exploring the world of tennis . . .     
Coaching Tips - Forehand Groundstrokes

Let's phase it - forehands are easy!

Can you tell me how to play a basic forehand, as I'm new to tennis?

Ok, let's look at the stroke in terms of three phases:-

phase one - preparation . . . phase one - the backswing. Turn your shoulders so your racket points to the fence behind you. It's a good idea to do this as early as possible. With the racket already behind you, track the ball with your non-racket hand and adjust your feet so that you can be in a good position for . . .

. . . phase two - the contact. With your feet approximately shoulder width apart, bend your knees slightly, lowering your centre of gravity. Swing the racket forwards and slightly upwards. Ideally, the ball should be a comfortable distance away from your body and somewhere around hip height. Aim to make contact with the ball just in front of your hip with your wrist braced and the racket face vertical. Transfer your weight into the shot and straighten your legs as you move into . . .

. . . phase three - the follow-through. Your racket continues forwards and slightly upwards through the line of the ball. Once you've learned to control the racket face, aim to produce a really full follow-through. And don't forget . . .

. . . phase four. I know I said three phases, but it's also important to use small side-skips to recover to a good position on the court, ready for the next shot. Hold the racket out in front of you and establish your balance by performing a short hop just as your opponent strikes the ball.

Back to the questions

This mountain is three feet high!

How can I stop dumping my forehands in the net?

It's difficult to diagnose this problem without seeing it, but we'll try a kind of checklist:

1. Positioning . . . The likeliest source of the problem is poor positioning relative to the ball. It may be that the ball is too far in front of you (or too far away from you) on contact. It may also be that the ball is too close to you (or your contact is late) and you are turning your wrist or your elbow over in an effort to compensate. Be sure that the ball is a comfortable distance away from your body - not quite a full arm's reach away. And be sure that your contact is just in front of your leading hip.

2. Racket face . . . A closed racket face on impact will obviously produce the error you describe. If you use a "closed" grip to generate topspin, be sure to brush up the back of the ball as you swing forward and avoid rolling the wrist over when you strike the ball.

3. Angle of swing . . . Low to high! Nuff said!

4. Follow-through . . . Your follow-through should be full and right over your shoulder if you hit with topspin. Is your chin touching your bicep on completion of your shot?

5. Weight transfer . . . If neither of the above apply, we've got to consider your biomechanics! In simple terms, this means ensuring that you are on balance and that your body weight transfers forwards and upwards into your shot. Try sinking at the knees a little as you prepare for your shot and then straighten them as you lean in on the ball.

Back to the questions

Check the small print before you do this!

I want a cleaner hit on my forehand. Should I change my western grip?

People often ask me this one. Very often, they haven't really thought it through and change their minds in the end. So, ok, let's define what we mean by a clean hit. Well, the sweet spot (i.e. centre) of the racket face must strike the back of the ball in such a way that both ball and racket follow the same trajectory, ensuring that minimal spin is imparted. So when you talk about getting a cleaner hit, you're really talking about hitting with less spin.

Closed (western) and semi-closed (semi-western) forehand grips are usually adopted by players who compete mainly on high-bouncing surfaces (e.g. macadam) so that they can employ a higher contact point when necessary. If the wrist is kept straight, the angle of the racket face ensures the ball is struck with a downward trajectory.

An open (continental) forehand grip is sometimes adopted by doubles players (who want to avoid big grip changes) and by players who mainly play on low-bouncing surfaces such as grass. If the wrist is kept straight, the angle of the racket face ensures the ball is struck with an upward trajectory.

A flat (eastern) forehand grip is the traditional ("shake-hands") grip adopted by players who like to hit fairly flat shots and who play on medium-bounce surfaces. If the wrist is kept straight, the angle of the racket face ensures the ball is struck with a straight trajectory.

So players tend to adopt a grip that is suitable for the height of the bounce. They don't usually choose a particular grip in order to execute a particular spin (although some might). You therefore have to consider very carefully - what type of surface will you be playing most of your tennis on? Will you have to contend mainly with low bounces or high ones - or perhaps it's not an issue?

Let's consider what a player with a closed grip must do when striking a low/medium height ball. The angle of the swing (low to high) must be increased to counteract the downward trajectory of the ball off the racket face. The result is an upward brushing action which imparts topspin.

Similarly, let's consider what a player with an open (continental) grip must do when striking a high/medium ball. The angle of the swing (high to low this time) must be increased to counteract the upward trajectory of the ball off the racket face. The result is a downward brushing action which imparts slice.

And there, in a nutshell, is why certain grips are associated with certain spins.

It is possible to hit flat (and even slice) with a closed grip (if the wrist has rotated backwards). It's also possible to hit topspin with an open continental grip (if the wrist has rotated forwards). But these are advanced variations that are best avoided - unless you're a contortionist!

