been following our blog at all, maybe you’ve noticed that our attention is
focused almost solely on what and how top players do the things they do on the
tennis court. We are interested first and foremost in understanding how maximum
performance is achieved by these unique individuals. Our specific aim is to
identify what qualities, characteristics and attributes separate the top
performers from everyone else.
practical terms, our general approach to figure out what these incredible
individuals do—and how they do it—is to seek out the differences between about those individuals who demonstrate
so-called outlier performance compared to everyone else. This approach – whether it applied to
studying and understanding athletics, investment banking, aerospace
engineering, or whatever the subject may be—often turns out to be the fastest way to reverse-engineer the
genius of those outliers and ultimately offer everyone the opportunity to
understand and then maybe integrate, at least, certain fundamental qualities of
their intuitive, natural brilliance.
in the elite athletics arena, the differences in the athletic movements between
the most successful individuals in a given event are minute in size, form or
extent, and happen on a miniscule timeframe of only a few thousandths of a
second. This “quicksilver” nature of outlier performance appears to be especially
true in athletic events that are based on speed and power, as the sport of
tennis is today.
Therefore, detecting these types of athletic “micromoves” or
“micromotion” may prove quite challenging given that they are invisible to the
In our last
post, we presented a general description of what we have come to understand is
the most important phase of the topspin
forehand stroke: the transition from the backswing to the forward swing or FHT.
After analyzing the topspin forehand mechanics of 100s of competitive players
using high-speed video, we have concluded that FHT is the most important phase
of the stroke because the anatomical arrangement of the various joints of the
racquet arm that is achieved during FHT appears to “lock in” how players
ultimately make contact with the ball.
We also have come to conclude that there are
effectively two fundamental types of FHT ---Type 1 or FHT-1 and Type 2 or FHT-2
(and, well, as of our March visit to Indian Wells, we have found clear evidence of a
third distinct type of FHT, or FHT-3, but we’ll save that discussion for
starting with this post, let’s begin a more in-depth conversation about why FHT
plays such an important role in producing a Hall-of-Fame-worthy tennis topspin
And maybe the first question on your mind is:
“What exactly is the
difference between FHT-1 and FHT-2?”
the topspin forehand mechanics of these tennis outliers—whom we’ll define as
those players who have won Grand Slam Championships in singles or players who
have earned at least 5 million dollars in tournament prize money – using high-speed
video, we have identified a specific micromove in the topspin forehand mechanics
of players who strike the fastest—often rallying at speeds over 80 MPH—AND
heaviest –consistently generating 3,000+ RPM—topspin forehands under Grand
Slam/ATP match conditions.
There is no doubt that there are also many differences
– subtle and obvious – in both gross movements (the movements that are visible
to the naked eye) as well as in the other micromovements (those only visible at
speeds of 200+ fps) in the forehand mechanics.
So far, we’ve identified at least 30 distinct micromoves used by the outliers that are
largely “missing” from the topspin forehand mechanics of the "non-outliers".
In light of
all the wide variation in the movements used, even among the outlier group, we
noticed that there appears to be a single, specific micromove that the fastest
and heaviest forehands in the sport consistently demonstrate during the
critical phase of FHT. What’s even more interesting is we began to realize that
this particular micromove is missing—rather, is not used—by those players whose
forehands desert them and break down under the pressure of competing for the
sport’s biggest titles.
when we compared the topspin forehand mechanics of the outliers with players who
are actively seeking “outlier performance”—i.e. college and junior players—we
realized that the presence or absence of this micromove is the crucial
characteristic that both defines as
well as distinguishes between the two
core types of FHT: FHT-1 and FHT-2.
exactly is this micromove that’s used by those players with the fastest and
heaviest forehands in the sport?
specific micromove is ELBOW PRONATION of the racquet arm at the very end of FHT
during the fleeting moments when players initiate the forward swing to impact—
aka the FFM, or “First Forward Move”.
And, by “fleeting” we mean that FFM typically
lasts a mere 3 to 5 frames at 210 fps – or a miniscule 14.3 to 23.8
milliseconds among all players we’ve studied.
Pronation of the racquet arm at the terminal stages of FHT, specifically at the very start
of the FFM is the defining characteristic of the less common – but arguably
more effective—type of FHT: FHT-2.
players who place their racquet arm elbow in the opposite position –i.e. ELBOW
SUPINATION—causing the palm of their racquet hand to face upwards towards the
sky is the defining characteristic of the more common type of FHT: FHT-1.
