I’m having an existential crisis. Ok, maybe that’s melodramatic, but I am questioning my forehand – the foundation of my tennis game – and that’s a pretty big deal to me.
Up until late this past season, my forehand was my favourite stroke. My 2-handed backhand was powerful but inconsistent so I ran around it as much as possible and I avoided going to the net since volleying was terrifying. This meant that every time I played I hit tons of forehands and it continued to improve in consistency and placement.
But then, as I finally dedicated more time to practicing my backhand and volleys, they began to catch up, and even surpass my forehand as my go-to shots. I’m more successful in matches off my backhand side since I can hit a flatter, deeper, more penetrating shot, and if I can get to the net I’m becoming increasingly confident that I can end points (by actually winning them, not hitting them into the net as I did very well before). My forehand, once my weapon of choice, has started to become my weakness; a shot that, while consistent, consistently lands somewhere around the service line and sits up for my opponents to crush.
In December of 2014 I spent a week at the Saddlebrook tennis camp for adults, and I asked my instructor what NTRP rating he would give me (we don’t have league play in my city so I’ve never been officially rated). He told me that he would put me at a strong 4.0. He said that with my movement and consistency I would easily handle 4.0 players, but he thought that my inability to put pressure on strong opponents would prevent me from competing at the 4.5 level. At that point, over a year ago, I was happy with this assessment. I agreed that my forehand wasn’t powerful enough to do much damage (I typically won points by either out-rallying opponents until they made an error or by moving people around enough that I could put shots out of reach), and assumed that, with time, it would just become more powerful.
The problem is, it hasn’t. I’m reminded of the common saying: The definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over and expecting a different result – is it logical to assume my forehand is really going to become more powerful as I repeat a weak, spinny shot over and over?
Conscious Change vs Natural Evolution
I’m torn here. On the one hand, I’m a firm believer that it takes a lot of time and a lot of hit balls for your brain and body to understand the incoming ball path, and that with repetition your brain will use each shot as feedback and make adjustments over time to get the result you want. This hinges on hitting with intention, as Tomaz Mencinger discusses on his site and in a recent podcast interview he did with Mehrban, because you need to want the ball to land in a specific location or with certain properties (spin, power etc) in order for your brain to know if changes need to be made. If you’re happy just getting the ball in the court on every shot, then as long as the ball goes in your brain won’t register that it needs to make some changes to add power or spin, or change direction.
On the other hand, though, I’m wondering if deficiencies in my forehand technique are holding me back. In the podcast, Tomaz discusses how he started playing tennis at the age of 12, and spent, on average, 5 hours a day hitting balls with his friends in a cooperative manner (trying to keep rallies going) throughout his youth. He says that over time his strokes developed as his body naturally found the most efficient way to get the ball to do what he wanted it to do. Of course, as someone who started tennis much later in life, and can’t dedicate more than 10 hours to tennis in a good week (compared to Tomaz’s 35), I’m not sure I can expect the same natural progression. Also, sure, I could wait years and years and potentially my body would naturally figure out how to hit deeper balls, but would it not be helpful to look at my technique and see if there are things I can consciously change to speed the process along? I don’t think Tomaz was suggesting that changing technique for the better is unwise, but rather that there can be a long, painful adjustment period while your body learns the new movement and, more importantly, timing. For some recreational players, they might not play often enough to ever fully adjust and see the benefits of the change, so could be better off trying to make small improvements to their current strokes rather than major overhauls.
I think that the happy medium here could be to look for technical improvements that can be made, but also to understand that actually making the changes will be difficult. Breaking habits is hard to do, and even if I can get my body to make different movements, my timing will likely be thrown off which will lead to a lot of missed shots. For many players the adjustment period is just not worth it. For me, I think it might be, or at least I’m willing to experiment.
So What to Do About My Forehand?
I’ve taken private lessons here at my club and also at a few resorts in the US, but no coach has ever been able to identify the problem(s!). Most coaches will tell me to step into the ball (I tend to hit open stance) and while I have started to do this much more, it doesn’t add much power to my stroke. Another one I hear a lot is to extend more and hit through the ball, but honestly while I agree this is probably good advice, to me it’s kind of abstract advice and I’m not sure how to actually do it. Plus I was reading more and more about the modern forehand and how it develops spin and power through rotation, rather than linear extension, and can work just as well, if not better, in the open stance. And the fact that Federer, Nadal and Djokovic seem to have no problem hitting with power in the open stance was another strike against what I was being told. Regardless, nothing I did seemed to make any difference to my shot.
I’ve decided to do an in-depth analysis of my forehand by comparing it to Novak Djokovic’s, and that’s the purpose of this post. I’m looking for major problems in my technique that could be contributing to lack of power and too much topspin. I’m comparing my forehand to that of Djokovic for a few reasons: he is awesome, he hits with a semi-western grip, he hits an “ATP Style” forehand which I also (at least try to) do, and he has a similar double bend arm structure to me, so ideally our forehand techniques (if not our results haha) should be pretty similar.
