Based on the analysis of hundreds of pro forehands filmed in high speed video, this series of articles developed a framework for understanding the core elements in the modern forehand, and also the technical variations across the grip styles. Then Roger Federer emerged as the world's dominant player, and started hitting forehands that looked different than any of the other players we have studied.
Everyone loves watching him, for obvious reasons. His forehand is one of the biggest shots in the game, and also one of the most beautiful. It's explosive, fluid, and effortless. You can almost see his racket head jump to warp speed on the forward swing. At the same time it looks so natural and relaxed.
Then there is the amazing variety. He's very natural with either an open or a neutral stance. He can play the ball on the rise, he can break off incredible short angles. He can play higher balls from deeper in the court like Roddick or Hewitt. One of the most amazing things is his ability to combine great velocity with heavy spin.
If you want proof of the flexibility and variety in his forehand, all you have to do is look at the range of his finishes. He can look like Pete Sampras, Andre Agassi, Gustavo Kuerten or Andy Roddick. And sometimes that's in the same rally. How can this be possible? How does he do it? What can we learn from him? What can we emulate? Is it a good idea to even try? The only way to answer these questions is to look in detail at this phenomenal shot and all its variations.
A logical question to ask is: How does his forehand fit into the previous analytic picture we developed? The short answer is that it doesn't. It breaks the paradigm.
When I started trying to break down the shot, I couldn't reconcile the things Federer appeared to be doing with what I thought I knew about the modern forehand. It proved to be far more complex than the forehands of the other great players. Some things he did seemed classical. But other things seemed extreme. Gradually it dawned on me that what made his forehand different was that he was doing things like both the classical and the extreme players, sometimes at the same time.
The more I looked the more amazed I was at the variety of technical combinations he could produce. I began to see that his forehand synthesized elements from technical styles that previously seemed incompatible. It was literally something new. I don't think it's going too far to claim that Federer is taking the technical evolution of the forehand to a new level. Federer can combine the velocity associated the classical style, with the heavy spin associated with the extreme styles in virtually any combination. If we look at all the variables in his forehand and how they can be combined, there are about 25 possible shot variations, maybe even more. But that's not just theoretical. I have probably seen most of them in the high speed footage. Now don't get me wrong, all good players have variety. But Federer is the first player I've seen with 25 forehands--some of them absolutely deadly and everyone of which can hurt you in some way.
So what are the classic and extreme component's in this new synthesis that Federer can use in so many ways? His forehand is classic in the sense that he has a conservative grip structure, somewhere between a modern eastern and a mild semi-western. (If this seems surprising, more on his exact grip below.) This grip makes it possible for him to hit on the rise, and also to step into the ball and hit effortlessly with a neutral stance and a vertical finish. But his forehand is also extreme. It incorporates the patterns of extreme torso rotation and extreme hand and arm rotation associated with the underneath grip styles. This means heavy spin, the finish on the left side, and the rotation of the right rear shoulder.
In addition to all this, Federer's forehand also contains something that I hadn't seen in either the classic or extreme players, at least in the players I had looked at closely in the other articles. There is a wide variety of hitting arm positions. On some balls, Federer uses a traditional double bend hitting arm position. But on many others his hitting arm is completely straight from the shoulder to the wrist. And on others still, he is somewhere in between, with the arm partially but not fully straightened out. To me the straight arm position seemed new--although I have subsequently found examples in other players like Mark Philippoussis and Paradorn Schriciphan.
T he video showed that Federer varied his hitting arm position from ball to ball. Furthermore, it showed that he mixed the different hitting arm positions freely in every possible combination with the other elements in the stroke, including various degrees of torso and hand and arm rotation. His forehand had the advantages of both the classical and extreme styles, without the limitations of either. It was the best of all worlds--the ability to do almost anything with the tennis ball from almost anywhere on the court.
It all made me think of something Nick Saviano wrote in his book Maximum Tennis, although the full significance of it didn't register with me at the time. Nick wrote that the champions of the next generation never look like the champions who precede them. (Click here.) Federer is the living proof. Despite everything we as coaches learn and try to impart, the game continues to evolve mainly through the intuitive genius of the players themselves.