There's also a tactical element to all this. Remember, a ball struck without spin travels faster through the air and is therefore more likely to go long. If you resolve this problem by aiming lower, you're more likely to hit the net. The only other alternative left open to you is to hit less hard. And there's the crunch! Is that what you really want?

In tennis, spin is your insurance policy. Winning points is precious to you. Can you really afford not to insure your shots? Sure, you have to take some risks in life. If you insure against everything, the premiums will just cost you too much. So it is with tennis. You don't want to pay by sacrificing all your penetration. Nevertheless, a bit of insurance (topspin) on your forehand is kind of reassuring and gives you the confidence to keep hitting big!

Don't give up your topspin without careful consideration of all the issues. It could be a bad policy!

Back to the questions

Which coach is right?

What should you do with the non-racket hand when you hit a forehand?

It might help to put things in perspective if I reveal the full question, which was this:

"My daughter is 9 years old and I have had two different coaches show her two different ways to hit her forehand. One said to place the left hand on the throat of the racquet - this is to adjust the angle and leave it there for as long as you can before hitting the ball. The other said take the racquet back as soon as you see the ball coming and use the left hand to point at the ball. Which one is it? I see most players take their racquet back right away and guide with the left. What is your advice?"

It might seem like I'm sitting on the fence, but I would endorse the second piece of advice without completely dismissing the first. I would certainly underline the importance of turning the shoulders fully as early as possible. It's kind of a moot point whether the non-racket hand stays on the racket or not at this point. Maybe it will help to speed up the shoulder turn and maybe it will help with a grip-change (if required). I wouldn't keep it there for too long though, because I do think it helps to extend the non-racket hand to track the oncoming ball and assist with your balance.

Early preparation and balance are the key factors.

Back to the questions

If it's good enough for Roddick . . .!

Can you give me some tips on hitting the forehand slice?

There are coaches who'll tell you there's no such shot as a forehand slice in the modern game. Well, I just saw Andy Roddick hit two consecutive forehand slice returns of serve - that's good enough for me. If you're primarily a singles player, you shouldn't be basing your game on the forehand slice - topspin makes a lot more sense - but it should be there as part of your repertoire. It's useful as an approach shot, as a return of serve and as a variation shot to keep your opponent guessing.

You don't hit this one with a western (closed) or semi-western grip. Change to a more open grip, take the racket back high and away from your body, step into the shot sideways-on and brush downwards and forwards with a firm "laid-back" wrist. Complete the follow-through forwards and upwards (the racket should end up at or above head height).

If you've got the high-to-low brushing action right, the ball should have a long flight and then stay low after the bounce.

You can hit this shot using a shorter backswing, making it useful when you're facing a fast oncoming ball and your preparation time is short.

Back to the questions

Give it the old one-two!

How can I stop missing easy putaways?

It's easy to get a rush of blood when you get a short ball. They look so easy and inviting, don't they? And then you dump it in the net or bury it in the back fence - so frustrating!

Beware of using too much power - your margin of error may become unacceptable for an easy shot. Sometimes the best play is to simply direct the ball deep into a corner and move in to finish the point with a volley or overhead.

If possible, you should try to get to the ball while it's still well above net height. Turn your shoulders but avoid taking the racket back too far. Drive through the ball with a slightly closed racket face. This will allow you to impart some topspin for control.

If you're missing this shot a lot, adopt a two-shot mentality. Don't go for the outright winner. Aim deep instead and follow it into the net.

Back to the questions

An open and closed case!

Open-stance or closed-stance - which is better?

Venus Williams I often get asked what's best - an open stance or a closed stance. And of course there isn't a definitive answer. You can argue the merits and demerits of each until the cows come home. Open-stance players tend to flourish on slower courts where baseline rallies are the order of the day. On courts where the ball bounces lower and there is a premium on getting in to the net, players who step in to their shots with a closed (sideways-on) stance are better equipped to create linear momentum and execute approach shots. Ultimately, it comes down to your own athletic and tactical preferences.

Open-stance players can use powerful trunk rotation and produce great racket-head speed, but they find that their centre of gravity pulls to the left (or even backwards) during the stroke, discouraging forward movement. The open-stance technique also enables players to execute hurried shots.

The step-in forehand, on the other hand, imposes a limit on your swing because your front leg locks up your body, but it encourages forward transfer of weight and therefore favours players who want to close in on the net. By taking the ball on the rise, players who use this technique can cut out the opponent's reaction time and apply pressure by approaching the net. This can be just as devastating as a booming open-stance forehand, especially on fast surfaces.

