New memberships are currently on hold while we re-thing the format.
This page will act as an INDEX of more ADVANCED technical writing, which both lead on from (and enhance) the original Foundation Pages – FOREHAND – BHx1 – BHx2 –SERVE.
It will also serve as a BLOG index for all ‘posts’ until each category (i.e. VISUAL LEARNING, STROKE LIBRARY, ADVANCED etc.) has a sufficient number of posts for them to warrant their own index page (or when it gets messy, I’ll split them up).
For me, Rafa Nadal’s forehand is the current go-to link in the long, evolutionary chain that is the tennis groundstroke, which makes it a good place to begin the more advanced technical pages of THE TENNIS BOOK.
Rafa’s forehand is also a great stroke to use as a first reference point in comparisons, because placing quality tennis strokes side-by-side (or even on top of each other) helps to reveal the many subtle shades of tennis technique…. and believe me, the permutations are endless. Wakey wakey – you don’t need to be a generic clone.
An Illustrated & Animated Multi Part Essay – Part 1
This piece on the tennis (ground)stroke is intended as a bit of technical fun for anyone interested in the game.
To avoid getting bogged down in footnotes, I’ll employ some sweeping statements and whopping generalisations. And rather than rummaging through old boxes of slides, I’ll be using images closest to hand – but hey, I’ve prepared over 2000 technical tennis images (individually… phew) for this first stage of #TheTennisBook, so I’ve got plenty to choose from.
I suppose two questions to get my fanciful tennis journey underway, are:
How did we get from this stroke…
…to this one?
And how did we get from this grip…
… to this one?
Looking back through the history of tennis strokes, you’ll find something akin to a technical evolution – survival of the fittest? – in which each generation’s elite sets a benchmark for the rest, and just when you think you’ve seen the best-of-the-best, the evolutionary chain conjures up another curve-ball-talent to upgrade the technical status quo.
Many of us were inspired to take up the game by a tennis player, often someone appealing to that which is already within us, and seeing the flat-hitting, fist-pumped brutality of Jimmy Connors on a school tennis trip is my excuse.
I’d only joined the trip to escape school, and, prior to encountering Jimbo, I thought tennis was a game exclusively for snooty Croquet Club types.
Connors shattered that notion with the demolition of some forgettable opponent, using technique that makes a good starting point for the evolution of a tennis (ground)stroke.
But first a word on how gripping the racket influences the overall stroke (and how the surface influenced how players gripped the racket).
In by-gone days, groundstroke grips were often determined by the height (and speed) of the ball’s bounce on your formative court surface.
On higher bouncing courts (clay and hard court), players tended to get their palms further under the racket to cope with the higher bounce.
On faster, lower bouncing courts (grass), there were fewer opportunities to get under the ball, and fewer rewards for developing what we now know as extreme topspin – so the palm of the hand tended to sit above the racket handle.
Grass was once the dominant tournament surface and the net was the place from which aggressive players could impose their rapid-fire reflex game on fast, low-bouncing courts.
Hence the baseline technique of confirmed net-sters like Martina Navratilova, John McEnroe and Stefan Edberg was influenced heavily by the dominant area of their game – their on-court strengths – put simply, the quest to get to the net ASAP had limited use for a palm-under grip and a long, baseline grind.
When grass was the dominant surface, this thumb to the front forehand grip (see Edberg, above) would’ve been the dominant type of grip. But since the demise of the green stuff as a tournament staple, it is now a rarity because it isn’t much use for dealing with higher bouncing balls and it restricts the development of power and topspin groundies – certainly, this is not a forehand grip Technical Evolution would choose for a Roddick or a Rafa.
Anyhow, back to Jimmy and my fanciful Evolution of the Tennis Stroke.
In the beginning was the East India Tennis Company, cucumber sandwiches, tip-tap tennis on the Raj’s manicured lawns… and then came Jimmy?
But the chip that strutted in on Connors shoulders certainly muddied the on-court stakes and furrowed many a clubhouse brow.
And whilst there was nothing earth-shatteringly unique about Connors’ style of brandishing the racket, there was a uniqueness in his risky, all-out flat hitting.
Rather than peel his racket strings up the back of the ball, Jimmy maxed out the Flatness Volume, which converted the majority of racket head speed into ball speed.
