Last time, we
showed you another example of the “resolving power” that becomes possible when
describing (and then analyzing) tennis stroke mechanics using the standard
terminology of anatomical motion. This approach revealed the extensive
similarity in the forehand mechanics of the two most successful players of this
era, Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal, which probably surprised a large number of
players and coaches given the very different ways each Champion uses their
respective forehands to dominate their opponents.
continue using anatomical terminology to describe the topspin forehand
mechanics of the third, multiple (6 times and counting) Grand Slam Singles Champion and future
Hall-of-Famer of this current era, Novak Djokovic —and – compare Djokovic’s forehand
mechanics to the “standard bearer” of
this era, the 17-time (and counting) Grand Slam Singles Champion, Roger Federer.
And, before we
get fully into things, we want to disclose here that as much as we tried to
make sure that both players were executing the stroke shown here under the same
playing circumstances, Djokovic’s impact point (around chest height) is different
– slightly higher – than Federer (waist height). Where appropriate, we will tell
you if the difference in their Impact position is the “cause” of any movement
differences between the two players.
observing hundreds of high speed videos of both Djokovic and Federer forehands,
we have noticed that each player uses remarkably consistent mechanics when they
make contact between ankle- and head-level—which is not surprising for players
who possess “ultimate skill”, right?
identical in their body positioning, except that Djokovic uses a different grip
– one that’s more Western compared to Federer, with his index finger knuckle placed squarely on the
bottom diagonal bevel of the racquet handle. The difference in their grips explains why
Djokovic’s racquet face appears to be in a more closed position at this stage of the
stroke just before they initiate their respective backswings.
2. Breaking the
Already at this
very early stage of the swing, although the anatomical movements each player
uses during this phase of the stroke are qualitatively identical, you should
begin to notice that there are pretty substantial differences in the extent
(“size”) of their respective movements. Djokovic clearly moves his racquet hand
much further upwards and backwards compared to Federer. A likely reason for
Djokovic moving his racquet to a higher position, in this specific case is that
he will be making contact at a higher point – chest-level – than Federer.
in the grips used by each player also causes their racquets to “find” very
different orientations at this stage of the stroke. The hitting surface of
Djokovic’s racquet finds an open position (facing the sky, as well as the side
fence) as a result of his rather extreme semi-western grip. In contrast, the
Federer’s more eastern grip results in his racquet to find a more closed
position such that the racquet face points towards the net.
observation surprise you?
We find this to
be an interesting observation given the fact that the vast majority of players
and coaches understand and assume (presume?) that using a more western grip
automatically results in the racquet face being closed at all phases of the
swing, but the truth is that far greater control of the racquet face position –
how closed or open it becomes –is optimally controlled by the various movements
of the racquet arm, most importantly by controlling Elbow Pronation at the
various phases of the stroke.
In fact, the
specific advantage(s) of semi-western and western grips can be easily canceled
out depending on which racquet arm movements are employed by the player during
Transition and their forward swing to Impact.
employ nearly identical movements when they complete the backswing. Both
players use Elbow Extension and Elbow Pronation to achieve the racquet arm
positioning shown here. Both Federer and Djokovic use very similar movements of
the hips and legs (due to the camera perspective and Federer’s stance, we
couldn’t determine if his left hip was also externally rotated like Djokovic
here) so they can generate and transfer elastic energy from the lower body to
the upper body, greatly enhancing their racquet speed at Impact.
in the (spatial) position and orientation of the racquet itself between the two
is a product of the difference in the grips used by each player. The more
western grip Djokovic uses – where the palm of his hand is placed into a
position that is more under the racquet handle versus behind it—results in the
hitting surface and tip of the racquet facing the back fence (away from the
camera from this perspective) versus Federer’s more eastern grip—where the palm
of his hand is positioned behind the racquet handle—that results in his racquet
tip to point towards the side fence (and directly toward the camera from this
difference between these two players at this stage is the greater lateral
bending of the spine Federer uses compared to Djokovic. In this instance, this
difference in how each player uses their spine is most likely related to the
(eventual) difference in the impact point for each player – around waist level
for Federer and around chest level for Djokovic. As Federer lowers his racquet
arm/hand to his desired starting position behind (and slightly below) the
eventual impact point, he creates a slight (right) side bend in the process
that will promote the rotational motion of the spine as he swings forwards to
similarity in the movements used by both Champions that should be noticed here
is the fact that both show clear Elbow Extension of their racquet arm at this
stage of the swing. This is the first of only two phases of their respective
strokes (the other phase is their follow-through, post-Impact) where their
racquet arm movements are similar. In only a few milliseconds from this stage,
each Champion will move their racquet arms using very different movements to
deliver their racquets to Impact.
