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True Grip...no, not the movie!

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Ron Waite, USPTR

When I first started playing the game of tennis some seven years ago, a friend of mine related a saying that he attributed to the famous Rod Laver. It went something like this:

"In the final analysis it all boils down to grip."

Well, whether or not Mr. Laver really did make this statement, I firmly believe that the implications of this quote are quite valid. So many of you have written to me with questions regarding grip, that I decided to address this facet of the game, post haste!

Before any point can begin, you have to grip the racquet. How you grip the racquet has profound impact upon how you should stand, at what moment you must hit the ball and the kind of spin that you can impart. Let's briefly review what types of grip exist (obviously, I am referring to the dominant hand's grip):

  1. WESTERN FOREHAND: This is rapidly becoming the most common grip for the forehand. It is characterized as a "palm under" grip. It is sometimes known as the "frying pan" grip because it is similar to the way people hold frying pans when they are cooking. The base knuckle of the dominant hand's index finger (where the finger and base of the hand meet) is actually under the handle grip. It is placed on the bottom plane of the racquet handle grip. This grip forces you to bend your wrist severely to strike the ball with a properly positioned racquet face.

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  2. SEMI-WESTERN FOREHAND: This is a little less severe than the full Western grip. It is really a quarter rotation from the Western grip. Here, the index finger's base knuckle is placed on the lower slanted bevel of the racquet handle's grip. To clarify, if you are a right handed player, your right hand's base knuckle should be on the lower right slanted bevel of the grip if you are holding the racquet with the butt cap (or bottom) on your belly button (navel). This grip requires just a bit of wrist bending to position the racquet face properly for impact.

  3. EASTERN FOREHAND: This is the traditional "shake hands" forehand grip. It places the palm of the hand behind the racquet. By this, I mean that the index finger's base knuckle is on the flat side of the racquet's grip. This would be the right side of the racquet handle if you are right handed and are holding the racquet with the bottom or butt cap on your navel. A firm wrist is required but no wrist bending.

  4. CONTINENTAL FOREHAND/BACKHAND/VOLLEY: This is often called the central grip because it is something between a forehand and backhand grip. In fact, it is the preferred grip for volleying and for serves that involve spin. It can be used for the backhand slice with effectiveness and is perfect for half volleys. It is characterized by having the palm "on top" of the racquet. This means that the index finger's base knuckle is on the upper slanted bevel of the grip. If you hold the racquet with its bottom or butt cap touching your belly button or navel, you would find this base knuckle on the upper right hand slanted plane of the racquet handle if you are right handed.

  5. EASTERN BACKHAND: This is the most common grip for the one-handed backhand drive. It places the base knuckle on the top of the racquet handle. The thumb of the dominant hand is frequently placed in a manner to provide added support to the grip (put the thumb on the left, side plane of the racquet handle's grip...if you are right handed).

  6. SEVERE EASTERN BACKHAND: This grip could be called the Western backhand grip. Here, the grip places the base knuckle on the upper left, side bevel of the racquet handle's grip (if you are right handed). This is the grip of many one-handed clay court specialists (e.g. Muster). It enables the player to hit the one-handed backhand in a way that easily imparts topspin.

    NOTE: So far, each grip change is a quarter turn different from the grip that precedes and follows it.

  7. TWO-HANDED BACKHAND: There are countless combinations of grips when one starts analyzing the two hands needed for this stroke. Usually, the dominant hand is in an Eastern Forehand, Continental or Eastern Backhand. The non-dominant hand I usually in its own Semi-Western Forehand, Eastern Forehand or Continental. (Remember the base knuckle cues and translate the position for this non-dominant hand.)

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These are the "pure" definitions for these grips. In actuality, your Continental grip may lean a bit to the Eastern Forehand or the Eastern Backhand...or your Eastern Forehand may lean a bit toward the Semi-Western, etc. Only you can find the right grip for the particular stroke you are attempting to hit. Personally, I use a Semi-Western forehand for 80% of my forehands. At times, I use an Eastern Forehand and a Continental. On the backhand side, I use a two-hand stroke 80% of the time (dominant right hand in Eastern Forehand and non-dominant, left hand in its own Eastern Forehand). The rest of the time I am in a Continental grip for one-handed slices and defensive lobs. The point is...each person must discover what grip works best for her/him in a given situation. Most accomplished players have at least a few grips which they vary as is needed. I suspect that some of you are still a bit confused about these grips...is this an Eastern Forehand or a Semi-western, etc. I considered generating photographs to accompany this article to help clarify grip position, but I thought better of it. Why? It has been my experience that students try to copy every little detail of the grip as portrayed in the photograph. This is actually counter- productive!. Every player must tailor her/his grips! What is important to know is which of these grips are closest to what you use. You can be off a bit in your grip and still understand what it can or can't do well for you.

To help you understand the strengths and weaknesses associated with the above grips, I offer the following:

    The Western Forehand is a great grip for high bouncing balls. It naturally imparts topspin. So, it is the first choice of clay courters. Low bouncing balls (especially with slice) are the nemesis for the Western Forehand grip. When given these types of balls, the player who uses this grip will often hit the net or over compensate and hit too deep. When they do hit the low ball well, they go cross court most of the time. The Western Forehand grip requires that the player hit the ball well in front of his/her body.

