TLM: a forehand with an extreme grip, plus wrap and reverse finishes.
This month we take a look at the forehand of TLM, a player I met on the Tennis Warehouse message boards. TLM posted some YouTube videos asking for input, and another teaching pro on the boards suggested that both I and another teacher, Oscar Wegner, each do an analysis of his forehand.
So I agreed and this article is also available there in a thread called: “Head to Head Oscar Wegner and John Yandell.” If you are reading this as a subscriber on Tennisplayer, check out the discussion there as well. Let’s just say it’s lively. (Click Here.)
You can also click to YouTube and see the raw footage he submitted. Click Here for the first sequence. Click Here for the second.
Creating Video Footage
To start I have to say that TLM’s video footage isn’t ideal, but you can see enough to reach some conclusions and see some key ways the stroke could improve. In my opinion video is essential in the learning process and some video is better than no video, but for those of you who are incorporating it, or thinking about it, here are a few points to get the most out of the process.
First you need a high speed shutter or what is called a sports shutter setting on some cameras. You need this to prevent the racket from blurring where it is going fastest, right around the contact. TLM’s video doesn’t have this so it’s impossible to be specific about his exact contact point with the ball. But at least we can see the general shape of the swing and where he is at other key moments.
Compact, high speed cameras allow high frames rates with great resolution.
The second thing in getting the most out of video analysis, film tight! The rear view in TLM’s footage is fine.
The side view he sent in though was way too wide, although it does allow you to see the timing of his swing in relation to the bounce on the court--a key point as we will see. Much of the video that is submitted to Tennisplayer is unusable because of this problem, making the players look like “two ants smacking a tic tac” in the immortal words of Tennis Channel founder Steve Bellamy.
For groundstrokes I like to film with the camera at the net post on the same side as the swing and fill the viewfinder with the player. Only then will I’ll zoom out to see the swing in relation to the bounce. After I look at that footage and depending what I see, I may then film from behind or from a side view along the baseline.
Then there is the issue of high speed video options. If you don’t already have a camera or if you want to upgrade, look into the Casio high speed cameras. They are fantastic and can film with frames rates of 120 or 240 frames per second or even higher. Traditional video at 30 frames gives you a lot less information and you rarely catch the ball on the string bed.
The models are changing all the time. Some of the better ones have been discontinued though you can still find them online in the $700 to $800 range. Click Here to read a detailed review and get a feel for what this style of camera can do.
TLM’s extreme semi-western grip.
Having said all that, here’s what I could see in TLM’s clips and what I think he could do to improve his forehand. First, TLM took up the game at 45 and through my conversations with him I know he is passionate about tennis and that he is also a competitor. That passion is a key to the development process.
But what about the stroke itself? If we look at his grip and his finishes, the player he most resembles is Rafael Nadal, including the biceps and probably a little bit of the fighting attitude.
TLM’s grip is far under the handle with his index knuckle in the middle of bevel 4, counting from the top bevel down. It’s hard to see were the heel pad--the other key grip marker-- is in this video, but I am guessing it’s between the third and fourth bevels.
That’s what I would call an extreme semi-western grip—more underneath than the majority of tour players and even less common at the club level. (To understand more about the meaning of grips and the relationship between grip, contact height, and levels of play, Click Here.)
TLM’s grip is very similar to Nadal’s. It’s also similar to the grip of Novak Djokovic, who is much further under the handle than most people realize.
Djokovic however finishes the largest percentage of his forehands wrapping over his shoulder. In comparison, TLM has the two classic Nadal finishes.
One finish is the wrap around the opposite shoulder (as opposed to over it.) The other finish is what the great Dutch coach Robert Lansdorp first branded the reverse finish.
Nadal still wraps around the shoulder but more and more he uses the reverse.
On this followthrough both Nadal and TLM swing upward, over the head, and then bring the hand and racket back to the same side of the body where the swing started.
For Nadal, these finishes are both associated with his incredibly heavy topspin, which can reach as high as 5000rpm. That playing style, while not that common at the club level, fits with the way I think TLM wants to play, hitting heavy, high bouncing balls that give his opponents problems, especially on the backhand side.
If I had taught him from Day 1, possibly I would have suggested a different basic grip and technical style. But from what I have seen in the video, I think what is trying to do is viable for TLM.
Ultimately, I think this is a player’s decision and players should play in the style they wish. So my approach here is to work within that technical framework.
This includes the hitting arm structure. Here TLM is different from Nadal, who hits with a straight arm with the elbow extended at contact. TLM has the more common double bend hitting arm structure like Djokovic. I don’t see this as a problem though in producing the type of ball he wants.
In fact, I think with some adjustment in two key positions he could produce a significantly faster and even heavier ball. He would also greatly increase his consistency.