4. First Forward
At this critical
juncture of the stroke, the key difference between the forehand mechanics used
by these two Major Champions becomes detectible. This difference is the first
visible sign that Djokovic is starting to bend his (right) racquet arm at the
elbow – achieved by Elbow Flexion – whereas Federer maintains a much straighter
racquet arm – achieved by Elbow Extension.
earlier, both players had relatively straight racquet arms when they completed
their respective backswings. However, unlike Federer who maintains Elbow
Extension from FFM through Impact, Djokovic changes the “structure” of his
racquet arm using Elbow Flexion and Arm Adduction and maintains this bent-arm
position-widely known as the “double-bend” position/structure-in the same
What is only
rarely discussed—probably because it’s not very clearly understood—are the
practical consequences of swinging the racquet forward to Impact using either
Elbow Extension or Elbow Flexion. Does using Elbow Extension or Elbow Flexion
have any influence on a player’s ability to increase the power, accuracy or
spin production of their topspin forehand? Does racquet arm positioning make an
observable or measureable difference in the power and control of the stroke?
Or, is it really a matter of personal choice, “style”, or “idiosyncracy” that a
player makes on their own that has no real effect on the actual shot?
teaching viewpoint is that Elbow Flexion enables the player to more easily
control the racquet path as the player swings forward on, and therefore it’s
believed to help players achieve greater racquet control at Impact. Swinging
forward using Elbow Flexion is the preferred “solution” for the dreaded “Flying
Elbow” – the uncontrolled Elbow Extension that’s commonly used by players who
slap wildly at balls on their forehand side – that plagues both recreational
and competitive players alike.
Over time, a
topspin forehand forward swing that employs Elbow Flexion has been widely accepted
as a “gold medal move” of a high-level topspin forehand, and also is considered
to be a forehand movement that can be used to equal effectiveness by both
highly talented and less-talented competitors alike (a movement that is
apparently “insensitive” to a player’s ability level, as it were).
of the “Flexion Forehand” – let’s use this term to shorten and simplify things
to describe a topspin forehand that employs a pronounced Elbow Flexion to
execute the forward swing to Impact from this point forward, as well as the
term “Extension Forehand” to describe its counterpart – being the widely
accepted “key move” as well as the dominant instructional “paradigm” for
striking a world-class topspin forehand stands even today.
perception still stands even in light of the Grand Slam dominance that has been
achieved in large part by the power and control demonstrated by the Extension
Forehands of Messers Federer and Nadal.
When we look
closely at the Grand Slam record since Roger Federer established himself as the
standard-bearer of Grand Slam excellence in 2004, and classify the forehand forward swing type – Extension or Flexion – used
by each of the Grand Slam singles winners, we found the following:
Slams contested (2004 – present): 37.
Total Grand Slam
singles championships won by players using an Extension Forehand (Federer,
Nadal, Safin and Del Potro): 29 of 37 or 78%.
Total Grand Slam
singles championships won by players using a Flexion Forehand (Djokovic, Gaudio and
Murray): 8 of 37 or 22%.
If you had to
pick a forehand forward swing type based on the achievement level of its best
practitioners, it’s pretty clear that choosing an Extension Forehand would be a
very sound, logical choice.
Maybe this is also
now a good a time as any to consider briefly what are other reasons for the
teaching establishment’s apparent preference for advocating the Flexion
Forehand over the Extension Forehand given that at the highest levels, players
using an Extension Forehand have won three times as many championships compared
to players with a Flexion Forehand?
One reason we
can think of is based on another widely-held and widely-repeated tennis (and
general athletics) coaching/skill-teaching paradigm that goes by the following adages:
moving parts means increased precision and accuracy – because less can go
“A simpler, more
compact movement is more efficient that a more complex, bigger movement.”
are in stark contrast to what we’ve concluded after studying hundreds, if not
thousands of hours of video of elite athletes performing the skills that
deliver world-class performance in their respective sports (beyond tennis, we
also possess or have direct access to high-speed video from professional golf,
baseball, track and field and soccer) the world’s elite athletes perform skills
that require highly complex movements that are organized and integrated into
very specific, defined and again, complex sequences.
The truth of
elite sports performance is better stated as: “Complex is Better. Way, Way
consider the other side of the (performance/achievement) coin…
contrast to the optimal skills based on the optimal movements performed by the highest
performers in their respective sports, “everyone else” who isn’t achieving
world-class performance differ from the truly elite performer in two basic
non-elite use sub-optimal, insufficient (in number) or incorrect body
non-elite “organize” these flawed, individual movements into flawed or
incorrect movement sequences.