Straight take-back – Straight (slightly lifted) swing through – arrow-like flight of the ball.
That’s the Connors groundstroke – and a basic ground ‘swing’ – in a clamshell.
Apart from providing exhilarating (and often frustrating) entertainment, Jimbo’s risky, net-skimming flat-cakes were both a help and a hindrance.
A help how?
Because his strokes took the most direct route available – they were direct-and-fast– and when Jimmy was on fire he could bagel even the very best opponents.
A hindrance because?
The margin for error of Jimmy’s high-risk, net-hugging groundies was so darn low, he could be relied on to hit winners and errors in abundance – the fact that they were marginal errors doesn’t change the outcome. Hence the longer opponents stayed in the point, the greater the odds Jimmy would hit the top of the net or arrowone just long.
Baseline contemporaries like Vilas, Borg and Lendl knew that outlasting Jimmy was a safer option than trying to out-gun him.
And in peeling their strings up the back of the ball, with a steeper low-to-high shape, Borg and Lendl had an automatic edge because topspin enables aggressive groundstroking with less risk.
These players could give their strokes a higher trajectory, and the topspin safety net would force the ball back down to earth inside the baseline.
Any arrow-like directness was lost in the trade-off, though this was more than compensated for by harnessing groundstroke power, opening up myriad new ‘dipping angles’ and fewer errors.
To beat the best of the topspin merchants, Connors needed to match their consistency, or blast them off the court before ‘the grind’ re-stacked the chips across the net.
And whilst Jimmy’s Golden Period happened before extreme topspin fully kicked-in, it is testament to his determined skills and risk management, that he flat-out won as many titles as he did.
New memberships are currently on hold until we’ve made some changes to the layout.
Read on to find out if The Tennis Book is for you.
What is #TheTennisBook, exactly?
#TheTennisBook translates in-depth tennis technique and world class tennis strokes into an entertaining cocktail of words, pictures and enhanced artwork.
The `Tennis Book is a top-quality educational resource, for anyone who wants to develop tennis strokes, based on many of the all-time best tennis players. It’s also a labour of love … and I’m not talking about Gabriela 🙂 (well, maybe just a little).
Why isn’t it free?
Because the ‘free’ model is usually paid for by adverts – or some other form of selling – and the advertising model can compromise writers and quality writing. But it’s affordable to everyone who can afford racket and balls.
Why should potential players be interested in your take on tennis strokes?
As well as teaching the game for almost two decades, I’ve been studying tennis technique for over 30 years, I’ve written about tennis strokes for tennis magazines in Europe, the USA and Britain and I’ve been shooting instructional sequence photos at tennis tournaments since 1988.
I have also started my ‘Stroke Library’, so independently minded members can study animated player strokes and reach their own technical conclusions – if they differ from mine, we have grounds for healthy debate.
What’s already inside?
There’s currently a stage-by-stage, fully animated tennis book on how to develop ground strokes – the forehand, one-handed and two-handed backhands, the serve (THE NET GAME is still to come) and I’ve just started the ADVANCED section.
I’ve prepared (individually) over 2000 tennis images, from which I can furnish these first pages, and I’ve started on the next batch.
Is it for beginners?
The Foundation Pages (the ones accessed from the main menu, above) have been written to favour those who know nothing of tennis technique, though they should be an entertaining read for everyone. Think of this site as high altitude tennis technique, made accessible to a non-techie audience, by relevant writing and artwork.
What about advanced players?
As a sports communicator, Technical Tennis as Art is my strong point, and the in-depth and advanced stuff is where I’m most at home.
So yes, I hope to stimulate the minds of even the very best.
And I’ve never been shy of a debate, so members are welcome to pitch in.
So what’s with the stroke animations?
They’re made from my still tournament photos – I realised I could make them in 1999 and have been doing so ever since.
Turning them into animations is very labour intensive (some animations take days and I’ve made hundreds: – do the math!), though as an educational aid they are hard to beat, because each miniature artwork is designed specifically to highlight relevant elements of each tennis stroke.
Is it finished?
#TheTennisBook is an ever-developing project, which has the potential to become an encyclopaedia of tennis strokes – I certainly have enough tennis images to fill one.