    Semi-Western grips suffer some of the same pitfalls as the Western, but are a bit more flexible. They are, in my opinion, the most useful forehand grip in today's game on today's surfaces (hard courts and clay courts). They to require that the player hit the ball in front of the body...but not as far in front as is required by the Western. Low balls can present a problem unless the player learns to "lift and roll" the ball. If she/he can do this, the low ball can come back at you as a winner!

    The Eastern Forehand is the preferred forehand grip from the older era of tennis (when grass courts weren't so rare). It is a great grip when you want to drive the ball "flatly," but it can be used to impart either topspin or slice. Low balls are usually not a problem for a player using this grip, but high balls can result in replies that bounce out. Don't rule this grip out as your first choice! It's strength is its flexibility. An important point to realize about this grip is that you do not hit the ball in front of the body when using this grip. Rather you hit the ball parallel to the side of the body. Hitting in front will make for errant shots and probably result in a bit of arm/elbow pain.

    The Continental grip should be used for backhand slice, serving, overheads, and volleys (in a future article, I'll discuss why I think the Continental grip may no longer be the preferred grip for volleying). However, the "Connie" forehand is a clear liability for the modern player. Any high bouncing ball will frustrate the player who uses the Continental grip as a forehand grip. High balls are not comfortable on the backhand side, but the player can use the Continental grip and slice the high ball back with effectiveness. Only the volley should be hit in front of the body using the Continental grip. Groundstrokes (either forehand or backhand) should be hit with the ball to the side and a bit behind the body.

    The Eastern Backhand grip is a mainstay grip for the one-hander. You can hit low or high balls well with this grip, and you can hit topspin, flat or slice balls effectively. It is the utility grip for the one-hander. Like its forehand counterpart, this grip requires that you strike the ball parallel to the side of your body... again, not in front.

    The Severe Eastern Backhand grip is the topspinner's choice. It is like a Western Forehand in terms of strengths and weaknesses. The low ball presents a problem (especially with slice) and the grip really only allows for topspin (even flat shots can be difficult). If you are a clay courter, you'll want to add this grip to your arsenal.

    Two-handed grips are so varied that it is difficult to make generalizations. Usually, two-handers return serve well...even when served wide. The serve that comes straight at her/him is more of a problem. Two-handers usually hit flat or more likely with topspin (Connors is one of the few two- handers who can hit the slice well). Two-handers are very common today in part because this approach makes for strong grip support. However, two-handers usually don't volley well and often times have trouble with low and/or slow paced shots (in a future article, I'll address how I believe the two-hander can become an effective volleyer). I would advise two-handers to work on developing a one-hand slice that uses a Continental grip (look at what this shot adds to Mats Wilander's game!).

What each player should try to do is discover his/her best grips for each situation. This can only be done through trial and error. Hitting against a wall/backboard or using a ball machine are two of the best ways to speed up this discovery process. Pay attention to ball height, first. What grips work best for low balls, medium balls, high balls? Next pay attention to where you must strike the ball in terms of your body (in front, to the side, or slightly behind). Third, experiment with what spins you can impart with each grip (topspin, flat, or underspin/slice). Fourth, evaluate how easily you can move from one grip to another (it may be impossible for you to move from a Western Forehand to a Severe Eastern Backhand regardless of the benefits!!!). Finally, pay attention to how your arm, wrist, elbow and shoulder feel after practicing. If anything hurts when you use a particular grip, try to figure out why...are you hitting too early, too late, too wristy, not wristy enough, etc. If things continue to hurt...abandon the grip!

I know that consciously thinking about grip will almost always result in a bit of paralysis by analysis. But really, there is no other way to figure out what works and what doesn't. Be prepared to be a bit frustrated as you venture down this experimentation path. In time, you'll know what grips work and when. Make written notes of your discovery process. Once you have arrived at your array of grips, solidify them through practice. Be consistent in using them!!! Perform lots of repetitive drills to firmly establish these grips in your muscle memory. Again, wall work or ball machines can greatly accelerate this process. If and when you become frustrated with a new grip (or its impact upon old grips), comfort yourself with the fact that in time it will become second nature and in time it will allow you to become a more complete player.

It is my belief that many of our errors in tennis can be directly or indirectly traced to grip. Even small changes in grip can have a profound effect upon the ball's path. I think this may explain why on one day we can't seem to get a ball in, and on another day, we are "zoning" every shot. We probably think we are using the same grips on each of these days, but in reality, we have likely altered our standard grips ever so slightly.

Sometimes when I am not playing well, I review my grip "cues." Frequently, I discover that I am not gripping the racquet as I should on a given shot. Once I realize the problem and make the correction, I deliberately take my mind off the grip and back onto the ball. What I don't want to do is to dwell on the grip while competing...maybe when practicing, but never when competing!

Finally, pay attention to your opponent's grips. They will give you valuable insights on how to attack! Remember, no one hits every type of ball well. Once you discover what your opponent doesn't like, give her/him lots of these shots. Her/his grips are often times the cues that help you discover the weaknesses!

Pay attention to your grips and to your opponent's and soon you'll become a tennis overdog!

For more information on tennis grips along with extensive grip photography, be sure to read Ron's sequel to this article: The Grip: Picture Perfect.

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This column is copyrighted by Ron Waite, all rights reserved. Questions and comments about these columns can be directed to Ron by using this form.

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.


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