To sum it
PRONATION at FFM = FHT-2
SUPINATION at FFM = FHT-1
show you exactly what Elbow Pronation
of the racquet arm at FFM looks like so you can determine which type of FHT is used by a given
player. Let’s see how the players themselves achieve this important position it
from different angles.
FHT-2 / FFM Elbow Pronation – Behind the Baseline View
mentioned in our last post, high-speed video taken from the “behind the
baseline” perspective will enable you to make the most definitive determination
of the racquet elbow position—pronated
or supinated—at FFM. See the examples below.
FHT-2 / FFM Elbow Pronation – Side View
Elbow Pronation at FFM can also be readily see from the more common front view—but, maybe you’ll have to train your eye a bit before this position becomes readily apparent:
also interesting is that the biggest of the high-speed, lower spin (i.e.
<2,000 RPM) forehands on the ATP tour (Berdych and Cilic) also demonstrate Elbow Pronation at FFM:
So, why is
this position at this stage of the forehand stroke so important to maximizing
spin generation, and why would even a player with a “low spin” topspin forehand
address the first part of the two-part question above here, and we’ll leave the
second question for another time.
reason why this is such a key move is because – regardless of whether or not
the player “understands” the anatomy and physics behind this idea – the hand
position at this stage of the forehand is the simplest way to control the angle
of the racquet face in the forward swing and more importantly, at impact, given
the physical construction of the human body.
you can control the tennis racquet during the forward swing, you’ll maximize
your chances of generating far more topspin than you may have thought possible.
“natural motion” of the racquet arm in a tennis forehand naturally causes the racquet
hand to supinate – meaning the palm of the hand will open toward the sky as you
swing forward to impact. Therefore, if you don’t compensate for the hand
supination by intentionally pronating the hand – pointing your palm downward
toward the ground – your hand will deliver the racquet face in an open position
pointed out this “anatomical reality” of the tennis forehand in his 1977 book,
“Tennis for the Future”. There, he shows that in order to have a square,
perfectly perpendicular face at impact, you have to close the racquet face by
at least 30 degrees before starting the forward swing to have the racquet face
square at impact (see below). This “swing geometry” is necessary to compensate
for the natural—and extensive—supination of the racquet hand during the forward
swing to impact.
have observed in today’s players who generate both high speed and high spin
rates on their forehands have a severely closed racquet face – a natural
product of racquet hand pronation—before they initiate their forward swing
–meaning that the racquet face is tilted forward anywhere from 60 to 90
degrees—and results in a racquet face that’s closed – again, tilted forwards
–anywhere between 7 to 15 degrees at impact (see below).
words, when players pronate their racquet hand just before they start their
forward swing, their pronated racquet hand position enables them to control the
natural supination of the racquet hand (and arm) during the forward swing and
control the angle of the racquet face as it approaches impact.
appears that that achieving this pronated position before FFM greatly reduces
the amount of conscious effort on the player’s part to create – “on the fly” –
the closed racquet position at impact that’s associated with maximal topspin
initial racquet hand pronation at the very beginning of the forward swing appears
to naturally, perhaps automatically produce the “stroke geometry” that’s
associated with a high-speed, high-spin topspin forehand.
benefits would racquet hand pronation at FFM deliver to the player? For example,
is there perhaps a direct neuromuscular or physiological benefit to using this
movement in a high-speed, high-spin topspin forehand? A deeper, and more
detailed consideration of this question shows that there may be several
possible neuromuscular/biomechancial benefits to incorporating this anatomical
position at the FFM stage of the forehand stroke.
this discussion by introducing the most “powerful” of these potential benefits:
racquet hand pronation at FFM maximizes force production by one of the major
“motors” of the forehand forward swing – the internal rotation of the rotator
So, what is
the relationship between racquet hand pronation at FFM and maximal force
production by the rotator cuff muscles – specifically the contraction of the
subscapularis muscle used to create the internal rotation of the shoulder that
propels your (racquet) arm forwards to impact?
relationship between these two movements and how it influences force production
goes like this:
pronating the racquet hand at this stage, this position prevents "premature"
external rotation of the shoulder – because external rotation (“ER”) of the
shoulder prior to the internal rotation (“IR”) of the shoulder enables you to
tap into the force-multiplying effects of what’s called the Stretch-Shortening
Cycle, or “SSC”.
