Evolution of the Tennis (Ground) Stroke

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…

John McEnroe forehand

…to this one?

Andy Roddick – a powerful link in the evolutionary chain.

And how did we get from this grip…

Stefan Edberg

… to this one?

Francesca Schiavone

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).

Low Beginnings

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?

Not exactly.

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. 

Jimmy Connors – flat (with a twist of slice) on both wings.

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.