“first” and “second” above also feedback onto each other and tend to either
amplify performance limitations created by each other.
The non-elite are
in the vast majority of cases are, at the very heart of things, missing outright
performance-enhancing, performance maximizing movements used by a bonafide elite athlete.
Now, here’s the
follow-up question to this observation that the skills produced by the world’s
elite tennis athletes require more complex movements, but also more movements
overall in number, rather than fewer movements to execute their world-class
forehands, backhands and serves (and court movement, and just about every other
How will players
achieve higher (highest) performance levels if the predominant messages they
receive are to “reduce and restrict” movements when the elite are doing nearly
yourself how the player – the student – will respond to such “instructions” on
a practical, “real world” level…
respond in one of two ways, as good students do, by following those
instructions to the letter…
They respond by
“subtracting” or eliminating movements in an attempt to reduce or remove
“unnecessary” or “excess motion” – although they probably don’t understand or
realize in which movements are, in fact, “necessary or essential” the first
place. As a friend of mine puts it: can you really make a (race) car go faster
by removing or disabling 4 of the 8 available cylinders? (And even if only flawed movements were
removed, that doesn’t mean that they will be replaced by what’s truly correct
They respond by
“restricting” movements – by reducing the size of a given movement at a given
stage of the overall movement sequence used in a given stroke, by combining
movements, usually into a “single, one-piece motion” instead of allowing a
movement to happen in its “natural”, sequential pattern where there are, in
fact, multiple movements that occurs in a specific sequence, much like the way
space rockets find their way into space in multiple stages.
And again, this
choice is typically made by the player without fully understanding what’s
correct or optimal, so they don’t understand and can’t really predict
accurately what the true consequences of their adjustments will be. As they
say, little education can go a long way…
In either case,
optimal mechanics will not be achieved because neither the correct movements
are used, nor are those separate movement “components” used in the correct or
optimal sequence. In other words, if you are seeking to maximize performance,
going down the path of reducing or restricting motion more often than not leads
to lower absolute performance levels rather than higher ones.
greater, “more complex” understanding of what the top players are doing may be
important to those players (and their coaches) who didn’t win the “genetic
lottery” like the Hall-of-Famers did.
In coming posts,
we will identify and analyze the highly complex, performance-specific reasons
or factors that account for the apparent dominance of the Extension Forehand
(well, the Pronation-Extension Forehand, to be more precise).
On a “bottom
line” basis, we can say right now that the main performance benefits of the
Extension Forehand over the Flexion Forehand are fundamentally two-fold, 1) the
increased ability to generate high racquet speeds in a efficient manner, and 2)
increased topspin generation to increase shot control achieved by maximizing speed
and control of racquet motion in the Impact Zone.
quite a long, complex road to optimal performance and there are really no
Yet, if you are
patient and determined enough, you can reap the rewards that only complex,
specialized knowledge can deliver.
5. 20 Frames
(95.2 milliseconds) before Impact.
differences in the movements used by Federer and Djokovic now begin to emerge
in these early stages of the forward swing as each player accelerates his
racquet toward Impact.
maintains the Elbow Extension he established in Transition whereas Djokovic
increases the extent of his Elbow Flexion and the angle of his upper arm and
forearm is approaching a 90-degree, right angle (see photo 6 where his racquet
arm angle appears to form a perfect right angle from this not-so-optimal camera
perspective – although in reality, the angle between the forearm and upper is
likely to be closer to 105 to 100 degrees).
Second, there is
a visible difference in the extent of wrist movement between the two Champions.
Federer appears to achieve a larger amount of Wrist Extension at this stage of
the stroke than does Djokovic – even with the not-so-optimal camera angle, it’s
apparent even to the naked eye the angle formed at the wrist between Federer’s
racquet and racquet hand and his forearm is greater than Djokovic. While there
is some controversy about the function of the wrist in the execution of a
tennis forehand in among American tennis teachers and coaches, the same
controversy doesn’t really exist in other tennis-playing nations.
The main controversy in the US has to do with
the basic question of what the wrist joint actually does in a (topspin) tennis
Is the primary
function of the wrist joint to create or enhance racquet speed, or is its
primary function to control the direction of the outgoing shot?
Does the wrist
perform other functions?
There is little,
if any controversy about this particular subject when we understand the facts
of anatomy and consider the long-available research conducted by the Germans
and other tennis nations.
