So far in this series on the WTA and ATP forehands, we’ve looked at force production in the two forehand styles and timing issues. Now I’d like to tackle questions about the women’s forehands at the pro level.
The very names of the two forehands exist because most men use the ATP forehand and most women use the WTA forehand (or so we hear in a lot of videos comparing the two). Why is this?
The purpose of this post is to look at
- Reasons why the WTA forehand might be better for women’s biology and their games
- Whether or not it’s true that most women hit the WTA forehand, and whether there might be an intermediate stroke between the ATP and WTA forehand that many current female pros hit
If the ATP forehand would be an advantage in the women’s game, then why don’t many use it?
For now, let’s just assume that pretty much all women on tour hit the WTA forehand. The exceptions most commonly noted are Justine Henin and Sam Stosur. But in “ATP vs WTA forehand” videos the general message is that most women hit the WTA forehand, or at least that’s the impression I’ve always had. Why would this be?
Is it really possible that while the men gradually experienced a revolution in their technique the women and their coaches weren’t aware of this or chose to ignore it? There would certainly be at least a handful of women hitting the ATP forehand and if this was the better shot, wouldn’t these women quickly rise to the top? The forehand isn’t the only shot in tennis, but it’s a pretty significant one, and if yours is way better than everyone else’s you’d think it would give you a pretty big advantage, no?
There’s plenty of speculation around the web as to why most pro women don’t hit the ATP forehand.
Some Reasons I’ve read around the web
From a biomechanics standpoint:
1. Women aren’t strong enough to generate enough spin and pace.
Yes, the ATP forehand generates extra force, but it also changes the racquet geometry to create more topspin. So depending on the amount of force generated and the balance shift from pace to spin, you could get a net decrease in pace. Or the combination of topspin and pace doesn’t result in a heavy enough ball. So perhaps women are better off putting their energy into pace with a bit of topspin, which is what the WTA forehand produces.
2. Women don’t have the strength in their forearms to control the whip action,
This could lead to decreased control and more errors.
3. Women tend to have inferior spatial awareness than men from a biology perspective.
According to this article: https://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2008/12/081217124430.htm
Men consistently outperform women on spatial tasks, including mental rotation, which is the ability to identify how a 3-D object would appear if rotated in space. A new study shows a connection between this sex-linked ability and the structure of the parietal lobe, the brain region that controls this type of skill.
We’ve already discussed how the ease of timing the two forehands may or may not differ, but if it is more difficult to time the ATP forehand, then women might struggle with this more than men.
From a strategy standpoint
There’s an interesting viewpoint on Quora by Laurence Shanet, who describes himself as a Former College/Satellite Tennis Player and tennis coach.
Basically he says that a flat, powerful ball suits the women’s game right now (it won’t necessarily stay this way). Women have lower “shot tolerance” which is their ability to get to the ball with enough time to hit a good shot back. So while the flat, powerful shot is risky, it has a high reward potential since it will force a lot of errors.
On the ATP side, the men have developed better shot tolerance (they men move better and have developed the shortened backswing to deal with powerful shots), so power isn’t as effective against them. Consequently, they’re better off hitting safer shots, with more spin, at wider angles.
So perhaps right now the WTA forehand is better suited to the women’s game, but maybe in the next generation it won’t be. Or maybe women’s biology will keep the WTA forehand as the ideal stroke for them, unless women get bigger, stronger and faster. More on this below.
Do most women actually hit WTA forehands?
In doing this research, I watched a lot of videos of pros hitting forehands, and what I saw actually surprised me.
Of course, no two forehands are identical, but I do think there are clear trends that can be identified.
On the men’s side, pretty much all top men hit a “classic” ATP forehand. Recall from Part 1 that this was defined as having a pronated forearm right at the start of forward movement of the racquet. The racquet face is usually pretty much facing the ground at this point.
This image shows that Djokovic, Nadal, Monfils and Federer all get into the “pat the dog” position at the back of their backswings.
On the women’s side, I didn’t find it quite as clear. There were some forehands that were easy to define as WTA – the forearm is completely supinated before the racquet moves forward. The palm is clearly facing up. I think you might call this a “classic” WTA forehand. This image shows 4 WTA players with this forehand.
And, on the women’s side, there were some forehands that were obviously ATP style. The images aren’t as nice since the names aren’t as big, but here are 4 women who clearly have fully pronated forearms at the back of their swings:
But then, there were a ton of forehands that I had trouble putting into one category or the other. For these women, their forearms aren’t completely pronated, but also aren’t completely supinated, at the start of forward movement – they’re somewhere in between. They don’t get into the “pat the dog” position, but their backswings are typically shorter than in the classic WTA forehand.
In Part 7 of the Roadmap to a Hall of Fame Forehand, SpeedMaster talks about a 3rd category of forehand that he says is used today by Juan Martin Del Potro and Richard Gasquet, and was the forehand used by legends such as Pete Sampras, Bjorn Borg and Andre Agassi.
The characteristics of this forehand are:
- during the racquet drop, the arm moves as a unit with no change in position of the upper arm, elbow, wrist and hand. This can be compared to the WTA forehand where, during racquet drop, the forearm is actively supinating so that it’s fully supinated at the end of the drop.
- at the start of forward movement, the forearm is “moderately” pronated. Not as pronated as in the ATP forehand but not as supinated as in the WTA forehand. If you said the palm was facing down in the ATP forehand and facing up in the WTA forehand, then it’s largely facing sideways in the FHT-3 forehand.
I think that a bunch of women might be using what I’m calling the MID forehand and what SpeedMaster calls FHT-3. Remember that SpeedMaster called the WTA forehand FHT-1 and the ATP forehand FHT-2.