So let's start by going through and looking at the various components of his forehand individually: the classic elements, the extreme elements, and the different hitting arm positions. We'll also look at how Federer combines them to create a bewildering variety of looks and shot options. I hope you'll find that this process takes us a long way toward a new understanding of the modern forehand, but at the end we'll also leave a few questions open or only partially answered, as the basis for further investigation and/or speculation.
It's common to hear teaching pros and commentators start their analysis of Roger's forehand by referring to his "semi-western" grip. It's a logical inference, since Federer clearly does things like semi-western players like Agassi or even Kuerten and Roddick. It's logical, but it's not accurate. The high speed video clearly shows that Federer has a very conservative grip structure. Among modern players, Roger's grip is actually probably closest to that of the great Pete Sampras. However, it's not identical to Sampras on all points. It is also partially shifted in direction of the mild semi-western of Andre Agassi.
Since Federer's grip has been so misunderstood, let's take this chance to look at the whole complex issue of grips more systematically. The tennis racket handle actually has 8 bevels. Count the top bevel as number 1, and then count by moving clockwise or to the right. Bevel 3 is the third one down from the top. That's the one lined up with the face of the racket. Pete's heel pad is on that bevel. Pete's index knuckle is also lined up on this same bevel. That's what makes it an eastern grip--as much of his hand as possible is lined up with the bevel 3 and therefore lined up with the racket face.
Like Pete, the heel pad of Federer's racket hand is in line with bevel 3. Federer holds the racket near the end of the frame so that his hand is partially off the grip, but this is still how his heel pad is aligned in relation to the frame.
The difference is that Federer's index knuckle is shifted downward toward bevel 4. That's the next bevel down toward the bottom of the frame. To understand what this shift means, let's compare Pete and Federer to Agassi.
Andre has his heel pad on the same bevel--bevel 3--as Pete and Roger, but he shifts his index knuckle downward one full bevel, so that it is centered on bevel 4. Federer shifts his knuckle toward bevel 4 but his knuckle isn't actually on the bevel like Agassi. Roger's index knuckle appears to be just at the top edge of bevel 4. It's definitely not resting on the bevel itself, but it's definitely shifted down from the Sampras position.
The bottom line is that this downward shift seems to puts his grip halfway between Pete to Andre, or probably a little less. And let's remember that Agassi's grip is also conservative in the modern game compared to Roddick or Hewitt.
This grip structure gives Roger the ability to do some of the things he does. To hit through the ball so effortlessly. To take the ball on the rise. To step in and hit with a neutral stance. To hit compact, relatively flat returns. All the things we associate with classical style.
But Roger combines this conservative grip with more extreme technical elements that allow him to do the same things we normally associate with a semi-western or even western style. These are the rotation of the torso and the rotation of the hand and arm. These factors probably contribute to his overall racket head speed. They are also what allow him to hit "windshield wiper" spins and angles where his racket hand eventually ends up near his left hip. They account for his amazing variety and ability to vary spin, angle and pace from ball to ball, including balls hit from almost identical locations in the court.
The Head: What Does It Mean?
When I first saw this, I assumed that Federer had to be the only one who moved like this, and it must be because of his extreme sideways head position. I was sure that other top players established a still head position much sooner than. Guess what? That's not exactly what the video shows. Although everyone I looked did appear to be still at the moment of contact, all their head positions were a little different. Some of them got to that still position substantially sooner than others, and others were moving just before contact like Roger.
Roddick and Safin, on the other hand, both get their heads still much earlier than Federer or Agassi. Their timing was more like I imagined. Both get their heads stil before or just at the start of the forward swing. However, both Roddick and Safin turn their heads far less to the side than Federer or even Agassi. Whereas Roger's head is more or less 90 degrees to the sideline, Safin and Roddick are more like half that, about 45 degrees to the sideline at contact.