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Your Forehand -- Finicky or Ferocious?
by "Dr. Dave" Stone

The forehand should be your number one weapon. Yes, the serve is important, but you only get to use it in half the games and you may have physical limitations that limit its ultimate effectiveness. Like, if you're several inches under six feet in height, you're just not going to serve like Goran!

But the forehand comes into play in almost every point. And repeatedly. Every time that you can get in a good position in the backcourt to belt a forehand, try to do some damage with it.

The forehand is far more complex than the backhand. Look at all of the variations in players' styles. These variations are possible simply because the mechanical strength of the human forehand motion allows for lots of variability.

Complexity is both an asset and a liability. As you develop forehand skills (a lifelong quest!) you can learn to vary the topspin from flat through roll to moderate top and ultimately the "big dipper."

You can loop the forehand like the Spanish clay-courters or punch it with the simplest of motions -- like John McEnroe. His forehand stroke is about as simple as is humanly possible.

If you develop too much variety, however, you have to be able to make quick and correct decisions. Shot selection is crucial to winning matches. I get a kick out of watching a pro shake his head and scream at himself after a particularly dumb shot. If only he'd had a few seconds to analyze his shot selection BEFORE the shot! But choices must be made instantaneously and based on an intuitive "feel" for what might work at the moment.

If you want to do well in the local club or city tournament, proficiency with a variety of forehand spins and trajectories is especially important. You find yourself playing a menagerie of opponents you may have never seen before. A full draw can throw at you a bewildering array of styles in stroke production, spin, and trajectory.

Example: Let's say you're the loopy type. I mean in your forehand -- I didn't intend to insult you. You love rallies with high arc and moderate to heavy topspin. In the first round of a hard court tournament you play your stylistic twin. Your rallies are aesthetic works of art. The spins and trajectories are glorious. Anyone watching is mesmerized by the parabolas, hyperbolas, conic sections -- oops, I'm getting carried away by my topological tendencies!

But you're good, so you win. You feel unbeatable. In the second round, however, you meet a Neanderthal who's all flat and slice. Everything's low. You don't have time to load up the spin. Too many of your shots dump into the net. And every short ball you hit comes back as an oppressive approach shot forcing you to scramble to the corner, with the big brute blanketing the net.

What do you do? Adjust or lose. You have to be able to flatten out your shots. Am I suggesting to convert to his style? No, that's a losing proposition. He has more experience with his style than you do, obviously. You should still look for the balls that you can load up and loop. After all, the guy that hits the ball flat loves to hit against low trajectories himself.

Whenever you can force him to change the trajectory -- from your loop to his flat, you reduce his comfort factor. His risk is greatly increased when he tries to flatten out a ball and send it back with a tight trajectory off of a high looping, heavy topspin ball that jumps vigorously off the court -- IF YOU HIT THE BALL DEEP!

But you can't consistently hit deep loopers off of this guy's cut shots. To win you need to flatten more of your shots and insure that you get depth. The loopy opponent you played yesterday was far more content to hit a big topper back off of a topper that you dropped a bit short. But this guy will not sit on the baseline and allow you to remain in any comfort zone.

When you're forced out of your comfort zone, you must pay conscious attention to moving your feet. Arguably, the most significant factor in developing a ferocious forehand for all battle conditions is footwork. Forehand versatility tempts you into bad footwork. You have the strength to hit the shot from awkward positions. So, rather than move your feet when you get tired, you simply adjust the stroke. And every shot where you don't pay the price on footwork, you tend to adjust in a slightly different way. One time you're cramped, the next you're stretched. This time your shoulders don't rotate, the next time you add a little extra wrist.

But the "adjusted" stroke is one that you don't practice, typically, and therefore can be categorized as "invented." Every time you "invent" a new shot, your statistics are going to be awful. Another way to look at it is this: Your 4.5 level forehand is now operating at a 4.0 level! The result? You lose!

It is only possible to play to your top potential by putting the whole stroke package together -- footwork, preparation, brilliant shot selection, and full-blooded stroke work. Only as you do this thousands and thousands of times are you able to develop the confidence, strength, and timing to move up to the next level. So get your priorities straight -- take off from work early today and hit that court!


"Dr. Dave" Stone is currently an Associate Professor in the Dept. of Electrical Engineering at Michigan Tech University. A life-long tennis player, he has previously been ranked #1 in Mississippi in 40+ age group and #9 in Southern Region.

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