A Quick Summary of Current Strengths and Weaknesses
- Good topspin production. I’m typically able to frustrate less experienced opponents who aren’t accustomed to much topspin
- Good consistency. I can keep the ball inside the lines pretty well
- Decent placement laterally. I can move the ball side to side pretty well and can hit some short wide angle shots
- I can hit low passing shots that drop quickly and are tough to volley (often accidentally, but I’ll take it!)
- Lack of penetration/power
- Too much spin
Sources for this Analysis
Jeff from Hi-Tech Tennis was kind enough to let me use still shots from his videos of Djokovic’s forehand for this analysis. Jeff’s site is my favourite for videos of professional players. Super slow motion videos are broken down by player, stroke and view, and there are also articles on technique using the videos for demonstration. For the cost of about 1 private lesson you get unlimited access for a year (or you can pay $15 monthly). Sure, there are plenty of free videos of professionals online, but not many of them let you actually see the ball deforming at contact. So worth it.
I compiled a video of myself hitting forehands from a few different angles. The stills in the analysis are taken from two of the strokes in this video. This will also serve as a great video to come back to later to monitor my progress and I think everyone should take periodic videos (then actually organize them into one summary video for easy reference).
Here is my video:
General Forehand Research Sources
In case you’re not convinced that Djokovic’s forehand is one to strive for, here are some sites that explain the type of forehand Djokovic hits (often called the ATP style, as opposed to the WTA style), and why it’s great:
Tennis Speed: 11 Part Roadmap to a Hall of Fame Forehand Series. Note that a lot of the terminology I use in my analysis comes from this site.
The ATP and WTA Forehand Anomaly. This is a video on the subscription site, Tennis One by highly acclaimed coach Christophe Delavaut. You can find this video for free on YouTube but I suspect it’s not licensed so feel free to search for it but I’m not going to post a link).
Ok, let’s get into it! I’m going to post still shots of various points in my and Djokovic’s forehands, note differences, and then summarize at the bottom what I think I need to work on.
Before Racquet Drop
- It appears that Novak’s left hand has just let go of the racquet so his shoulders are very much closed. His left shoulder is pulling across his body (shoulders are coiled) which stores potential energy that will be released when he rotates during the forward swing. While his hips are facing slightly forward, his shoulders are facing sideways or even slightly towards the back of the court.
- My left hand is pointing at the side fence, but my upper left arm is actually almost pointing at the net, so I’m not coiling my shoulders. My hips and shoulders face the same direction (both slightly forward).
Just Before Forearm Supination:
- Similar racquet hand and forearm positions (elbows pronated)
- While Novak’s left hand has started to move towards the net, his left upper arm is still pointed to the side fence, so his shoulders are still closed. My hand has also move forward indicating I’m starting my rotation as well. It’s like we’re both starting our rotations but from different starting positions (my shoulders were more open to begin with).
Racquet Starts Moving Forward:
- We both pull the racquet towards the ball, leading with the butt cap
- We both have racquet strings facing the ground
- Novak’s shoulders have started to open up to the net. Mine are almost full open (my chest is just about facing the net)
2-3 ft to contact
- Similar racquet hand and face orientations
- We both seem to have transferrer our weights from right to left foot in top picture
- My racquet hand is further in front of my body than Novak’s. My racquet face is further ahead in rotation as well. In the top picture it is nearly in front of my body whereas Novak’s is till by his back leg, and in the bottom picture my racquet face is in line with my body while Novak’s is still behind him.
- Novak’s chest is still pointing slightly to his right while mine is pointing slightly to my left
- Novak’s racquet face is slightly closed at contact (indicating he’s started pronating). Mine is slightly closed in the top picture, but totally vertical in the bottom picture. In the bottom picture my wrist is still very much laid back.
- In both pictures my racquet face is significantly further below my hand than Novak’s (much more pronounced difference in the bottom picture)
- Novak’s chest is facing forward, maybe still a little to his right, while mine is clearly rotated over to the left
- While it’s hard to tell from pictures, I seem to be hitting the ball further in front of me than Novak, at least in the bottom picture.
- My racquet head is still a bit below my hand whereas Novak’s has raised to be level. Again indicating he is further into his pronation (turning the forearm over).
- Again, Novak’s chest facing forward, mine facing left
- Similar racquet face orientations
- In the bottom picture it is clear that my swing path went from lower to higher while Novak’s was more linear
- In both pictures my upper arm is pointing to the left while Novak’s is pointing to the net. His elbow points to the net at the end of his stroke while mine points to the left (top picture)
- Novak’s chest is facing slightly to the right. Mine is facing very much to the left.