One word of caution. Open-stance is a bit of a misnomer. It refers to your feet. It does NOT mean having your shoulders parallel to the net! If you use an open-stance forehand, you must coil and then uncoil your hips and shoulders, otherwise there is no benefit to it whatsoever.

Back to the questions

Rally in the alley!

I have a closed stance forehand. How can I improve accuracy and power?

If you use a closed stance, you should be able to direct your shots more accurately than players who use an open stance forehand. That's because open stance players swing more across the body (and not towards the target) and so theoretically they sacrifice both depth and accuracy.

If adding power is your major priority, however, be sure not to stand completely sideways to the net. Your upper body needs to be at least slightly open - enough to allow your hips to turn through the shot. That way you'll generate power from the use of the big muscle groups in your trunk, shoulders and legs. This rotation of the trunk allows something known as "pre-stretching" of the shoulder muscles to occur. The muscles stretch and load up with tension ready to release energy into the swing. Hit the ball when it's in front of your body and coordinate the trunk rotation with a step in towards your target. Stepping in should also help with accuracy and you can improve this still further by "staying with" the shot right through the hitting zone and out towards your target.

Obviously, extra power is no good to you if the ball doesn't go where you want it to! So try these drills to develop a really steady forehand:

rally in half the singles court, cooperating with each other and counting how many consecutive forehands you make before the rally breaks down. Then play first to 11 points, taking it in turns to feed the ball in (the ball must be in play for a minimum of 2 shots, otherwise the point must be replayed). When you're comfortable with that, progress to applying the same drill to a smaller court area - the tramlines (doubles alley)! That'll test you!

Back to the questions

Don't hit down!

What's the best way to hit a high forehand?

A lot depends on your court position.

Even if the ball is slow and high and inviting, if you're back behind the baseline, you should resist the temptation to go for the kill. Get it back deep and wait for a shorter ball.

If you're inside the baseline and your contact is going to be higher than chest-height, you will have to modify the shape of your swing. Your usual low-to-high trajectory will not be appropriate, but don't get fooled into hitting down on the ball. Plant your feet to establish a good base, line up the racket head behind your intended contact point and drive through the ball, rotating your shoulders and arm simultaneously, shifting your weight forwards and making contact just in front of your body.

If you're losing control in the middle of the swing and it feels like your racket is twisting at contact, try to keep your wrist and elbow stable throughout the shot. It's quite common for the elbow to fly away from the body, causing the racket face to turn over too much.

If you're uncomfortable taking balls at this height (you'll certainly be uncomfortable with them if you don't use a semi-western or western grip), develop your ability to take the ball on the rise instead.

Back to the questions

Don't be a Luddite!

Which is best - topspin or flat?

Human civilisation has advanced in direct proportion to our increased ability to harness energy. Unlike most other living things, we humans have been able to use sun, wind, water, wood, fossil fuel and atomic energy to modify our environment to our benefit. The Industrial Revolution marked a watershed in our ability to achieve this.

As you develop as a tennis player, you sooner or later discover that topspin is essential to refine and control the raw energy of your groundstrokes. It allows you to clear the net by a greater margin because it drags the ball down into the court even when you hit it hard. This represents a double insurance you cannot afford to ignore.

Obviously, there are some benefits to a flat forehand. Hitting flatter increases the pace of the shot, so it can sometimes pay to flatten out your drive when a really good opportunity arises to put the ball away. The problem with flat strokes is that you're aiming through a very narrow window - too low, and you hit the net; too high, and the ball sails long.

Not everyone was happy with the Industrial Revolution in the early 1800s. The Luddites were a group of English workers who protested against the changes because they felt their jobs were threatened. Their name has become synonymous with people who are opposed to change. Don't be a Luddite! Embrace topspin and revolutionise your game!

Back to the questions

The laid-back forehand!

Can you use wrist to produce a more powerful shot?

Laying the wrist back Upper body rotation is the primary source of power on the forehand groundstroke, but advanced players can add a little juice by laying the wrist back and rolling the forearm for a little extra leverage during the swing.

Lay your wrist back so that the butt cap points towards the ball before you swing the racket up and forwards with the kind of leverage you would use if you were clipping someone across the back of the head. Keep your wrist flexible but not too loose and practise until you can control the extra acceleration. Watch good exponents of this technique like Andy Roddick, Juan Carlos Ferrero and Andre Agassi.

Back to the questions

© 2001-6 Dave Winship

The coaching tips on this site are free. If you would like to donate a small sum of money to be invested in the upkeep of the site (and sister site The Speed Of Dark Blog) then please click on the button below.

Read Dave Winship's humorous tennis book, 'Off The Frame'! It is now available for purchase in paperback and Kindle formats from Amazon:

Click here to purchase paperback version

Click here to purchase Kindle version