Over the years that I’ve been playing tennis, I’ve consistently been tempted to try switching from my current ATP forehand to a WTA forehand. I struggle with hitting a weak, spinny shot, and had read all over the internet that the WTA forehand produces less spin and more power.
After a lot of reading on this subject, I thought it might be a good time to do a summary of what I’ve found. So the purpose of this series is to discuss:
- Why I’m considering this
- A comparison between the two strokes, including force and topspin generation
- Some arguments for why timing each stroke might be more or less difficult
- Whether one stroke or the other is better for certain players at the pro and recreational level
- Why, at the recreational level, choosing one shot or the other likely isn’t the major determining factor of how successful your forehand will be
- Why, for now, I’m going to stick with the ATP forehand
As usual, I go way overboard on my research, so I’ve broken this up into 4 posts:
Part 1: Introduction, the two forehands briefly explained, and how force and topspin are developed in them
My struggle with the forehand
When I caught the tennis bug about 4 years ago, I wanted to learn “properly” and set out to watch as many videos as I could. I was convinced by numerous online coaches that I should play like the pros. If Roger Federer can generate the most pace and topspin on his forehand, then doesn’t it just make sense to do as he does?
Early in my research I came across the concept that there are two distinct styles of forehand on tour. The ATP forehand, which is the one most of the men use, and the WTA forehand, which is the one most of the women use.
This was one of the videos I watched on the forehands. It’s hard to come away from watching this believing that anyone in her right mind would choose the WTA forehand.
So, thoroughly convinced that learning the ATP forehand would elevate my game while the WTA forehand would put a ceiling on my development, I started working on shortening my backswing, “patting the dog,” and pronating my wrist through contact.
And what happened? Well, I got no shortage of compliments on my technique. Coaches and players alike were always surprised to find out I was just learning to play since my forehand stroke was so “advanced.”
But in tennis there are no points for style.
No matter how much, at least to the naked eye, my forehand resembled Djokovic’s, I couldn’t hit a ball anywhere near like him. My shots had a lot of topspin, but typically landed somewhere around the service line, where’ they’d sit up nicely for my opponents to crush.
I couldn’t flatten out my stroke.
Last year, I did some video analysis and compared my forehand to Djokovic’s. My main conclusions were that my forehand lacked power because:
- I didn’t turn my shoulders enough
- I didn’t pronate my wrist through contact, but instead held it in a laid-back position until after contact with the ball
So I set out to improve these two flaws, and I found that they weren’t all that easy to change. I still struggle with turning my shoulders all the way to the side, and when I relax my wrist and pronate through contact I do hit with more power (at least relative to my old shot), but really can’t control it (I hit the back fence and the net more than the court).
Over the next year I made no noticeable improvement in my forehand. After watching more videos from a year later, I see that I still don’t turn my shoulders much more than I had been. Habits are hard to break! Relaxing my wrist and pronating through contact does feel better, and produces a bit more power, but I’m not sure I can time this motion properly.
Recently, I saw that Tomaz Mencinger had come out with a video comparing Federer’s forehand (ATP) to Halep’s and explaining why he thinks Halep’s style (WTA) might be better for recreational players, because in his opinion it’s easier to time than the ATP forehand.
I was intrigued. After struggling so much with my forehand, I decided to revisit the concept of the WTA vs the ATP forehand.
Not being one to jump into anything without looking at it from every possible angle, I set out to research the WTA forehand and how it compares to the ATP forehand. While, for now, I’m still sticking to the ATP forehand (I’ll explain why later), I did so much research on this I thought it might be helpful for others if I summarized what I found here.
Remember that I’m not a biomechanist or tennis coach. I’m just sharing what I’ve read the web, pointing to sources of information I’ve found valuable, and doing my best to form my own opinion from this. I’d love to hear if you have different thoughts on this or you think I’m misinterpreting anything.
I’ve watched videos of of pros, looking for similarities and differences between their shots. I’ve read forums and learned how there’s a wide range of opinions on the topic. While most seem to agree that at the professional level the ATP forehand is the shot that can produce more power and topspin, there’s some debate over:
- whether this holds true for women (after all, did most of them just miss the memo that there was a superior shot out there?)