concise explanation of this neuromuscular/biomechanical phenomenon, let’s
consult this passage from Bartlett’s 2007 textbook titled “Introduction to
Sports Biomechanics, 2nd Edition”:
“Appendix 2.1 Universal and partially general
movement (biomechanical) principles
Use of the stretch-shortening cycle of muscle
Also referred to as the use of pre-stretch; in
performing many sports activities, a body segment often moves initially in the
opposite direction from the one intended. This initial countermovement is often
necessary simply to allow the subsequent movement to occur. Other benefits
arise from the increased acceleration path, initiation of the stretch reflex,
storage of elastic energy, and stretching the muscle to optimal length for
forceful contraction – relating to the muscle’s length-tension curve. This
principle appears to be universal for movements requiring force or speed or to
minimize energy consumption.” (page 76)
In this case,
ER of the shoulder is the counter-movement that facilitates as well as
contributes speed and contractile forces to IR that is used to sling your
racquet forward. This pre-stretching of
the muscles performing ER leads to causes an increase in the contraction force
and speed of the muscles that perform IR, which therefore increases the force
and speed delivered by your arm, hand and racquet to impact.
critical to this force and speed maximization using the SSC of the rotator cuff
muscles is the timing between the pre-stretching and the contraction of the
muscles being used. Due to the neurophysiological properties of motor neurons
and your skeletal – or, “voluntary” – muscles, there is a “shelf life” or time
limit to the increased force production created by SSC. Muscle contraction must
occur with 50 milliseconds (50 one-thousandths of one second) after the
pre-stretch, otherwise you’ll lose the ability to generate increased – maximal
– force by the target muscles. And, the longer the delay, the less force will
the topspin forehand, there is a 50 millisecond “window” of opportunity to
produce maximal force after ER creates that pre-stretch of the IR muscles.
me point out that ER of the shoulder is also used to supinate your racquet
hand. You can feel this for yourself. Hold your arm out to the side with your
hand pronated - i.e. palm facing the ground. Then supinate your hand – without
moving your arm – so that the palm faces the ceiling or sky. You should pay close
attention to the sensation in the rotator cuff area when you do this movement.
What do you notice? You will feel a tension in exactly those muscles used to
understand that by performing ER, you are simultaneously pre-stretching the muscles
used for IR. In other words, racquet hand supination at any time triggers SSC
in the rotator cuff musculature. With SSC triggered or “turned on”, realize that you
have a 50 millisecond window to collect the reward of SSC—which is increased,
if not maximal force production by the IR muscles.
if you want to tap into the force maximizing effects of SSC in this critical
group of “motor muscles” that powers your forward swing, you need to be very
careful about when you trigger that
particular SSC. This also explains why the sequence of the body movements –
nerve firing, joint movements, muscle contraction patterns, etc.—used to
execute an athletic movement such as a topspin forehand is such a critical
property of any athletic movement. And it’s an especially critical factor if
you’re seeking to optimize or maximize the performance – power – output of that
watch very carefully ultra slow motion video—meaning, stepping through the slow
motion footage of the stroke frame-by-frame—of the forehands of one of the
players (Federer, Nadal, Djokovic, et al.) shown earlier, you might notice that
the first discernable sign of Elbow Supination occurs after FFM. This stage is of the stroke is pretty much the last
possible moment to trigger the SSC of the shoulder and arm that slings the
racquet to impact.
the limited time window to take advantage of the benefit of increased muscle
contraction force delivered by SSC, doesn’t it make sense that triggering
rotator cuff muscle activity to sling the racquet arm forward should occur
close – as close as possible – to when maximum speed and force is needed at
“optimization” the SSC of the rotator cuff is but one of several key SSCs that
operate in a top-level topspin forehand.
Therefore, the same principles and
factors that result in maximal force production—the timing and spatial
(anatomical) sequencing—of the rotator cuff SSC operate and regulate these
other SSCs that enhance speed and force production in the overall forehand
consider the other side of the coin…
those players who use FHT-1, the more common type of FHT all at most levels of
use FHT-1 perform early supination of
the elbow of their racquet arm – let’s call this characteristic, “ES” for
short—as their racquet arm elbow is supinated at FFM. ES appears to have
certain adverse performance as well as certain biomechanical “consequences” on the forward swing – as we’ve observed that players who use FHT-1
typically generate less topspin—often 15 to 20 percent less topspin compared with
players who use FHT-2.