Health and circumstances permitting, these pages are the cornerstone on which I hope to keep building until I turn my toes up.
New memberships are currently on hold – we’re re-thinking the format and layout.
My situation is probably unique – I mean, how many writer/photographers do you know of, who ended up teaching tennis by chance (for almost 20 years), built up an archive of (tens of) thousands of hi-speed tournament sequence photos, wrote their own instructional manual based on strokes of the world’s best players, and developed still-image stroke animations as a teaching aid? You now know of one.
1: … THE IMAGES AND ANIMATIONS
I originally shot tournament sequence photos to run the width of my tennis magazine articles – frame-by-frame – but digital imaging offered up the opportunity for educationally enhanced stroke sequences.
When I first showed one of this new batch of animations to am old friend (and Graphic Designer of note), he straight-away understood that which I did, when I first made a stroke sequence into a GIF animation over 20 years ago – the slightly jerky nature shows you each separate element within the full stroke.
In-depth tennis techniques can be served out in logical, visually stimulating portions and made sense of by the surrounding sentences.
There are currently two ways of seeing the stroke in motion on this site:
Click-Through Tennis Strokes
By clicking-thru the stroke frame-by-frame, you can go at your own pace and I can highlight any given element within the full movement, and point to a specific frame where relevant
Free Running Tennis Strokes
From my end, these free-running stroke animations can be shaped to shed light on any aspect of stroke play, for easy absorption, and every animation has been engineered to a specific purpose.
2: … THE WRITING AND STRUCTURE
People come to the tennis court – and tennis pages – with varying degrees of skill and knowledge.
For this reason, I’ve shaped (what I shall call) The Foundation Pages into a sort of technical climbing frame, intended to fast-track the reader to advanced tennis techniques, in logical, easy-to-grasp stages, and to which they can return time-and-again. And – health, wealth and circumstances permitting – these pages are merely the first installment.
Remember – not only are you familiarising yourself with strokes, but also a very personal style of writing, which has developed in tandem with my own understanding of what happens on tennis courts at both the highest and lowest level.
3: … ‘ME, ME, ME’
I came to tennis from the wrong side of the English tracks when I joined a school trip to a tennis tournament, organised by our long-suffering Maths Teacher (and Wimbledon Umpire).
I went along just to skip lessons, and if I hadn’t been thrown out of the hospitality tent, for drinking beer and trying to pilfer the bar optics, I would never have laid eyes on one Jimmy Scott Connors, for it was he who convinced me – right there and then – that tennis was the real beautiful game.
As a youngster I couldn’t afford lessons and my first ‘coaching’ came at a College Evening Class when I’d left school, where I got to enroll free of charge with my UB40 (Unemployment Card).
I had my first pictures published in Blues & Soul magazine when I was still at school and around the same time I wrote a monthly column for Black Echoes music mag (about rare soul records) for a few pence a word.
As a fledgling writer/photographer I was proposed for membership of the National Union of Journalists by the late/great Malcolm Muggeridge (still got the letter) and my first grown-up cheque came via Editor Eric Bailey at SHE Magazine, for a words & pics feature on (Saint) Mother Teresa and her Sister’s in Calcutta.
I wandered into tennis coaching almost by accident (a longer story) and spent the best part of 20 enjoyable years teaching the game.
I got my first photographer credentials for both Miami and the French Open in 1988 (I think) and have been an intermittent visitor ever since.
I provided pictures, tournament reports, player interviews, features and instructional articles for tennis magazines in Europe, the USA and Britain.
I wrote (and illustrated) my own technical analysis series in the (then) top German tennis magazine, Tennis Revue (above), sold a series to the WTA’s ‘Inside Women’s Tennis’ mag, was a finalist in (the late Gene Scott’s) Tennis Week ‘Great American Tennis Writing Awards’, unloaded my tennis cock-up photos to the BBC’s ‘A Question of Sport’… and other pointless journalistic fluff.
From the outset, I covered tennis tournaments primarily to shoot hi-speed sequence photos for instruction, and I’ve built up a personal archive of many thousands.
I used my first sequence photos to analyse the stroke-play of the game’s best players and started writing my own coaching manual based on what I saw.
The knowledge on these pages has been written and structured in jargon-free language, and animated – from still images! – with due reverence for the skill of the game’s participants.
