This is the last instalment in a 4-part series looking at the great forehand debate. See the other parts of the series for discussion on:
Now I want to look at what all of this means for recreational players. Which forehand should we choose?
This is the question that initiated all of this research.
A year after I did an in-depth analysis on my forehand, I still hadn’t made any noticeable improvements. Whenever I did any reading about learning to flatten out your forehand and hit with more power, I always came across the “ATP vs WTA” debate and was tempted to switch to a WTA forehand because:
- The WTA forehand is known for producing flatter shots.
- I’m a woman, and therefore my biology might be better suited to the WTA forehand.
- The women on tour hit WTA forehands, so, as a woman, maybe I should too.
- The ATP forehand is too hard to time for recreational players, and maybe women in general.
In Parts 1-3 of this series I looked at these arguments in depth and here’s what I found:
- The WTA forehand does produce a flatter shot based on the racquet geometry, although this can be overcome by pronation of the forearm just before contact.
- The ATP forehand imparts more force on the ball than the WTA forehand by delaying the stretch-shortening-cycle in the internal rotation muscles of the shoulder.
- Regarding timing of the ATP and WTA forehands, there are arguments on both sides for which is easier. I don’t think there’s a clear answer.
- The women on tour actually, in my opinion, hit a range of forehands. In the current top 20, only 10 hit WTA forehands. 8 hit ATP forehands or a 3rd type, which I call MID forehands since they’re partway between WTA and ATP forehands.
- The MID forehand has a shorter backswing and delays the stretch-shortening-cycle compared to the WTA forehand, but not as much as the ATP forehand. It’s the forehand that was used by Sampras and Agassi.
- If women’s biology makes the ATP forehand harder for us, then there are plenty of women at the pro level showing that this isn’t a barrier. There are plenty of women on tour hitting ATP forehands or something close to it with great success.
So, coming back to the question of which forehand is better for recreational players, what’s my conclusion?
It doesn’t really matter!
Here’s my take:
1. The differences imparted by the different forehand styles are probably small compared to the effect of solid fundamentals that are common to all forehands.
Yes, the racquet arm behaves differently in the two strokes, but what about the feet, legs, hips, and core? These large muscles are where the majority of power in the strokes is developed.
You can generate extra energy in the ATP forehand that’s transferred to the ball. The geometry of the stroke will automatically generate more topspin. This might be desirable for your game or it might not be. But again, the majority of the success of your shots will depend on much more than how much extra force you develop in your muscles via the SSC, or whether your racquet face is more or less tilted forward at contact.
Look around at any recreational club and you’ll see the higher level players hitting amazing forehands with both techniques. If these players are older, they’ll more likely be hitting the WTA or MID forehand, but they’d certainly be blowing my ATP forehand off the court. Not necessarily because of anything to do with the differences between our racquet arm movements, but because they’d use the right footwork to get into position, properly coil and uncoil their lower bodies, hips, trunks and shoulders to transfer their energy smoothly along their bodies in a kinetic chain, and they’d have practiced enough to time their strokes well.
Before writing this post, I was pretty convinced it was time for me to give up on my ATP forehand. The majority of what I’d read on this before said that the ATP shot has more spin, while the WTA forehand is flatter and more powerful.
I’ve been struggling for years now with hitting penetrating shots. Coaches are always encouraging me to flatten my shot out, and I thought that maybe the way to do this was to switch to the WTA forehand.
But now, after this analysis, I have a better understanding of how force and topspin are produced in the two forehands, and I’ve done a lot of analysis of my own stroke and watched a lot of videos of pros with both forehands.
And what I’m seeing is that there are elements common to both forehands that I don’t do well.
For instance, one of the major flaws that I identified last year in my forehand was my lack of shoulder turn. While I said that I would work on this, I don’t think I’ve really made much of a change in how much I turn my shoulders. I still stay fairly open to the direction of the net, even on forehands where I step in.
Watch any ATP or WTA forehand on tour and you’ll see pretty much the same shoulder turn, and it will be much more significant than mine. Both the ATP and WTA players keep both hands on the racquet much longer than I do in the backswing phase. So switching to a WTA forehand isn’t the answer here. Keeping my left hand on the racquet longer and getting a good shoulder turn might be.
Here are two images that show what I mean. The first image shows the point at which Azarenka (WTA forehand) and Djokovic (ATP forehand), and I let go of the racquet with our left hands. They hold on to their racquets with both hands longer than I do, which sort of forces them to turn their shoulders more.
I could let go of the racquet and still turn my shoulders, but I don’t, which is shown in the next image. At similar racquet positions (just before drop), look how much more Azarenka’s and Djokovic’s are turned than mine.
Insufficient shoulder turn is a fundamental flaw in my forehand that doesn’t have anything to do with the forehand style. I simply don’t generate enough energy in my larger muscles earlier on in my kinetic chain, and then have to try to make up for that further down the chain in my arm and wrist, which are much weaker.
2. If hit with solid mechanics, all forehands will produce excellent shots.
Players struggling with their forehands are likely suffering from poor mechanics, not a poor choice in forehand style.
In addition to the aspects of the forehand common to all styles that might be less than perfect in recreational players, I also think that most beginner/intermediate recreational players, myself included, don’t hit “perfect” WTA or ATP or MID forehands. So thinking of switching from one to another because you’re not getting the results you want might be premature.