- whether the flatter ball that’s produced by the WTA forehand is more useful in the women’s game
- whether the ATP stroke, with it’s added complexity (more moving parts), is suitable for recreational players
There’s so much out there about these two forehands that it can be overwhelming. I’ll do my best here to summarize the two shots and how power and topspin are developed in this first part of the series.
A lot of this comes from the very interesting blog series, Roadmap to a Hall of Fame Forehand. I recommend reading this if you want a lot of detail on the whole stroke, but I’m trying to highlight the most important distinguishing features of the ATP and WTA forehands here.
Brief explanation of the two styles
Here are a few videos that explain the two forehands:
And if you really want to get into the weeds, the 11-part Roadmap to a Hall of Fame Forehand Series breaks down three types of forehands (the third type, used by Del Potro, is much less common than the other two). In this series, FHT-1 is the WTA forehand, and FHT-2 is the ATP forehand.
According to the videos, the key difference is basically that the ATP forehand has a “pat the dog” position at the start of the forward swing where the racquet face is facing the ground. The WTA forehand doesn’t – the racquet is more on-edge – it’s almost perpendicular to the court right from the start of the forward swing.
In the TennisSpeed blog, the author (who from now on I’ll call SpeedMaster as that’s the name he goes by on his blog) goes into great detail of the force production in the different forehands and why the ATP forehand produces more power and spin with less effort.
From a technique perspective, the key difference between the two forehands is in the orientation of the racquet forearm at the start of forward movement:
- WTA: the racquet forearm is supinated at the start of forward movement (palm facing up)
- ATP: the racquet forearm is pronated at the start of forward movement (palm facing down)
So the videos and SpeedMaster are saying the same thing, but the blog goes into much greater detail as to why one is better than the other for producing spin and power.
The other major difference is that in the WTA forehand the backswing tends to be much larger. If you look at the player from the net, at the back of their backswing you’ll see the racquet on the non-hitting side of the body in the WTA forehand player. In the ATP forehand the racquet stays on the hitting side of the body.
Here’s an image showing the ATP and WTA forehands of Alexander Zverev and Sloane Stephens around the beginning of forward movement:
In Part 3 we’ll look more closely at the two styles and see how there’s a bit of a spectrum of supination at first forward move and length of backswing, more so in the WTA forehand.
Impacts of the differences between the Two Strokes
Most coaches will say that the ATP forehand is better for two reasons:
- A shorter backswing allows more time for hitting faster moving balls.
- A whip-like motion in the arm produces more racquet-head-speed and more spin.
I like the TennisSpeed blog series for explaining the effect of the “whip” in terms of biomechanics.
According to SpeedMaster, there are two primary elements at play:
1. A paradigm shift in understanding how topspin is developed
The old school of thought was that the racquet face should be vertical at contact and brush up on the back of the ball, at a fairly severe angle, to produce topspin. SpeedMaster says Vic Braden championed this concept.
SpeedMaster references the 2005 book, Technical Tennis—Racket, Strings, Balls, Courts, Spin and Bounce by Rod Cross and Crawford Lindsey to explain that topspin is actually imparted when the ball is contacted with a forward tilt of the racquet.
In SpeedMaster’s high speed video research, he found that a relatively shallow swing path and a significant forward tilt of the racquet face produced the most topspin and is what is being done by the top male players.
He shows two diagrams. The first one shows how the racquet needs to be at an angle of about 30° from vertical at the start of the forward swing in order to be vertical at contact. In the old school of thought regarding topspin production, this is what you wanted to have happen.
SpeedMaster references Vic Braden’s book from 1977 called Tennis for the Future, in which Braden says this swing geometry is necessary to compensate for the natural supination of the racquet hand that occurs during the forward swing.
To illustrate this concept, think of a canoe paddle moving through the water. One paddle face will go from closed as it enters the water, to vertical at the bottom of the stroke, to open at it exits the water at the other end.
Because we now know that topspin is produced by having the racquet face somewhat closed at contact, we need to close the racquet face even more at the start of the forward swing. SpeedMaster shows this second diagram to illustrate that the racquet face needs to be about 60° from vertical at the start of forward movement in order to get the desired forward tilt at contact. This is achieved with the ATP forehand, where the hand is pronated at the beginning of forward movement and thus the racquet is more or less facing the ground.