Along with many of ‘the greats’, there will be plenty of quirky strokes and lesser known gems, and what better reason to step up into the Covid (and pre-Covid) void, than to translate quality tennis strokes – and how to develop them – into common knowledge, for every age and standard?
Ultimately, The Tennis Book isn’t about how others hit tennis balls, but of how knowledge of excellence – if shared, understood, absorbed and acted upon – can effect everyone else, and I shall work to shed light on every stroke in the game, and make these pages as entertaining, informative and stimulating as possible.
Deny yourself the opportunity at your on-court peril!
4: DECLARATION OF INTENT
Strive to: Raise up technical tennis as a words-and-pictures art form, do justice to the real beautiful game and the strokes of (as many as possible of) its gifted participants from the past 3 decades.
Make in-depth technical knowledge, and the opportunity to learn, available to anyone who can afford racket and balls (and if this site makes money, I’ll invest in those who cannot).
Promote the joys of the learning process, active participation, a healthy pursuit of excellence, realistic expectations and endorse a competitive spirit that accepts the outcome of every match point and stays the right side of ugly egomania.
The above I can attempt alone.
But if The Tennis Book achieves more than a modest membership, I shall foster a space in which individual gifts – human, artistic and sporting – are encouraged, especially in the young, and where people who pool talents in the right spirit, will be offered a platform from which to shine more brightly.
There’s no one-size-fits-all path to technical tennis knowledge. However, I’ve engineered these first sections to follow a logical progression. If you are new to technical tennis, I advise you start at the beginning and work your way through them all one by one. And if you aren’t new to tennis? I advise you do the same, because THE TENNIS BOOK is like no other sports manual – this is TECHNICAL TENNIS AS ART (or as close as I can make it) – and the sooner you get an understanding of the way I write and present stroke detail, the better for us all.
This INDEX PAGE structure will be refined as we go. Future essays, articles and simple tips etc., will appear as POSTS, though I will try to include links to relevant posts on each Index page.
To save repeating myself (again), the angle of the racket face/head at contact is usually edge-on / right angles to the ground, so an edge-on racket is the one I’m referring to when considering groundstroke grips.
The Palm Principle (or Palm Power) is a term I coined decades ago to basically replace all those (technically) null grip names – Eastern, Western, Outer Mongolian and Martian? – and the short of it is this: On a forehand grip, wherever your palm is situated on the racket handle, there lies your primary source of strength.
Compare the two grips, of Hana Mandlikova and Alberto Berasetegui (below), which represent opposite poles of the forehand grip spectrum.
Exploring Palm Power a little further, think of how arm wrestlers do battle palm-to palm.
Or if you want to pick something up – a coffee table, say – you’d put your hands underneath and lift upwards. Similarly, if you wanted to push something down – a beach ball in a swimming pool? – you’d put your palm on top, and do similarly when shunting something sideways across a work top.
So, looking at Alberto’s grip (above), we see the palm of his hand under the racket handle. This is probably the most palm-under forehand grip I’ve ever seen and it locates his strength predominantly (almost entirely, some might say) beneath the racket, enabling him primarily to hit upwards for vicious amounts of topspin.
In contrast, Hana Mandlikova’s palm is – at best – behind the racket (though more on top), which puts her palm power behind the racket grip (and also on top).
Hana’s primary source of strength/power is therefore behind and above her racket, which means her primary direction for hitting is through, for a lifted, flat, moderately spun drive.
Additionally, as her palm is too close to the top of the racket for extreme topspin, she could also power down on the ball, from above, to hit with slice.
I believe the ideal grip for beginners and intermediates, and also for general forehand play, is somewhere between these two extremes.
For most of us, Berasetegui’s grip is too extreme – though only marginally – particularly as it can limit flatter options on faster surfaces. Whereas Hana’s is better suited to manicured lawns in the days of the East India Company.
‘But I’ve been using it successfully for decades’, some good club players might well challenge and to be fair Hana Mandlikova was no slouch (one of my favourites as a youngster).
Whether to keep or change such a grip is an individual player’s choice, depending on what you want to achieve, and those who have a coach should always consult them before tinkering.