For a concise explanation of wrist motion in tennis
strokes, we suggest you consult pages 30 and 31 in “Tennis Course: Volume 1
Techniques and Tactics” written by the German Tennis Association (“DTB”) and
published in English in 2000 by Barron’s Educational Series (the original
German version was published in 1995 under the title: “Tennis Lehrplan, Bard 1:
Technik & Tactik).
shows the answer is both. There is a indeed a controlled movement of the wrist
during the forward swing of a tennis forehand. (Notice we used the adjective
“controlled” in describing wrist motion in the forehand!)
In most cases,
the initial movement is Wrist Extension where the racquet hand bends backwards,
and then as the entire racquet arm is swung forwards to Impact (using Internal Rotation
of the shoulder), there is a controlled – and in the case of Federer and Nadal,
a rapid forward movement of the racquet hand even compared to many fellow top pros
– or Wrist Flexion – into Impact and continues into the follow-through.
So, is optimal wrist
movement in a tennis forehand an abrupt acceleration of the hand at the wrist
joint timed to coincide with the very moment of Impact – i.e. a “slapping
motion” where the racquet hand lags in maximum Wrist Extension and is then
released suddenly and “spontaneously” at Impact – creating an overall motion much
like a the way a slammed door swings on its hinges? No, definitely not.
movement in a tennis forehand is a highly controlled movement that can be
consciously controlled by the player – mainly by regulating the amount of
tension/relaxation of the forearm muscles.
Does wrist movement contribute to
Yes, there can be a measurable difference in the speed in that
the wrist joint achieves before, during and after Impact.
Does wrist movement
contribute to controlling shot direction?
Yes, the top players demonstrate the
ability to execute visibly different wrist movements during the milliseconds
around Impact - generally speaking, more Wrist Flexion is detectible on crosscourt
shots and less Wrist Flexion is used on down-the-line shots.
And, yes, the
effects of wrist movement on the outgoing shot are themselves affected (perhaps
even regulated) by other factors such as your grip (more eastern or more
western), whether or not Elbow Extension or Elbow Flexion is used, and the racquet
hand position – Pronated, Supinated or Neutral – at FFM. (All subjects which we
will delve into in future posts…)
So from our
point of view, the function of the wrist joint in the forehand is clear –
especially from a practical and operational view, the most valuable view for
students – and far from anything controversial. The question has been
definitively answered long ago, in our humble opinion.
Third, the lower
body movements of the two players differ – subtly – as well. Whereas Federer demonstrates
movements – Knee and Hip Extension and Right Hip Internal Rotation – that show
that he’s well into the process of transferring elastic energy from the ground
through to his upper body through his legs and hips. Djokovic is only beginning
to activate the same elastic energy transfer as there is only a small amount of
visible Knee Extension and (Right) Hip Internal Rotation detectible at this
stage. Much like Nadal in our previous post, Djokovic will “release” the
elastic energy much closer to Impact (see photo 7 and 8) compared to Federer.
In theory, there
might be some advantage of releasing that stored energy closer to the actual
moment of Impact, yet, there may also be a trade-off as there is a
physiological time limit where the maximum amount of energy can be released due
to the time constraints inherent in the series of linked SSCs (Stretch-Shorten
Cycle, a neurophysiological phenomenon discussed in an earlier post) of the
musculature of their legs, hips and core.
fourth difference between the forehand mechanics of these two Champions at this
stage of their respective strokes has to do with the extent of their use of the
potential SSC of their rotator cuff muscles
This difference has to do with the
fact that Federer’s Elbow and Wrist Extension at FFM – all while maintaining
Elbow Pronation – initially results in the External Rotation of his right
shoulder. The External Rotation of the right shoulder produces a
countermovement triggers further SSCs that ultimately increase the contraction
force of the Internal Rotation of the right shoulder. And, it is the (enhanced)
Internal Rotation of his right shoulder that is the “engine” that powers his
forward swing to Impact.
In contrast to
Federer’s Elbow and Wrist Extension at FFM, Djokovic’s racquet arm begins to
move from Elbow Extension toward Elbow Flexion, and by doing so, greatly
reduces the extent of External Rotation in his right, hitting shoulder –
thereby reducing the stretching of his entire rotator cuff complex – and
possibly reducing or inhibiting further SSCs in those muscles. Ultimately,
without triggering those SSCs, there will be little, if any (potential) enhancement
of the contractile force produced by the Internal Rotation that drives the
In fact, you can
probably feel this for yourself, finish your backswing and make sure you
pronate your elbow. Then begin your forward swing by adducting and flexing your
racquet arm and focus your senses on what’s happening in your rotator cuff –
when you adduct your arm, you automatically initiate Internal Rotation of the
shoulder, and “minimize”, or perhaps even elminate External Rotation – the
linked countermovement that triggers SSC. Therefore, those players who have a
Flexion Forehand end up leaving the powerful SSCs of their hitting shoulder largely
important follow-up question for those players who use a Flexion Forehand then
becomes this: is it possible to compensate for the forfeited power enhancement
from the shoulder SSCs using another body movement?