In the WTA forehand, SpeedMaster points out that the players must actively pronate their forearms sometime during the forward swing in order to get the forward tilt at contact. Since their racquets are almost vertical at the start of forward movement, if they didn’t pronate their forearms then their racquet faces would be open at contact. SpeedMaster believes this is a tough motion to time properly.
He says (FFM is first forward move. Pronation at FFM is ATP forehand, supination at FFM is WTA forehand):
Even ATP and WTA pros try to achieve high speed, high spin forehands without using pronation at FFM [i.e. when using the WTA forehand]. It’s just much harder and more complicated to achieve with the same consistency that’s required to achieve the type of forehand speed and spin performance of the top players who use racquet hand pronation at FFM
So to summarize, SpeedMaster believes, based on Cross and Lindsey’s research as well as his own observation of high speed video, that topspin is created not by brushing up on the back of the ball with a vertical racquet face but by hitting with a shallower racquet path with the racquet face tilted forward.
He believes that having the racquet facing the ground naturally brings the racquet face into the ideal forward-tilt at contact with no additional effort by the player.
Players who hit the WTA forehand also hit with forward tilted racquets (less than in the ATP forehand, according to SpeedMaster) but have to actively pronate their forearms to do this – it doesn’t just happen naturally – and this is a difficult motion to time (more on this in Part 2).
2. Force Production via the Stretch-Shortening-Cycle (SSC)
SpeedMaster does a good job of explaining how the SSC works and how it produces force. I did a little further reading on this topic as well.
The stretch-shortening cycle is a pre-stretch of muscles. This stores elastic energy in the muscle and tendon that’s then released when the muscle shortens. This increases the force production.
We do SSCs in many different activities. Let’s say we’re throwing or kicking a ball – we know that the more we “wind-up,” in general, we’ll throw or kick the ball harder. We don’t really think about it, but what we’re doing is pre-stretching our muscles, storing elastic energy. This energy is released when the muscle is shortened during the forward phase of the throw or kick.
What’s less well-known is the concept that the timing of the SSC is critical. You want to minimize the time between the stretch and the shorten. If you kick a soccer ball, you don’t swing your leg out behind you, hold it there, and then swing it forward – the energy stored in the muscles as you stretch them in the backswing dissipates over time.
According to Bruce Elliott in this article, which discusses the SSC in tennis,
The key to the recovery of the elastic energy is the timing between the stretch and shorten phases of the motion. The benefit of this stored energy is reduced if a delay occurs between these phases of the movement.
So how does this apply in the tennis forehand?
It happens throughout your entire body as a “kinetic chain” in all of your strokes. For instance, you bend and then somewhat straighten your knees to produce force. You coil your hips, stretching your glutes and core muslces and storing energy in them, before contracting them to release the energy further along the chain and eventually into the ball.
But what about in the forehand specifically?
The two major motors of the forehand (after the legs, hips, and core, which I’m thinking of as common to all strokes) are:
- the rotator cuff muscles in the hitting shoulder
- the pronator and extensor muscles in the forearm
Rotator Cuff Muscles
One “motor” of the tennis forehand is internal rotation (IR) of the rotator cuff (RC) muscles (forward motion of the swing). To produce a strong contraction of the internal rotation muscles, you want to pre-stretch the muscles. This happens by first externally rotating your shoulder (backswing).
This happens in both the ATP and WTA forehands.
Another group of muscles that add force to the forehand are muscles in the forearm.
As I understand it, in a traditional continental grip forehand, there isn’t much contribution from the forearm muscles. The hitting arm hinges at the shoulder and moves mostly as a unit through contact and after. In this case, most of the force comes from the internal rotation of the RC muscles. See this video to see this stroke.
The modern forehands – both ATP and WTA – involve the following two actions during the swing:
- The wrist lag and supination of the forearm (stretching of the forearm extensor and pronator muscles), followed by,
- Pronation of the forearm and flexion of the hand at the wrist (shortening of the pronator and extensor muscles).
We hear a lot about pronation at contact in the modern forehand, but not much about flexion.
Pronation is the motion of the forearm turning from facing the sky to facing the ground.