Michael Chang’s grip is in-between the two previously mentioned book ends, with the palm of his hitting hand both behind the grip and some way under it. This is one version of the all-purpose topspin and power grip: it allows the best of both worlds.
If you see the knuckle of a player’s thumb on top of the racket grip/handle, you know that the palm of their hand will be somewhere towards the bottom of the grip and here the knuckle is placed similar to Chang’s.
This is our Mystery Grip again. Fractionally less ‘palm under’ than Chang’s, this too is a great all-round forehand grip.
Any idea who it belongs to? A former world number 29? It’s a toughie, though do give yourself a palm-powered slap on the back if you know (though I’m not telling just yet).
Not many players have misshaped the ball’s in-flight passage with topspin as excessively as You-Know-Who, and it wouldn’t happen without a full palm-under special. Click through the 3 frames to see how the upsy topspin shape is powered from beneath… by what?
The grip below is similarly palm under. Know who this is?
…and ……?? (below) could whip up a topspin storm with the best of ’em. But who is it?
Each of these players has a similar palm-under grip, which they use to form their own unique forehand shapes, and we’ll de-and-reconstruct each of them in due course.
But the sensible option, for both beginners and those not aiming to rise above club standard, is usually the middle ground.
‘Has a player ever succeeded at a full topspin baseline game without a palm-under grip?’
Yes – one men’s French Open finalist comes immediately to mind – and I hope to shed light on many technical quirks when I’ve set out a basic framework for readers to follow.
But perhaps the best question to ask is one that is as old as the hills, and can be asked of any sportsperson’s technique in any discipline:
Did they succeed because of it, or in spite of it?
This maxim is worth applying to every stroke (and attitude) in tennis and also to life in general.
Now how about this for a curve ball:
Does a person succeed because of the lack of knowledge and opportunity, or in spite of it?
Once you’ve found a workable variation on the recommended grips (and you can add or subtract millimeters as per your requirements), the first thing to do when faced with a ball to your forehand side is find that grip.
Move though the images of Michael Chang in 1 thru 4.
First, Michael has clicked the racket into his forehand grip (assuming it wasn’t already there). Second, he turns the shoulders so he is sideways to the oncoming ball.
Because it helps put distance between your racket head and the ball (see next section). Also, when facing wider balls it prepares a player for a sprint along the baseline.
Jim Courier similarly turns sideways in this3 framer, as he initiates a full turn of the shoulders and starts the racket head on its journey (see next section).
In the below frame Ivan Lendl (on the right) shows the purest form of a full turn, as he is fully sideways to the net.
We’ll explore this and other variations on turning a little later.
For now, know that a turn (preferably with the legs, though always with the shoulders) is one of the first stages of development.
We have some knowledge about how to grip the racket and we now need to wield it – but before we can take a swing, we need somewhere to swing from.
So we want some distance between racket head and ball, over which we can build up racket head speed, and the simplest way to do this is Jimmy Connors-stylee.
There are some fancy loops on the world’s tennis courts, but Jimbo’s technique is so simple I can show it to you in two frames of photography: – toggle 1 & 2 and you’ll see what I mean.
In 1: Jimmy is ready and waiting for the ball with the tip of his racket back, pointing at the court backstop.
In 2: Jimmy makes use of the distance he made between the racket head and the ball, by unleashing a forward swing.
Ping! That’s a forehand tennis stroke in its simplest form, though Jimmy makes it look simple because all the elements of the stroke have been properly prepared and executed.
But you get the picture:
1: sort your grip out.
2: turn your shoulders and point the tip of the racket back behind you, and below the height of your hand.
3: swing your racket head at the ball when it’s where you need it to be (next up)
Cranking it Up
Of course I wouldn’t want you thinking that the simple backswing practised by Jimmy Connors is the way forward for the modern forehand: – it isn’t.
Whilst this simple hitting style is a great example of what can be achieved with fuss-free technique, especially for club players, those who aspire to greater things will need a more aggressive mix of topspin and power.
‘How to gain this extra power and spin?‘
You’ll need more racket head speed than a straight take-back can deliver, so for this step up in quantity you’ll need a loop.
Former world number 2 Conchita Martinez could crank up a loop. But before running through the stroke, consider her grip. Where is her palm and her thumb on the racket grip?
I’m sure you can work out her style of play from her palm-under grip – the grip tells us much.
