Friday, April 01, 2005

The Modern Forehand

Much has been made of the differences in technique between the classical forehand and the modern forehand. My contention is that the two methods of hitting a forehand have more in common than they have differences. I also contend that the differences, and there are differences, stem from one primary cause: increased raquet-head speed.

Before comparing and contrasting the two forehand techniques, I will present one example of each method. The first QuickTime movie below is an example of a classical forehand. The player below is using an Eastern Forehand grip.

To view the video click the play button (the filled in arrowhead on the left below the picture). If you would like to view the movie frame-by-frame, which will be useful at times, you can do so using the left and right arrow buttons on your keyboard.

In the next movie, the player is hitting a modern forehand using a Semi-Western (or perhaps Western) Forehand grip.

[Modern forehand video from EASI Tennis]

So, what are the similarities? What are the differences?

In both cases shown above the players drive with the front leg (left leg since both players are right handed). In both cases the players appear to be shifting their weight onto the drive leg in the early portion of the forward swing. The extension of the drive leg causes both players to move upwards slightly coming into contact, violating the old axiom that players must stay down when hitting ground strokes. In both cases the hips rotate so that the right hip moves counter-clockwhise toward contact. In both cases the shoulders turn away from contact in the backswing, and rotate toward contact in the forward swing. Both players are applying moderate topspin. After contact, both players let their racquets continue to move through the ball and finish around to their non-hitting side.

That doesn't exhaust the similarities, but it's a start.

What about the differences? Well, as I mentioned, the grips appear to be different, eastern for the classical stroke and western or semi-western for the modern stroke. The different grips cause different racquet face orientations at the end of the backswing. The eastern forehand grip leaves the strings in an open position, while the more western grip causes a closed racquet face. The classical player makes contact with an almost straight arm, while the modern player makes contact with a bent elbow. Notice also that the contact point for the classical player is lower than it is for the modern player. Though the contact was lower for the classical player, the racquet finishes the follow-through phase of the swing higher than the modern player's racquet.

So those are some of the differences. Again, the list is far from complete. Frequently one of the differences between the classical and the modern forehand that observers point out is the different stances. At one time I was fixated on that difference. I spent many an hour watching tour-level tennis looking for players who did not hit with an open stance. Having to wait so long led me to conclude that the open stance was a fundamental of the modern forehand. As you can see from the video above, I was wrong. The modern player above is clearly stepping into this particular forehand. It turns out that both classical and modern forehands can and are hit with both square and with open stances. There are differences in square and open stance methods, but those differences are not unique to either the classical or the modern forehand.

In the intro to this post I suggested that the reasons for the differences between the classical and the modern forehands stem from higher racquet-head speed. The leg drive of modern players (frequently forceful enough to lift them off the ground) and the rotational speed of modern players clearly exceeds that of players of the 1970s and earlier. The result of the increased leg drive and rotational speed is greater angular velocity of the racquets as they contact the ball. This causes fast ball speeds.

In order to control the racquet at these higher speeds, it is helpful to have the racquet lined up with the body in the fashion seen in the bent arm modern forehand. The bent arm also heightens the contact location which increases the size of the acceptance window through which the ball must be hit to clear the net and to fall back into the court. Another thing that increases the size of the acceptance window is topspin. The western and semi-western grips so common in the modern forehand allow for greater spin to be applied to the ball. The grips facilitate more top spin by allowing the player to take advantage of forearm rotation (pronation) to increase the vertical component of racquet-head speed.

As more players hit with high ball speed and with top spin, players must learn to return balls that they will strike at higher contact points. Those higher contact points lend themselves to more western grips. This becomes a positive feedback cycle where player A uses a lot of rotation, high racquet head speeds, western grips and topspin which causes his opponent, player B, to use more leg drive, more rotation, more western grips and more topspin. The evolution of the forehand proceeds with this positive feedback loop so that we see most players using "extreme" grips, a lot of body rotation, bent arms at contact, a lot of topspin, and full, free follow-throughs.

It is possible that someone who uses slices to keep the ball low could prove a difficult foe for players using the modern forehand technique. Time will tell what the next "modern" forehand will look like.

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