Putting it all Together
- In the Tennis Speed Roadmap to a Hall of Fame Forehand Part 6 article the author describes two types of forehand transition types (when backswing is switched to forward swing). FHT-1 is the transition associated with the “WTA-style” forehand, in which the racquet elbow is supinated at the end of transition. FHT-2 is the “ATP-style” transition, in which the elbow is pronated just prior to the forward swing. The images from the “Just Before Forearm Supination” above point show that we both have pronated elbows (racquet palm facing the ground) at this point so I think this shows we’re both using FHT-2.
- Novak turns his shoulders more significantly than I do. He pulls his left arm across and almost behind his body, which coils his shoulders in relation to his hips, and creates an energy potential that can be released into the ball at contact. I have very little shoulder turn and no obvious coil of my upper body in relation to my hips.
- I think Novak and I have similar body rotations and racquet behaviours, but one key difference is that we start and end with our shoulders in different positions. Because my shoulders are already quite open to the net when I start my rotation, by the time I contact the ball my shoulders are already rotated too far to the left. The ATP style forehand generates racquet head speed by pulling the racquet behind the shoulder as the body rotates, and then having the shoulders essentially stop and allow the arm, hand and racquet to rotate around the now fixed body. Think of this like a whipping action. Novak and I both do this motion, but there are some differences. Novak’s shoulders, when they become “fixed” to initiate the racquet whipping action, are facing forward and his racquet arm extends out in front of him. My shoulders become fixed when they are facing to my left rather than straight ahead, which causes my arm to extend out to the left after contact. My energy is only partially going in the direction of ball travel (so when coaches have told me I don’t extend through the ball well they’ve been right).
- Another key difference is that my racquet hand wrist is still quite laid back at contact. This is more obvious in the pictures where I’m wearing a pink shirt than in the black outfit ones. According to the Tennis Speed Forehand Series Part 6 the racquet should be pronating at contact. Below is a quote from that article (note that FFM refers to first forward movement, or what I’ve called “racquet starts moving forward” above. In my black outfit forehand I do start pronating a bit earlier than in my pink shirt forehand, but in both I’m not pronating as early as Novak. I seem to find it easier to pronate earlier at contact when I step into the ball rather than hit open stance.
You need to learn when and how to pronate your hand – or “re-pronate” is the more appropriate description—as you accelerate your racquet through the impact zone. Elbow Pronation in the impact zone is how you can support, stabilize and maintain the forward tilt of the racquet face at impact, especially when impact is made off-center. Elbow Pronation of the racquet arm at FFM and just prior to impact creates maximum racquet speed and acceleration to maximize energy transfer to the ball. In other words, Elbow Pronation plays a crucial role in maximizing both spin production and ball speed.
Summary and Path Forward
Overall, I think my lack of power can be summed up by saying that I don’t turn my shoulders enough during take-back, I over-rotate my shoulders and send a lot of my energy to the left rather than forward through the ball, and I pronate my racquet hand late at contact.
Ok, so what to do about this?
I’ve already been experimenting with making corrections for the last couple of weeks since starting this analysis (I only get to play once or twice a week in the winter so I’m talking 2 hitting sessions). I’m keeping my left hand on my racquet throat much longer which automatically results in a more significant shoulder turn and I’m finding that I can contact the ball in a stronger position with my weight going forward instead of left. I think that the simple act of turning my shoulders more in take-back might be resulting in me staying oriented to the right longer and my shoulders being straight ahead at contact instead of over-rotated to the left.
The idea of pronating at contact is fairly new to me since I’ve been told again and again to keep the racquet face vertical and swing low-to-high. I struggle with trusting that angling my racquet face slightly down at contact is not going to send the ball into the net so I resist doing it (plus old habits die hard). But I’m really trying to let go and allow my racquet to pronate earlier and when I manage to do it I find it actually feels more natural than holding my wrist in such an extreme position (ulnar deviation) at contact.
And the results? Sometimes I keep my shoulders closed too long, sometimes I open up too early, and my brain does it’s best to make compensations where it can but is mostly just confused. Some balls fly high and long, some straight into the net, and many are still weak and spinny (when I lose focus and end up hitting my usual stroke). But, occasionally, there are shots where I line up, turn my shoulders, rotate, and pronate, and I hit a crazy powerful shot exactly where I wanted it to go – deep in the opposite court. The ball makes a different sound off of my strings – a more solid pop than the soft whiff I tend to hear when I brush up and across the ball as I usually do. And I can feel my weight behind the ball, effortlessly transferring energy to it. It’s these fleeting moments that keep me sane in hitting sessions filled with unforced errors.
I know that the road ahead of me will be uphill, but I’m not willing to accept my forehand the way it is so I’m determined to stick with this. I know that this is a process and I’m sure I’ll identify more problems with my forehand as I go, but I think that by limiting myself to only focusing on two changes right now – keeping my left hand on the racquet longer (and consequently turning my shoulders more and staying more on my right side) and pronating earlier into contact – will prevent me from being too overwhelmed with a lot of little things to think about. Perhaps they’ll even lead to some big improvements.
I’ll be tracking my progress on my forehand periodically. I’d love to hear any thoughts on this or if anyone sees this differently than me.