But there’s also a flexion of the hand at the wrist happening, which is what causes the racquet to go from a position where the butt-cap is pointing forward (extensor muscles stretched) to one where the racquet head is pointing somewhere in front of the player (extensor muscles shortened). Kind of like shooting a basketball. Some force is produced by moving the hand from extension to flexion at the wrist. Only in tennis this is happening simultaneously with pronation so it doesn’t happen in a straight line. The image of Nadal shows his flexed hand at the wrist and his pronated forearm after contact.
SSC in the forearm:
- Wrist lag/supination during forward swing: The extensor and pronator muscles stretch
- Contact: The forearm pronates and hand flexes at the wrist: Extensor and pronator muscles shorten and their stored energy is imparted into the ball.
SSCs are Occur in both forehands, but are optimized in the ATP forehand
In both the ATP forehand and the WTA forehand these stretch shorten cycles happen. In both forehands the shoulder externally then internally rotates (RC IR muscles stretch then shorten) and the forearm extensor and pronator muscles stretch then shorten.
So How Do These Movements Differ in the ATP and the WTA Forehands?
The key is the timing principle stated above. You want to minimize the time between the stretch and the shortening of the muscles to maximize force production.
Internal rotation of the Rotator Cuff Muscles
In the ATP forehand, the backswing is shorter than in the WTA forehand. But along with being shorter, the stretch in the IR RC muscles happens later, which means that there’s less time between the stretch and the shortening.
The internal rotation muscles are stretched when you supinate your forearm in the forehand. Therefore, by supinating your forearm too early, you extend the time between the stretch and the shortening.
Remember that the WTA forehand has the player supinating at the start of forward movement, so the IR stretch happens at the back of the backswing. The ATP forehand has the player pronating at the start of forward movement, thus delaying supination and delaying IR stretch. In the ATP forehand, the IR stretch happens closer to the IR shortening and the force is therefore higher in the ATP forehand.
The same argument applies for the production of force in the forearm muscles. The extensor and pronator muscles in the forearm are stretched during the wrist lag and supination in the forward motion of the forehand. In WTA players the wrist lag and supination starts right from the back of the backswing, while in ATP players these are delayed. Therefore the stretch happens closer to the time of the shortening in the ATP forehand and so more force stored in the forearm muscles will be applied on the ball.
Summary of the SSCs in the ATP and WTA forehands:
- In both the ATP and WTA forehands, force is produced in stretch-shortening-cycles in the shoulder and forearms.
- In the WTA forehand the stretching phases of the SSCs in the shoulder and forearm both start at the beginning of forward movement because the forearm is supinated and the wrist extended at that point.
- In the ATP forehand the forearm is pronated and neutral at the start of forward movement so the stretching in the IR muscles of the shoulder and the extensor/pronator muscles of the forearm haven’t happened yet. They happen closer to the time that the ball is contacted.
- Therefore, in the ATP forehand there is less time between the stretch and shortening of the shoulder and forearm muscles, so more of the energy that’s stored is conserved and released into the ball.
I should add here that in Part 9 of the series, SpeedMaster further breaks down the ATP forehand into “flexion” and “extension” forehands in reference to the hitting elbow. Basically these are what we think of as the double-bend forehand and the straight arm forehand, respectively. SpeedMaster says that double-bend forehands are leaving a lot of untapped SSC energy in the IR muscles on the table which is why straight arm forehands are more successful. This concept doesn’t really apply to the ATP vs WTA forehand discussion so I’m not addressing it here, but if you hit an ATP forehand with a double-bend, you might want to read the articles to see if you should consider adopting the straight arm style to get even more force into the ball.
Based on this analysis (thanks largely to the Roadmap to a Hall of Fame Forehand series!), the ATP forehand produces more force on the ball and also more topspin due to a more tilted racquet at contact.
It would seem, then, to make sense for everyone to hit with this forehand. But I’m still not convinced of this. A few questions come up:
- Is the ATP forehand more or less difficult to time than the WTA forehand?
- Why don’t the women on tour use the ATP forehand?
These questions, as well as my take on choosing which forehand is best for your game, will be addressed in the next two parts of this series.
Thanks for reading, any feedback is more than welcome!