And, especially given the high ball speeds that players employ today at the higher levels of the sport, lower topspin rates effectively means lower levels of control over their shots.
Regardless of the performance tradeoffs we've observed, as we showed in our last post, indeed there are very, very successful tour-level players who demonstrate “Early Supination” (“ES”) of their racquet hand.
Here are some examples of those highly successful ATP/WTA players who demonstrate FHT-1 / ES of their racquet hand:
interesting about all of these players who demonstrate ES of their racquet hand
pictured here are no doubt ultra-successful based on the fact that every one of
them has achieved an ATP/WTA Top 10, Top 5 or even Number 1 ranking, or has
been a Grand Slam champion or finalist, and has earned untold millions in prize
money. There is no question about their achievements.
for every one of these players, their forehand is the stroke that their (true)
rivals target in their matches because that is the stroke that tends to break
down under pressure. And while it’s also true that each one of these players
can also produce sublime power and precision with their forehands at times, the
forehand just isn’t as consistent a weapon for them – like Gonzalez’s forehand
that most would agree was extremely “streaky” in its effectiveness.
we’ve also observed that FHT-1 is by far the most common type of forehand
transition, and ES becomes the dominant
movement as you go down the competitive ladder from the main tours and
Challengers to the Futures level, college tennis, and in national/sectional
junior competitors. And, based on our own observations over the years, a
greater proportion of female competitive players use FHT-1 and demonstrate ES
of their racquet hand relative to male competitive players.
might ask from the coaching standpoint this question: if these players can’t use the (optimal) SSC
of the shoulder to contribute to the power potential of their forward swing,
how do they generate power? This highly complex subject we’ll leave for later
a more pressing question would be this:
possible to produce the same “stroke geometry” that’s associated with a
super-heavy, high speed topspin forehand without pronating the racquet hand
just before or at the FFM?
this is possible…
done every day by the vast majority of tennis players out there, recreational
and competitive players alike.
and WTA pros try to achieve high speed, high spin forehands without using
pronation at FFM. 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.
majority of tennis players hit their heaviest topspin forehands by attempting a
wide variety of body movements to create the stroke geometry associated with
high-speed, high-spin forehands. The commonality of the topspin-amplifying
technique/movements used by the vast majority of players is that these involve consciously manipulating the racquet
hand and arm during the 100 or so
milliseconds before impact.
contrived movements commonly include such movements known as: “windshield-wipering”,
” wrist action”, “wrist rolling” or “wrist flipping”, “brushing up at impact”,
“reverse finishing", etc. , etc., etc.. All of these movements involve highly conscious,
and often last-second, timing-intensive racquet manipulation where required
stroke consistency can only be achieved with an inordinate amount of practice
time that’s only really available to serious competitive players.
Yet, these moves probably represent the most common
methods for generating heavy topspin for the vast majority of recreational and
competitive tennis players alike.
appears to be that most players use so much conscious manipulation of the hands
and arms to create the rising, closed racquet face necessary to create gobs of
topspin that are required to maximize control and precision at high ball speeds
(75+ MPH) . Then, consider this next performance reality where there is large
variation in the speed, spin, and direction of the shots generated by your
opponent/partner every time you play. The combination of these two realities of
tennis leads me to conclude – on the surface – that the mastery of a heavily-spun
tennis forehand for the vast majority of players requires a large amount of natural
talent (motor coordination), repetition and (correct) instruction.
value, the cold truth may be that mastery of the precise timing required to
consistently deliver the racquet face at impact in the manner that’s needed to
produce all that nasty, heavy topspin may be out of reach for players who
aren’t capable of ATP or collegiate performance levels. At the same time, for
many players, including a surprising number of touring pros, they treat each
forehand they strike as a new math problem that needs a unique solution.
every forehand ends up feeling – and even looking – different.
We all know
how talented the best tennis players, as well as the enormous amounts of time
they have spent mastering the various skills they have at their disposal. So,
obviously, these top talents are therefore capable of consistently executing
those 80+ MPH forehands with 3,000+ RPMs of topspin with the precision and
consistency they do.
light, does this mean that there’s necessarily a long, hard road ahead for
anyone who wants to increase topspin production on their current forehand?
