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That's Just Baloney!
by Tony Severino
Certified Instructor 4A
Professional Tennis Registry

Tony Serverino Photo
Tony Severino

My Aunt Hazel thinks I'm the neatest pro that ever stepped onto a tennis court. Why? First, I'm her darling nephew, and second because she doesn't have to listen to what I tell her. Some other pro told her to "Hit out in front!" And she does.

How often have you heard that advice? It means well, but it's just baloney. As I explained to Aunt Hazel, a classic groundstroke, like a good submarine sandwich, is made up of several ingredients, all of which contribute to the whole. There's the hard roll, lettuce, tomato, peppers, onions, deli meats, some salami, vinegar and oil, American and Provolone cheeses (my weakness), pickle and chips on the side, and, of course, baloney, (ok, she says bologna). If that's the only advice you get, there's a lot missing. You only got a baloney sandwich when you paid for the full hoagie.

Aunt Hazel's reaction to this instructional gem: "I'm hungry, dear! Let's do lunch!"

Aunt Hazel loves this game. For her forehand, she bends at the waist, leans forward and hits out in front, usually with a last second push from the wrist. She uses a frying pan grip and no shoulder rotation at all. No use to tell her "get the racquet back early." It stays frozen, head high at her right temple. She just reaches out and hammers at the ball out in front, just like she was told. Oh yes, she also lets out this high-pitched shriek as she does so.

However, her strokes have surprising accuracy and sometimes a touch of pace. Very few have both pace and accuracy. However, she loves the game and her strokes will never change. But so what!

Well, if you hit like Aunt Hazel but aren't satisfied with your game, think about this. The PTR Instructor Guide lists seven steps in teaching the forehand. Hitting the ball out front is sixth out of the seven progressions. Very briefly, the seven are the grip (eastern forehand), stance (ready position), turn (pivot and shoulders back), racquet back (hand still), movement to the ball (dancers' feet), point of contact (out in front) and follow thru (a grand sweeping motion in the direction of the target). It's good to add a hearty exhale as you contact the ball, so long as you don't let out a squeal like Aunt Hazel. Geeze!

It's just the old fashioned, standard technique, actually with much less exertion. You can see why we say good groundstrokes, whether forehand, backhand, closed stance, open stance, are very much like a good hoagie. Each ingredient adds to the total. The German word for this is Gestalt! There's more to it than just "Hit out in front!" That's just the baloney!

Aunt Hazel uses the Open Stance with her forward foot opened out to the non-dominant side so that her body virtually faces the net. In the Closed Stance, of course, the forward foot is either in line toward the net with the rear foot, or slightly to the dominant side. The same terms are used in baseball.

There are times when you must reach out, extend yourself and sometimes slap desperately at a well-delivered return. Here we're talking about those many, many points when there is time and opportunity to stroke the ball using a well programmed standard technique. That's when improved accuracy and pace show up, by letting your body movement and rotation help that expensive racquet earn its keep. Aunt Hazel beams when I get on this soapbox. Then she does as she pleases. She means well.

Let's talk!

Do we "hit out in front?" Of course we do, but not like Aunt Hazel. In the ideal situation, the classic stroke calls for intercepting the incoming ball at an angle about forty-five degrees to the net and contacting the ball in front of your forward kneecap. Be aware, if you are moving parallel to the net, all your potential energy is moving sideways, not towards your target area.

Do we bend? Sure we do, but we bend at the knees, not at the waist like Aunt Hazel. We bend our knees and "load up" the rear leg like a coiled spring ready for release.

Do we lean into the ball? Well, not as such. Leaning is an off-balance position. Actually, leaning into the ball is a figure of speech. It really refers to the unleashing of all that recoiled body potential from back to front to propel that expensive, high tech racquet towards its intended purpose.

Visualize this: If you were given a large, heavy ball -- a medicine ball, for instance-- and had to toss it in the air to a backboard 20 feet away, how would you do that? You certainly wouldn't bend forward and try to flip it. Aunt Hazel ...never mind! More likely you would take the ball in both hands, turn your body, right or left, move the ball to the rear and weight up your back leg. Then you would propel the ball forward, using your body weight and the uncoiling motion of your turn to power it toward the backboard, releasing it as it passes your forward knee. Thump!

Try it! It's a good exercise. It's that rhythm that you want to put into your strokes. Admittedly, this doesn't address the Open Stance stroke directly. The shoulder turn, the employment of body weight is similar enough to be useful. Aunt Hazel thought I was bonkers to suggest it, but the concept is there and I'm still her favorite pro.

Aunt Hazel tells me the Open Stance is not really new. Eddie Dibbs used it on the pro tour back in the early seventies. She remembers. Then it was called "hitting off the wrong foot" and, if you will pardon another slight diversion here, she remembers when the signature shot of Steffi Graf, the Inside Out Forehand, was called "running around the backhand." Times change.

The popularity of the Open Stance today is due mainly to the incredible improvements in equipment. Racquet technology has improved so much that the Closed Stance is not the only choice. Even racquet string technology has undergone remarkable development, a subject worth looking into.

Truly times change, but the basics haven't.

With advent of lighter frames and wider hitting surfaces it became easier to brush up the backside of the ball and create topspin. This led to the increased popularity of the full and modified Western grips to produce heavier topspin. The Open Stance is now the choice of many younger players as well as many touring pros. The important thing, open or closed stance, is that the shoulder turns with the racquet going back, and unloads when striking the ball. That torque unwinds towards the ball with your body weight now measured in foot-pounds-per-second-per-second, added to all that marvelous technology built into your racquet. You don't really have to swat the ball into next Tuesday anymore.

We tried to make the argument that the classic groundstroke is put together like a good submarine sandwich, made up of several ingredients, all of which contribute to the gestalt. When the only advice you get is 'hit out in front!' that's just Baloney! Let's do lunch!

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