There are many variations on a forehand build-up, and we may as well have a first look at how Andy Murray shapes his own unique forehand loop.
It’s useful to know the direction in which we’re heading, and you’ll absorb much from comparing both Andy and Chita’s continuous, circular looping of the racket head to Jimmy’s straight-back, straight-through style of forehand hitting.
If you are going to play the game properly, you’ll need a forehand grip that encourages good technique – a grip that helps furnish the low-to-high, upwardly mobile shape we’ve just seen, and which allows us to nurture a similar dual action of up and through – for unique cocktails of power and spin – as seen in the animation below of Nole.
Let’s look at a few grips.
In 1 thru 2 you’ll see two magnifications of the Pete Sampras forehand grip, in which the palm of Pete’s hand is behind the racket handle/grip. This puts his thumb on top, though some way to the front.
This is an all-purpose forehand grip, which allows players to develop both flatter drives and also some topspin (see the 3 frame click-thru).
Unless you are already a confirmed heavy topspin merchant, this is a particularly good grip for beginners and intermediates.
I mean if it’s good enough for one of the greatest ever tennis players, it should be good enough for lesser mortals too, right?
This is our Mystery Player, above. Can you spot the difference between this grip and the previous one?
Flick 1 & 2 and you’ll notice that the palm is tucked further under the racket handle.
Consequently, the knuckle of the thumb isn’t quite as far to the front of the handle as Pete’s, and it sits more on top (of a racket that is edge-on to the ground – when referring to grips, it is always of a racket side-on to the ground).
This grip puts more potential arm strength under the racket, enabling the player to hit more forcefully upwards from low-to-high.
As forehands develop, and players start to hit with greater amounts of low-to-high topspin (coming a little later), many find the palm of their hand slipping further under the racket handle without any real encouragement.
This could be seen as organic progression, which enables a player to hit topspin with greater efficiency.
Grip 2 is a workable grip for most standards of player.
It doesn’t seem right using one of the all-time great tennis players as a cautionary tale for a bad forehand grip, but the grip you see now is best avoided. ‘Why?’ Because too much is on top of the racket, which makes it more difficult to hit with topspin.
With the palm of the hand above the racket, this grip encourages players to hit down on the ball, for the choppy brand of forehand slice that belongs in the 1920’s or on a squash court – why am I not surprised that Stefan is also a top class squash player?
It’s helpful to compare this grip to the two previous ones, because if you understand the differences you can avoid the pitfalls.
Obviously, if you’re 90 years old and you’ve played with this grip since Churchill was a boy, it’s pointless changing. But if you are new to the game, or young and eager enough to build a modern groundstroke game, you should consider moving to one of the other grips (and eventually beyond).
For me, this grip was Edberg’s great weakness and it rendered his groundstroke game far less than it could’ve been. However, it’s testament to his athletic ability that he achieved so much in spite of a weak forehand grip.
The general swing shape of the best forehands is from low to high. Within this shape, there are two options – one minor option, the other major.
Slightly Open Face
In the above image, Stefan Edberg is swinging low-to-high, but Stefan’s racket face is slightly ‘open’. This means instead of putting topspin on the ball, he’s lifting the ball over the net with minimal spin – this is the minor option.
Throughout these pages, only Stefan and Jimmy Connors hit what is a basic lifted forehand, which is largely a thing of the past at pro level.
Right Angles Face
In this three frame click-thru (below) you’ll see Tim Henman also hitting low to high.
This low-to-high swing will also hoist the ball up-and-over the net. But a racket at right-angles to the ground at contact means the strings will peel up the back of the ball, putting some degree of topspin on it.
For beginners, that’s a basic definition of how to get topspin: you simply rip the strings up the back of the ball. The spin then forces the ball down and helps keep it in court… but let’s not get ahead of ourselves.
This second low-to-high option – the one above with the right-angles racket face – is the major option – it is the option that dominates these pages.
Testers & Teasers
To keep more advanced readers interested whilst creating a scalable structure for technical beginners, let’s dip our technical toes into deeper waters with:
One frame of Thomas Muster and…
…also one frame of Andy Roddick:
Each has a Low-to-High shape and a Right Angles racket face – but they’re trying to achieve different ends.