The result should be significantly increased pain for players who try to exchange with him from the baseline at up to about the 4.0 level, or maybe even eventually higher. Does anyone really look forward to stepping on the court against a NTRP version of Rafa Nadal?
The fundamental initial movement in all good forehands—the turn.
So what’s the first adjustment? To maximize power, spin, and consistency on the forehand, the key is to use the larger muscle groups. This means the legs, hips, and shoulders. They initiate the stroke and generate the energy that lets top players explode into the ball with such grace and apparent ease.
With all the variety in grips, stances, finishes, spin and trajectory levels, etc., there is one thing that virtually every top player shares. This is the same for the best players all the way down the food chain.
That common element is the body coil, or what I call the full turn. This means the positioning of the shoulders, hips, legs, and feet in the preparation.
Interestingly this turn is one of the easiest elements to develop, even for beginners.
But sadly when you look around tennis clubs, you rarely see it, or anything close with most players.
This is why club players who develop a great turn have a huge advantage. The swing naturally has more speed. There is also less thinking and usually less conscious mechanical manipulation in hitting shot variations. Honestly, I’ll be very excited to see what this can add to TLM’s forehand.
The checkpoints for the turn are simple. The shoulders and hips have turned sideways, and typically the shoulders are turned somewhat past 90 degrees to the net.
The weight is primarily on the outside foot, closest to the ball, with the quadriceps coiled through a significant knee bend. Notice also the offset of the feet.
Top players hit the majority of their forehands with a semi open stance. This means a diagonal line across the toes is at about a 30 to 45 degree angle to the baseline.
Watch the number and variety of steps Nadal can take to create a precise turn with a semi-open stance.
Why is this important? The coiling in the shoulders, and especially the hips, is much stronger when the stance is semi open. From a good semi open set up it’s also possible to set forward into the ball when necessary, though this option is much rarely appropriate with grips as extreme as Nadal.
You can see the difference the set up stance can make if you study a player like Andy Murray who hits far more fully open stance forehands. In part at least, this may explain why his forehand isn’t quite as big as the players ranked above him. (Click Here.)
This semi-open stance also makes it possible to increase the forward body associated with modern strokes and particularly those with the more extreme grips such as TLM is using.
Players can use a wide combination of steps in creating the right stance. On a close ball they can use a simple out step to the side with the foot closest to the ball and a step up with the other.
Or they can take series of a half dozen steps or more going wide, or moving back, or running around the ball. But the goal is to make the position as often as possible. (For more on all the possible step variations, Click Here.)
With TLM I feel that his footwork is far too casual and almost haphazard. The balls coming to him aren’t that varied and he is all over the place with his stances, some open to different degrees, some neutral and some even closed with a cross step. Particularly when working on the fundamentals he should set the goal of establishing that optimum semi-open position on every ball.
The backswing starts with unitary body rotation, then moves to the Brian Gordon checkpoints.
A huge key to making the full turn is the opposite arm. It’s stretched straight or quite close to straight at the completion of the turn, basically parallel to the baseline and perpendicular to the sideline. This stretch is the key to getting the shoulders turned as far as possible.
And finally, look at the backswing nd particularly the position of the hand and racket. When the player reaches the full turn, they are both on the hitting side of the body.
Also note the angles. The racket head is above the hand but is also tilted on an angle toward the sideline. This position, as the brilliant biomechanist Brian Gordon has demonstrated, is critical for maximizing the ability of the shoulder muscles to produce force and create maximum racket speed. (Click Here.)
Of course there are slight variations in the turn position among top players as well as for the same player from ball to ball. Tennis players aren’t robots. But if you are looking for the foundation for racket speed on the forehand, it’s a solid version of this pro turn.
So how does TLM’s turn stack up to these checkpoints? Better than many club players. But he is not all the way there, and because of this, he can’t realize his real racket speed potential.
Just looking at his shoulders alone, the turn is pretty good—on a lot of balls he turns perpendicular to the net. So he could easily push that a little further to the model position.
A pretty good shoulder turn, but a need for more arm stretch and knee bend.
The key for him to achieve this is to stretch his left arm hard across his body. Although his arm is already on his right side, it’s quite a way from the pro position. And again this is very easy to achieve.
The other key is his legs. 45 years is young in my book and I feel confident he could coil that right leg with a deeper knee bend. Again that’s easy and it’s a huge source of free power.
So for TLM, the turn needs to be pushed further toward the model checkpoints. But there is one other related problem in TLM’s preparation. That’s the timing.
Top players are dealing with balls coming at them with initial velocities of up to 100mph. Yet they reach the full turn at around the time the ball bounces on the court.
TLM is hitting on a ball machine, with a predictable, medium paced ball. This is the right basic scenario for working on strokes, but even in this situation he is way behind at the bounce.
