper groundstroke stances...and soon you'll become a tennis overdog!!!