Again, as my friend puts
How can you increase speed or power by disabling or disconnecting –
voluntarily – the very cylinders in the "engine" that produce speed?
6. 10 frames
(47.6 milliseconds) before Impact.
As the players
get even closer to Impact, notice that the differences in the racquet arm
movements are maintained. Federer maintains Elbow Extension while Djokovic
maintains Elbow Flexion. Federer’s Wrist Extension is far more pronounced than
Djokovic in its apparent extent and Roger’s forearm muscles visibly show much
greater stretching and “tension” at this stage of the stroke.
You can feel the
difference for yourself. Begin by placing yourself into the positions that
Federer uses at FFM and in the early stages of his forward swing to Impact.
First, pronate your
elbow so your palm faces the ground. Next, gently extend your elbow –
straightening your entire arm and then extend your wrist so the hand hinges
backwards. Now start swinging your entire arm forward and maintain your Elbow
Extension… Feel the pronounced stretching of your forearm muscles? This
stretching of the forearm muscles is what creates a countermovement that
triggers SSCs which increase the contraction forces that are transferred to
impact using the controlled Wrist Flexion that is integrated into the forward
swing to Impact.
Now compare the
sensation in the forearm muscles when you put your racquet arm into the
positions that Djokovic uses at FFM and in the very early stages of his forward
swing. First, pronate your elbow so the palm of your hand faces the ground,
then extend your elbow slightly – straightening your entire arm – and then
extend your wrist so your hand hinges backward. Now, as you start swinging your
entire arm forward, instead of keep the racquet arm extended at the elbow, pull
the upper arm section of your upper racquet arm inward toward your body so your
flex your arm at the elbow. Do you notice that you feel much less of a stretching
sensation in your forearm muscles? (As well as the fact that the active
contraction of your biceps muscles can also cause your arm to decelerate
slightly despite the sensation of added “strength and stability” at Impact you
get when you flex that “24-inch gun”…)
are other stroke experts who are trying to make the argument that the wrist
really doesn’t create a countermovement that triggers SSCs in the forearm
muscles that could contribute additional muscle contraction forces that could
be transferred into Impact, don’t the sensations of the movement “experiment”
you’ve just performed tell you otherwise?
At the very
least, Elbow Extension creates an additional source of elastic energy – that
can be coupled that is already moving through the body toward Impact from the
increased stretching of the forearm muscles (that optimizes muscle
length-tension properties), ligaments and tendons (particularly in the tendons) themselves, that
could be transferred through the arm and racquet to the ball.
also enables its practitioners to create a slightly larger overall swing radius
– that creates higher racquet speeds – because extending the elbow allows the
player to keep their upper arm extended further away from the body.
many high-level players – mainly in the national junior to Futures levels – who
Elbow Flexion to swing their racquets forward to Impact often pull their elbows
tightly into their body, which decreases minimizes their “swing radius” and
consequently inhibits racquet speed (although their brains will devise
workarounds to compensate for those losses by increasing the speed of upper
body rotation and other movements – we’ll discuss these compensatory movements
down the road as well).
And to show you
the fact that” not all Flexion Forehands are created equal”, Djokovic and other
top pro players who use a Flexion Forehand tend to maintain a sizeable gap
between the racquet arm elbow and their upper body during the forward swing,
rather than “jamming” their elbow into their hips so that they can tap the
benefits of having a larger swing radius (and again, we’ll mention here that
Djokovic and other “talents” probably perform this move instinctively, such are
the “privileges” of being born with such enormous natural abilities!).
Djokovic. Note the space between the hitting elbow and his body.
Ferrer. Again, notice the space between the right elbow and his body.
Bellucci. Where's the space between his elbow and body? What happened? Why?
Raonic. Again, a much smaller space between the hitting elbow and body compared with Ferrer and Djokovic.
(Now, you might
want to ask the question that goes like: if so many players end up using
non-optimal movements that actually limit or inhibit their ability to maximize
racquet speed/power, how do those players generate a powerful stroke? Another
important question that needs to wait for a future post…)
similarity to notice between the two Grand Slam-grade forehands here is the
shallow racquet path that each player uses to deliver the racquet to Impact.