You see, if
you understand the “natural motion” of the racquet arm in the forward swing to
impact of a tennis forehand, and combine this with a firm understanding of the
“impact geometry” that’s needed to create large amounts of topspin, we can
drastically reduce the number of variables to adjust (as well as the amount of
practice time) if you’re seeking more topspin (and speed) on your forehand to
these three essential concepts:
1) You need to pronate the elbow of
your hitting arm before starting the forward swing – to the same extent as the
players pictured earlier—to compensate for the natural supination – or opening
of the hand causing the palm to face skyward – of the racquet elbow /hand to
ensure that you can deliver the racquet face in a closed position – i.e. racquet
tilted forward—at impact.
2) You can start to experiment with how
steep or how shallow your upward swing path affects the resulting shot. The
simplest way to do this is to start experimenting with how far below the impact
point you start your forward swing. You might also experiment with the height
at which your racquet hand finishes after impact. You may find that you produce
more topspin when you shallow out your overall swing path and use a finish
lower versus swinging more steeply upwards and finishing high – when the
racquet hand finishes up at head-height or higher. And, you should note that
this concept effectively runs counter to the “how topspin is produced” paradigm
ingrained into the “stroke knowledge” of most tennis players and coaches
3) 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
These factors are all subjects we’ll certainly discuss in greater detail
in the future.
In my own coaching
experience, when advanced competitive players incorporate these concepts, their
forehand topspin production has increased 25 to 30 percent, on average, and a
few players have nearly doubled their spin rates (with the caveat that these
players had low-spin forehands to start, i.e. <1,500 RPM, on average).
And, an added benefit they achieved was this:
because they increased the level of (length) control they had over their
forehands due to the increased topspin they could generate, they also felt the
confidence to increase the speed of their shots by 15 to 25 percent as well.
Most likely, this is due to the fact that as they swung faster, they were able
to maintain or actually increase their spin rates and maintained control over
their shot length. Even with the increased ball speed that causes the ball to
fly further, the increased spin rates prevented their shots from flying long.
three concepts the “be-all and end-all” instruction for executing a high-speed,
high-spin topspin forehand?
three technical concepts probably represent the core principles of “extreme
topspin” production on forehands, there are still even more complex concepts, movements
and techniques that can even further amplify both spin production and racquet
speed –racquet speed in particular—but will require a talent level on the
player end that unfortunately leaves out most of the tennis-playing population
– like 95 to 99 percent of that population.
finally, it will take a really unique knowledge and understanding of stroke
mechanics on the coach/teacher end to determine the optimal order which these
three fundamental, topspin-amplifying concepts are presented to a given player.
practice, a “cookie-cutter” approach to any instruction doesn’t really exist,
especially if the player is an experienced, competitive player – regardless of
the level they actually play at—whether it’s junior, college, professional or
veterans’ tennis. The sequence used to incorporate these adjustments are unique
to each individual player not only because of the fundamental variation in each
and every player’s intrinsic physical
capabilities, or “talent level”, but because of the differences in each
player’s intellectual understanding about how their strokes work and even more
importantly, on their attitudes toward change.
attitude of (curiosity and) openness to new ideas and new methods, improvement—in
general—will be difficult at best.
ready to increase the amount of topspin you can generate on your forehand - and increase the amount of control you have over your shots - why
not consider integrating these three concepts into your stroke?
P.S. The answer to the postscript from the previous post that asked about the FHT-type used by Messrs. Federer and Djokovic is that both future Hall-of-Famers use FHT-2.
Since 2003, the vast majority of Grand Slam Men's Singles Champions have used FHT-2. This represents an astonishing 35 of 37 Grand Slam Singles titles during this nearly 10-year period!
The two exceptions in this period (2003 to the present) are Andre Agassi (2003 Australian Open) and Juan Martin Del Potro (2009 US Open) - and these two players actually use a third distinctive type of FHT ("FHT-3") we've only confirmed after our visit to the desert earlier in March (as mentioned earlier).
Therefore, if we are to learn the lesson of the most recent decade of tennis history, every effort should probably be made to make sure that future Grand Slam contenders will develop a topspin forehand that employs FHT-2 (or perhaps, FHT-3)...
Labels: Andy Murray, ATP, forehand, Novak Djokovic, pronation, Rafael Nadal, Roger Federer, stretch-shortening cycle, supination, tennis, tennis instruction, topspin forehand technique, WTA