Who’s using the MID forehand? Angelique Kerber, Garbine Muguruza, Petra Kvitova, Lucie Safarova, Caroline Wozniacki, and Eugenie Bouchard are some examples. There’s a spectrum within this category where some are closer to WTA and some closer to ATP.
Images of the MID forehand
First, Here are 3 images that SpeedMaster shows from Pete Sampras’s forehand, which he calls an FHT-3 forehand (note that it goes from right to left).
Next, here are screenshots taken from Safarova’s, Kerber’s, Wozniacki’s and Kvitova’s forehands. The videos are linked in the captions.
These women have shorter backswings than in the WTA forehand, and they keep their forearms fairly neutral between pronation and supination until the forward swing. Safarova’s and Kivtova’s, in particular, look a lot like Sampras’s above.
Compared to the WTA forehand, this has the effect of:
- Shortening the swing for improved ability to handle fast balls.
- Delaying the stretch of the IR RC muscles and the pronator/extensor muscles in the stretch shortening cycles. In the WTA forehand the IR RC muscles are stretched early on in the stroke when the arm is stretched Like in the ATP forehand, shortening the time between stretching and shortening muscles maximizes the energy produced. See Part 1 for a detailed explanation of how this works.
- Starting the racquet in a more pronated position at first forward movement, which causes it to naturally be more tilted forward at contact without as much of an active forearm pronation. This might make the timing easier (according to SpeedMaster) and help generate more topspin.
Compared to the ATP forehand, the MID forehand doesn’t generate as much extra force because the pronation at first forward movement isn’t as extreme. The muscles aren’t stretched as much and the movement in the forearm is less pronounced.
So the MID forehand might provide a good alternative for some women because it has a shorter backswing than the WTA forehand but still generates less topspin than the ATP forehand, so more energy goes into pace on the ball.
What’s the point of this discussion?
I didn’t think I’d be getting into this when I started this series. Basically I thought that the men on tour use the ATP forehand and, with a few exceptions (like Sam Stosur and Justine Henin), the women hit the WTA forehand.
SpeedMaster says that, at the time of writing Part 7 of his series (October 2012), 2 out of the top 20 male players hit FHT-3 (MID) forehands and the rest hit ATP forehands.
I looked at the current top 20 female players and, from what I can tell, here’s the breakdown.
- 10 hit WTA forehands
- 4 hit ATP forehands (S. Williams, Kuznetsova, Konta, Stosur)
- 4 hit MID forehands (Kerber, Muguruza, Kvitova, Wozniacki)
- 2 I can’t tell (I can’t find clear enough video on Bertens, and Bacsinszky’s is very unusual looking due to her grip)
So I think it’s a bit misleading to say that most women hit WTA forehands. You could say that most women don’t hit ATP forehands, but I think a lot of them are hitting non-WTA forehands.
It seems to me like there’s a range of forehands used by the women on tour. I’m not sure if this is evidence of an evolution in the women’s forehands towards the ATP style or if there will just always be a range, but I do think it’s interesting and it shows that a variety of forehands can work at the top level of the women’s game.
If women’s biology is making it more difficult for us to hit ATP forehands (or anything other than WTA forehands) then at the professional level a lot of women are overcoming this. And not just those that are bigger, stronger, faster than the rest. To me this says that the biology argument isn’t all that solid.
What does Serena do?
Serena is an interesting case study. I put her in the ATP category above because there are clear video examples of her hitting ATP forehands.
In this video taken at Cincinnati in 2014 by Tennis Unleashed, she gets into a “pat the dog” position. If her forehand isn’t totally ATP, it’s very close.
And in this video from the 2015 Australian Open by Slow Motion Tennis she’s clearly hitting ATP forehands.
But, if you look back, she used to hit WTA forehands at least some of the time. Here are screenshots from videos of Serena’s forehand from 2008, 2012, 2014 and 2015. In 2008 and 2012 her forehand (at least in these videos) was quite classically WTA. But in 2012 and 2015 it is ATP. It’s possible that Serena hits a bunch of different forehands at different times – this is a very small sample size after all – but it does appear that her forehand has shifted over time from WTA to ATP based on these four videos and from what I’ve seen on tv.
Maybe Serena’s change in style shows an adaptation to the power in the women’s game and the beneficial shortening of the backswing to handle it. Or maybe she wanted some extra power and spin on her forehand so changed for that reason.
Regardless of why she did it, Serena has managed to dominate the game with both a WTA forehand and an ATP forehand.
It will be interesting to see what the women’s forehands look like in the future. Only time will tell, but to me it seems like there might be a shift from WTA to ATP already.
- Typically, we’re told that there are two distinct forehands – one that most men on tour use, and the other than most women use.
- Hypotheses as to why women hit the WTA forehand abound on the internet. Some reasons include their biology and the power-heavy style of the women’s game.
- I think that, on the women’s side, there are actually three categories that most forehands fall into.
- The 3rd category is an intermediate between the ATP and WTA forehands. The forearm is partway between pronation and supination at the start of forward movement of the racquet and the backswing is much shorter than in the WTA forehand. This is similar to the forehands of Del Potro, Sampras and Agassi.
- Serena Williams has likely changed from a WTA to an ATP forehand over the last 10 years.
All of this suggests that, for professional women, more than one forehand can work. I always come away from videos on the “ATP vs WTA forehands” feeling like the women hit an inferior stroke. This analysis has made me realize it’s not that simple.
I’d love to hear your thoughts on this.
Next up we’ll be concluding this series with some thoughts on how this applies to recreational players and why, for now, I’m sticking with my ATP style forehand.