Specifically, notice how both Federer and Djokovic start their forward swings
with the racquet positioned only a fraction below the intended contact height –
for both forehands shown here, the top edge of the racquet is aligned just
below the path of the incoming ball. This shallower racquet path combined with
the increased forward face tilt is how today’s top players create a shot that
has a lower, more driving overall trajectory without sacrificing topspin for
maximum shot control.
At Impact, both
players continue to maintain the body positioning/movements that each
established shortly after FFM. Federer’s racquet arm remains extended from the
elbow, while Djokovic’s racquet arm remains flexed – forming the characteristic
“V”-shape of the racquet arm of a Flexion Forehand when you view Impact from
the side view.
We also how each
player has rotated their entire upper body into impact as both the chest and
the navel of both Federer and Djokovic are now pointed at the net. We also see
the first indication of Right Hip Extension (along with the straightening of
his right leg – Knee Extension) from Djokovic that indicates that the elastic
energy he produced using his lower body is (now) being transferred to his upper
We clearly see
visual evidence that both players are consciously pronating their racquet elbow
prior to Impact (image 6), at Impact (image 7), and continue this Elbow
Pronation well into the follow-through phase of the stroke (images 8 & 9). Below,
to show you the Elbow Pronation that both Federer and Djokovic perform in the
moments surrounding Impact, we measured the angle of the racquet face at 4.8
millisecond intervals just before Impact, at Impact and after Impact. Notice
how the racquet face angle remains tilted slightly forwards just prior to
Impact and at Impact, and just 4.8 milliseconds after Impact, the racquet face
tilts even further forward.
When the ball impact is on the equator of the racquet, the racquet face remains stable - no additional forward or backward tilting of the racquet face occurs in the scant milliseconds after Impact- as is shown below. Therefore, in the two sequences below, any racquet face motion is created by the player himself.
However, we find
it even more interesting that there is a clear difference between Federer and
Djokovic in the amount of forward racquet tilt that each player consistently
achieves at impact. Federer tilts his racquet face much farther forward than
Djokovic does at Impact in this specific stroke comparison – as well as when
we’ve compared any two of the dozens of Federer and Djokovic’s ultra-slow
motion forehand impacts we have in our video archives.
When we measured the
forward tilt of the racquet face for the various players who use Elbow
Extension in their forward swings, we found that, at Impact, their forward
racquet tilt is generally greater than 10 degrees. In contrast, on average, the
forward racquet tilt of players who use Elbow Flexion in the forward swing at
Impact much smaller, typically only in the 4 to 5 degree-range. (Djokovic tilts the racquet forward more than most top pro players who use a Flexion Forehand, typcially his forward racquet tilt at Impact is in the 7-8 degree range.) That’s 50% less
forward tilting that can contribute to topspin generation!
And what’s maybe
more interesting is our observation that players who use either an extreme
semi-western or full western grip where the palm of the racquet hand is placed
mainly underneath the racquet handle typically demonstrate the smallest amount
of forward racquet face tilt – typically only 1 or 2 degrees forward. (Now,
doesn’t this beg one to question the widely held perception that western grips
deliver “maximum” topspin generation?
And, if you are also wondering, in this vein,
the Nadal forehand grip isn’t really a western grip as many believe. At Impact,
if you observe closely enough, you will see that the palm of Nadal’s racquet
hand is very much behind the racquet handle – like Federer – versus underneath
the racquet handle as it would be for a “true” western grip (for comparison, see current Top 30
ATP practitioners of full western grips: Kei Nishikori, Phillip Kohlschreiber, Jeremy Chardy and
In this specific
player-to-player comparison, Roger’s racquet face is tilted twice as far forward
compared to Djokovic at the moment of Impact as shown here. We also need to
keep in mind that there also exists their ability to control and therefore,
vary at will, the rate and extent of their Elbow Pronation (as well as every
other movement in their stroke repertoire – such is the nature of the physical
gifts they were born with) in the Impact Zone.
So, there is “natural” variation
in their body and racquet movements from (individual) stroke-to-stroke,
depending on the playing situation they face and the “tactical” choices – more
speed, less speed; more spin, less spin, more angle, less angle, etc. – they
make in response to what they see during live play. Regardless, there is a
fundamental and remarkable consistency to the way they execute their skills –
we should expect such capabilities given they are such amazing athletes – that
makes it, in many ways, easier to determine and understand how and why they
achieve the results they do given how they control their body and racquet.
