If you have ever taken a tennis lesson, you already know how much attention will be given to the racquet hand, its grips, its setup and its finish. In fact, I estimate that about 80% or more of all instruction and instructional materials focus on the dominant hand/arm. However, what you do with your "freehand" or non-dominant hand is equally important. This month's column will address what to do and what not to do with this non-racquet hand during a host of different shots.
Let's begin with identifying why the non-dominant or non-racquet hand is so important. First, it is an extremely important element in establishing balance throughout a shot. It serves as a counter-weight to the motion of the racquet and racquet hand/arm. Second, the non-racquet hand can be used to focus attention on the ball before the actual contact. This is greatly beneficial to proper setup. Finally, the non-dominant hand can be useful in helping the player recover from the previous shot. Imagine how much better your game would be if you setup early, focused your attention on the ball, remained balanced through a shot, and
Since the serve is the single most important shot in tennis, we'll examine the role of the non-dominant hand/arm in this stroke first. The non-dominant hand is the hand that is responsible for the toss. When the toss is direct and vertical (no curve to its path), and consistent (always placing the ball at the proper contact point), the entire serve benefits. In fact, I frequently practice my toss while sitting in a chair in my office.
I imagine that I am serving an try to toss the ball to the proper spots (refer to my early column regarding the serve). Next, the non-dominant hand/arm can be extremely useful in maintaining focus on the ball and proper body positioning. Look at any of the really good servers in the game (Sampras, Rosset, Schultz-McCarthy, etc.). They consistently are photographed with their tossing arms fully extended and pointing at the ball. In fact, one of my recovery cues when my serve is off is to make a conscious effort to point at the ball after I have released it in the tossing motion. I find that this is of immense help in aligning my body and keeping my focus on what is really important...the point of contact. Finally, this motion seems to "quiet" my head during the serve (I like to actually see the head still looking at the contact point for a fraction of a second after contact has been made). This seems to help prevent me from dropping my head during the serve (a major reason why serves end up hitting the net). After the contact has been made in the serve motion, the non-racquet hand/arm is again important. Ideally, your motion of follow through has your non-racquet hand actually coming in close to the body (in a kind of "tucked" position). If you see photos of the pros after they have actually hit the serve, they are almost always seen with their non-dominant hand/arm close to their bodies. This action provides adequate "finish" to the serve, counter-balances the forward motion of the body, and assists the server in recovering to a "ready" position.
For very similar reasons, the non-dominant hand/arm is important in the overhead. When I teach the overhead, I stress the importance of pointing at the ball with the non-racquet hand. This makes certain that you are truly following the path of the ball (critically important on windy days) and it helps make certain that your body is turned properly to strike the smash. At the moment of contact, the non-racquet hand's position is critical to keeping the head up.
The forehand is critically dependent upon the non-racquet hand/arm. If you are using a Western or Semi-Western grip, you already know the importance of this hand. As the ball approaches you, the non-racquet arm should be in front of the body and its hand should be tracking the ball by pointing at it. At contact, the
non-dominant hand/arm moves in the same direction as the racquet. This assures proper body rotation during the stroke. Since these two grips benefit from open stances, this rotation is critical in generating pace and spin. Eastern and Continental grips usually are struck from more closed stances. Here the non-racquet hand and arm should be in front of the body as the ball approaches, but it is not as important for them to move with the racquet. In fact, frequently the non-racquet hand "catches" the racquet at the completion of its finish. Still, using the non-racquet hand/arm in the proper manner is important regardless of grip.
The one-hand backhand relies upon proper use of the non-racquet hand/arm as well. Usually, the non-dominant arm moves away from the racquet as the racquet moves forward to strike the ball. I usually describe this action to students with the cue: "spread your wings on the back hand." The action is similar to how we stretch our arms when we first wake up. Look at Thomas Muster's finish on the backhand. Whether he has hit slice or topspin, his arms are fully extended away from each other. This action is where he generates the pace, spin and consistency that are his trademarks.
The backhand volley needs this same kind of spreading motion. Although the volley is a shorter stroke than a groundstroke, the backhand volley benefits greatly from a spreading arm motion. Look at the finish on the backhand volley of Martina Navratilova or Stefan Edberg. Each look as though they are in a parachute
free fall position. If you want to "stick" the backhand volley, this spreading motion is essential.
Conversely, the forehand volley benefits from a closing motion. One of my weaker shots is the forehand volley. I found that I would almost always swing more than I should...until I examined the forehand volley of John McEnroe.
Although the motion is subtle, he actually brings his arms together on the forehand volley. Imagine you are going to clap your hands. Well, that is the motion needed to help you shorten the stroke on the forehand volley. What I try to do is to approach the on-coming ball with my racquet head up and out in front (classic cues). However, as I make contact, I now use my non-dominant hand/arm in a most important way. I actually move it in a direction that is opposite to the motion/direction of the racquet. This "closing" action has helped my forehand volley immeasurably. Using this cue with students has proven that the action is well founded. This closing action automatically forces you to turn your body correctly, strike with a punch rather than a stroke, and keeps you balanced through the volley. Try it...you'll like it.
Two-handed backhand automatically integrates the non-dominant hand (as do two-handed forehands).
The key here is that it is really the non-dominant hand/arm that is the striking agent in the two-handed backhand. I use the two-hand backhand and discovered some time ago that the left arm/hand (I am right handed) is the really important side in this stroke. I can actually strike a great two-hand backhand using any grip on my dominant (right) hand. However, there is only one grip on the left hand (non-dominant) that allows me to strike the ball with pace, spin and control. Next time your two-hand backhand takes a "vacation," try focusing on your non-dominant hand/arm. I promise you that it will "come back home" quickly.
Lastly, we have to address half-volleys. Here, my advice is exactly the same as for the volley. On the backhand half volley, spread your wings. On the forehand half volley, close your arms together.
What you do with your non-dominant hand/arm is of utmost importance in producing great tennis strokes.
Spend some time experimenting. Examine yourself on videotape. Dedicate practice time to perfecting this aspect in every stroke. If you do, I promise that you'll soon become a tennis overdog.
Good luck in your game!!!