If I was hitting an ATP forehand with solid mechanics, from my footwork to my weight transfer to my swing path, and still was hitting a weak, spinny shot that doesn’t penetrate the court, then maybe I could say that the ATP forehand just doesn’t work for me.
But, as I learned in a recent trip to Palm Desert where I got some great tennis instruction, this is far from the case.
More areas for improvement
I just got back from a trip to Palm Desert where I took some lessons and took part in the Essential Tennis Singles Domination clinic (more on this in another post) and got lots of feedback on my forehand. The coaches helped me identify some more areas for improvement:
1. Too Much Wrist
I tend to drop the racquet too far below the ball with my wrist in the “whip” which gives the racquet a really vertical path. The racquet moving vertically at contact rather than forward gives the ball tons of spin but not much pace.
2. Not Enough Loop
Most of my racquet drop happens with my wrist, rather than my entire arm. My swing is too compact in that my hand moves very linearly (straight back and straight forward), which means most of the force is produced with my forearm (in the whip) rather than my larger shoulder muscles. I need to work on getting more of a loop with my racquet arm to generate the force.
This image shows some pictures from my forehand from a video taken this fall compared with Federer’s. If you look at the position of my racquet hand, it stays pretty much at the level of my waist throughout the swing, while Roger’s begins around shoulder level and then drops to waist height before the forward swing.
Interestingly, I think my loop disappeared over the last year. The videos from a year ago show a clear loop in my swing.
I think this happened because in trying to flatten my stroke my natural instinct was to flatten the path of my arm. But this doesn’t actually work to flatten my stroke since my racquet face still moves very vertically due to my excessive racquet drop with my wrist in the whip. And it reduces the force produced during the swing. Almost counter-intuitively, I’m actually able to hit flatter balls when I move my arm in a more circular motion since I generate more force in my larger muscles and don’t have to whip the ball with my forearm so much.
3. Disconnect between hip rotation and swing
Particularly in the open stance, I tend to initiate the forward swing with my hips too early, so that I’m over-rotated by the time the ball meets my racquet. This was something I noticed last year but I guess I haven’t fixed yet. I’m often making contact when I’m already in the deceleration phase of my swing. I need to work on delaying the rotation of my hips so that my arm and hips are more connected and moving together.
It would be wishful thinking that simply changing from an ATP to a WTA forehand would magically solve these problems with my forehand, unless, in the process, I also fixed the fundamental problems with my forehand that are, for the most part, common to both styles.
While the overly “wristy” action of my forehand might be naturally reduced in the WTA forehand, I think I’d still suffer from a lack of shoulder turn, not having enough of a loop in my swing, and rotating my hips too early. Basically, I think that most of the areas for improvement in my forehand have little to do with the style of forehand but rather would be present in both.
If all forehands can be hit equally well, is one better for the recreational game?
I guess I would lean towards saying that the ATP forehand is a bit better because
- The shortened backswing takes less time to execute, giving you more time to get to ball
- The extra spin can help you hit bigger angles and move your opponent around more
- The extra spin gives you a larger margin for error so you can swing faster
However, there’s still the possibility that even with solid mechanics, some people won’t generate enough force to hit with a lot of topspin and still have pace on their shots. This would apply mostly to women I think, if it applies at all.
And of course there’s always the MID forehand to consider. That could be a good option if you want a forehand somewhere in between the two shots.
So I’m not saying that I’m sticking with the ATP forehand for good. For now, though, I’m going to focus on fixing the “flaws” in my stroke before I decide if I can hit a penetrating ATP forehand or not.
Force and topspin production in the ATP and WTA forehands
- ATP forehand produces more force by shortening the time between stretching and shortening of the internal rotation muscles of the shoulder and the extensor muscles in the forearm.
- ATP forehand produces more topspin by naturally tilting the racquet further forward at contact.
Arguments for why the ATP forehand might be easier to time:
- Forearm pronation at contact happens more automatically in the ATP forehand while it requires active manipulation of the forearm muscles in the WTA forehand.
- Delayed, faster, shorter swing allows player to understand the incoming ball path better before committing to the swing, helping him/her adjust to bad bounces and judgements.
Arguments for why the WTA forehand might be easier to time:
- Fewer moving parts in the WTA forehand mean fewer parts to coordinate.
- Longer window of suitable racquet position in the WTA forehand compared to ATP forehand.
Why don’t women on tour use the ATP forehand?
This could be due to a mix of biology (lack of strength, perhaps more difficulty with timing) and the strategy of the women’s game right now, which is to hit flat, powerful shots.
But is it even true that women on tour hit WTA forehands?
I think there are actually 3 categories of forehands. There are a lot of women not hitting WTA forehands. Maybe there will always be a range of forehands in the women’s game, or maybe their forehands are evolving away from the traditional WTA stroke.
Is one is better for recreational players?
If biology isn’t a factor (i.e. if plenty of power can be produced), I think the ATP forehand has a slight edge.
But I also think that the fundamentals of the forehand, which are mostly common to both forehands, are more important than the differences between the two. Also, the effect of your mechanics in any forehand outweigh the style of forehand you’re hitting on your results.
I think that recreational players should develop proper mechanics in any of the strokes. Regardless of which one you hit, solid fundamentals will produce an excellent shot at any level.
After this, you can experiment between the forehand styles and see if one works better for you.
At least this is what I plan to do.
Remember this is written “in pencil.” I really just wanted a space to summarize what I’ve read around the web since there’s a lot out there on the forehand debate. If you have any opinions to share or disagree with anything I’ve said, please comment – I’d love to learn more!