In our view,
this difference in the extent of the forward tilting of the racquet face at
Impact explains the difference in forehand topspin rates demonstrated by each
player – 2,500 RPM for Federer and 2,100 RPM on average for Djokovic – we’ve
observed when they play on North American hard courts.
After analyzing the
racquet motion in the moments just prior to and just after impact for all of
the top players we have in our extensive stroke video archives, we began to
notice an interesting correlation between the amount or extent of racquet face
tilt at Impact and whether or not a
player uses Elbow Extension or Elbow Flexion in their forward swing.
correlation is that the players with Pronation (at FFM, or FHT-2)-Extension
Forehands demonstrate noticeably greater forward racquet tilt compared to
players with a Pronation-Flexion Forehand – take a look at the following images
where we measured the amount of forward racquet face tilt at Impact for players
using an Extension Forehand versus players who use a Flexion Forehand:
Federer-Djokovic Impact image is taken from a different stroke by each player
than the one used for our main comparison in this post!)
difference in forward racquet face tilt between the Extension and Flexion
Forehands appears to hold true even for Roger himself in the rare times he
finds himself setting up too late and too close to the Impact point and is
forced to use Elbow Flexion to make decent contact with the ball:
There is a
logical, anatomical explanation for this apparent correlation between the
extent of racquet face tilt at impact and whether the player employs Elbow
Extension or Elbow Flexion in their forward swing that itself will fill its
own, separate post in the very near future.
question that we feel is appropriate to pose here in our discussion of the body
movements used by Federer and Nadal at Impact is this: why do so many players
today use Elbow Flexion at all to swing the racquet forward? Part of the answer
certainly has to do with players, teachers and coaches have only an incomplete
understanding – at best – about how the body and racquet motion influence the
speed, spin and direction of the outgoing shot.
Even the sports
science community and their elaborate and expensive 3-D motion analysis systems
(typically costing $100K or more) generally only have a very limited
perspective about stroke mechanics because they – biomechanists – are primarily
interested in studying the forces and speeds generated by the body itself and
the great majority of them do not correlate their findings with the actual
output of those bodily forces and velocities on the shot that results from
The vast majority of biomechanists do not measure and are apparently unconcerned
or disinterested about the spin, speed and trajectory/direction characterstics
of the ball itself – the very product/outcome of those body movements – because,
quite frankly, they aren’t all that interested in what happens to the non-human
motion involved in striking a tennis forehand
- i.e. the motion of the racquet, strings and most importantly, the ball.
Which may be one big reason why the contribution of biomechanists are often
viewed with great skepticism by players and coaches because many biomechanists disavow interest
and/or don’t measure or understand what the ball does after the player strikes
Their view starkly contrasts the view of most players because for players, what
the ball does is arguably THE critical factor in defining their performance.
Could there be a
specific performance-based reason or benefit for shortening the overall radius
of the forward swing – which, according to the laws of physics as most understand
them—causes decreased racquet speed, as well as limiting the amount of forward
racquet tilt at Impact that would increase or enhance topspin generation?
it be possible that Elbow Flexion is a “mandatory” component of most topspin
forehands today based on anatomical or biomechanical needs and its use has
nothing to do with “style” or “instruction”? Stay tuned for that discussion as
8. 5 Frames
(23.8 milliseconds) after Impact.
Follow-Through (Arm at shoulder height).
10. End of Stroke.
differences between the two players that persisted from Transition to Impact
now largely subside and both players use virtually the same movements starting
from the early moments through the completion of the follow-through phase of
the stroke. Djokovic’s racquet elbow now begins to extend causing his arm to
straighten slightly. The combination of (Right) Wrist Flexion, Radial Deviation
and (Right) Elbow Pronation that started at or just prior to Impact continues
and eventually creates the so-called “windshield wiper” motion that is a common
stylistic element of the follow-through of most topspin forehands today.
Elbow Extension together with Elbow Pronation enables Djokovic to swing the
racquet such that it follows the path of the outgoing shot – thereby creating
the “extension down the target line” that is so coveted by most teachers and
coaches – before he is forced to bend his arm – Elbow Flexion – a second time to complete his follow-through and
overall stroke (image 10).
post-Impact elbow movement have any influence on the outgoing shot? In our
humble opinion, the oh-so coveted “extension down the target line” has about as
much influence on the shot as the post-Impact, after-the-fact Wrist
Flexion/Radial Deviation movement that Lleyton Hewitt employs in his topspin
forehand follow-through. Meaning, this movement is mainly cosmetic or stylistic
and has little or no influence on the outgoing shot itself.
similarity in the forehand mechanics of these two Champions we should also
emphasize here is to notice that both players swing the racquet on an overall
path where their racquet hand rises no higher than around shoulder level on the
vast majority of strokes. With the exception of the odd, “reverse” forehand
where the racquet ends up finishing overhead, the “low finish” of the racquet
hand is the result of the much shallower, upward swing path that most top
players use today to create the low-trajectory, high-spin shot that
characterizes the dominant shot type used during top-level matchplay.
posts, we established that Elbow Pronation at FFM (First Forward Move) – aka,
FHT-2 – is the optimal method for executing the critical transition from the
backswing to the forward swing in executing a world-class forehand. And we also
clearly established that FHT-2 is the dominant type of forehand transition
among the vast majority of (male) Grand Slam Singles Champions in recent
In this post, we
compared and contrasted the forehand mechanics of Roger Federer and Novak
Djokovic with the intention of bringing your
attention to another very important movement in the execution of a Grand
Slam-caliber topspin forehand – using Elbow Extension, rather than Elbow
Flexion, to swing the racquet forward to Impact.
While Elbow Flexion has been
the far more common movement used to generate the forward swing to Impact by
the great majority of very successful tennis competitors from junior tennis,
all the way to the Pro Tours from the late 1970s until today, including a large
proportion of Grand Slam Champions up until the early 2000s, more recent Grand
Slams have been dominated by players who swing their racquet forwards to Impact
using Elbow Extension.
By analyzing the
racquet motion that is produced by top players who use Elbow Extension to
execute the forward swing versus those players who use Elbow Flexion, we have
found that the use of Extension or Flexion has a visible and direct effect on racquet
motion in the moments before Impact, at Impact, and after Impact. Players who swing the racquet forwards using
Elbow Extension (in combination with FHT-2!) create greater forward racquet
tilt at Impact – such that topspin generation is enhanced for these players
compared to those who use a Flexion Forehand (even if they use the optimal
transition type, FHT-2, in combination).
maximizing topspin production, we found this very interesting magazine photo
sequence from our archives (Tennis Magazine - Japan (July 1991), if I recall correctly).
It’s a topspin forehand photo sequence
of Boris Becker (top) and Sergi Bruguera (bottom) from Roland Garros in 1991.
Is it a coincidence that one of the most heavily-spun topspin forehands of that
era (or of any other era, frankly @ 3,500 RPM) struck by Bruguera was achieved
by using Elbow Extension in the forward swing?
What’s the whole
point of maximizing topspin production?
production is enhanced, the player’s capability to control the speed and
direction of their shots improves as a direct result. And, their shot
consistency increases as well. While Elbow Extension may also contribute
enhanced elastic energy production and transfer by the racquet arm itself that
could also increase a player’s power potential by delivering higher racquet speed,
our current thinking about how the Extension Forehand has contributed to the
Grand Slam domination of its best practitioners, Roger Federer and Rafael
Nadal, is this:
forehands using Elbow Extension has given these two players a clear edge over
their rivals by delivering higher levels of shot control and consistency by
enhancing their ability to produce large amounts of topspin without sacrificing
(“trading off”) ball speed.
In our opinion,
it is this enhanced topspin production capacity, as well as increased racquet
speed capabilities, that can be achieved by using Elbow Extension to accelerate
the racquet toward Impact that appears to have delivered that “edge” that Roger
Federer and Rafael Nadal have wielded over their rivals in the past decade to
In tennis, maximizing
speed without maximizing control simultaneously is a playing and instructional
philosophy that leads to only one ultimate destination: the proverbial “scrap
pile” and all the unnecessary frustration and bad feelings that come with it.
P.S.: We wanted to take this moment to thank all of you out there who have taken valuable time out of your day to explore and begin drilling down into the amazing and often mystifying world of world-class tennis with us.
We have noticed that our readership has been grown substantially over recent months, and we have been receiving an increasing number of emails asking us if we provide instruction in the stroke concepts and movements we discuss in our blog.
The answer is YES, we offer instruction, coaching and consulting in all aspects of high-performance tennis development from stroke mechanics to mental skills training, as well as career and college planning.
We have over 15 years of experience in high-performance tennis development and we offer our services via:
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Thank you very much again for all of your interest in our blog, and just to let you know, we still have a LOT of ground to cover if you are seeking the knowledge that's behind the development of the sublime tennis skills of the world's greatest players.
(Gee whiz…We haven't even started discussing the details of optimal topspin and slice backhand mechanics, much less the intricacies of serve mechanics.)
Labels: Andy Murray, Andy Roddick, biomechanics, increasing topspin production, Novak Djokovic, Rafael Nadal, Roger Federer, topspin forehand technique