On some balls at the bounce his hands have not even separated. Right now his rhythm is pretty uneven and that needs to smooth out.
If you watch him you get the feeling that he is waiting and then rushing to hit the foreswing.
Top players reach the turn at about the time the ball bounces.
And that’s on very basic balls. It’s probably exaggerated when he is pressured. TLM has to develop not only a feeling for the checkpoints but a feeling for the rhythm and the interval needed to get there. Without changing this delayed timing, it will be impossible for him to develop the full turn.
To do this, TLM needs to initiate the motion when the ball leaves his opponent’s racket. This means starting that unitary body turn immediately, and then spreading out the movement over the interval between his opponent’s hit and the ball bounce.
It shouldn’t be rushed. It should feel smooth and continuous. And again, it should be complete at about the time of the bounce.
TLM’s delayed timing is also creating a problem with his backswing. The racket should be above the hand at the bounce and also tilted to the outside—the Brian Gordon checkpoints. Instead, TLM’s racket head is at the same level as the hand and facing directly downward to the court.
At the start of the motion, both hands should be on the racket, so the racket is initially moving as part of body rotation. Then once the shoulders get turned around 45 degrees, his hands should start to go up. The hands can separate a little sooner like Federer, or a little later like Nadal, but the racket still goes up toward the top of the backswing.
Again, the racket should be above the hand, tilted to the right, and both the right hand and the racket are on the right side of the body. If you look at TLM’s backswing, it moves back and behind his body, rather than staying on his right.
When the ball bounces TLM’s hands are still together, with the backswing then moving behind his body.
So that’s the analytic information. But how does a player translate that into a better forehand? The first step is to master the checkpoints physically without actually hitting. Until a player can find this position without the ball, there is no chance of implementing it when hitting an actual stroke.
TLM should practice making the turn on court without the ball. He should practice it at home in front of a mirror.
He should also practice the turn motion with his eyes closed. Then open them and see if it’s all correct. This is a simple but very powerful exercise because it forces the player to visualize the motion and the checkpoints in order to create the position correctly.
He should try to do all this without thinking in words. The goal is to develop a strong kinesthetic feeling and a corresponding internal mental image of the position and the individual checkpoints.
One more look at the pro turn.
This is what it takes for the motion to become natural in play. This is because TLM can now use this non-verbal image/feeling to activate the motion and complete the turn precisely in both practice and competitive play.
Visualizing a key image conveys all the complex technical information we have been discussing to the brain in a split second. This process is very powerful in creating confidence, blocking negative thoughts, and preventing paralysis by verbal analysis.
In most cases on the forehand, after the turn, there is only one additional component to master, and I think this will be the case for TLM.
This second component is the followthrough or finish, and specifically the amount of forward extension in that followthrough. Usually a good turn and a good finish will automatically connect all the dots in between.
As we noted, TLM finishes some balls around the shoulder and on others he reverses over his head, the same variations as Nadal. So let’s look at both options.
Like Nadal, TLM has a wrap and reverse finish—note the differences in the extension.
As Nadal has progressed in his career, he has gradually increased his use of reverse finishes. The fascinating thing is that the total spin values are very similar for both variations.
However, it certainly appears that he uses the reverse to hook the ball, and to cause it to jump to the right in addition to the already insanely high bounce. This makes his ball very distinctive and very difficult to deal with, particular for a right-hander’s backhand.
One of the limitations of our current high speed filming is that we cannot break out the relative amounts of topspin and sidespin on the groundstrokes. But if we do solve it I think the data will likely show that Nadal uses more sidespin on the reverse even if the ball speed and total ball rotation are about the same.
But I think it’s important to note that either Nadal finish can cause major problems for the guy on the other side of the net if the stroke is unleashed from a powerful turn.
One of the surprising things we see in the high speed video is how similar the two finishes are in terms of the outward path of the racket. You can look at two Nadal drives in super slow motion, one a wrap finish and one a reverse, and have real difficulty predicting which is going to be which until quite far out in the swing.
Notice the surprisingly similar extension positions on the two Nadal finishes.
We know that the racket travels outward, upward and across on the foreswing on any good forehand. But the surprise is how far outward the racket travels on the reverse before rising up over the head and coming back on Nadal’s left side.
The difference is probably some slight variation in the upward angle of the swing and/or the timing of the windshield wiper hand and arm rotation. But the point is the two swings are more alike than many people think, in fact, probably as much alike as they are different.
And this point relates directly to TLM’s versions of these finishes. When TLM wraps around the shoulder he appears to come quite far forward on the swing, although the wide side view video clips are not ideal for seeing this precisely.
But one thing we can see for sure, TLM’s extension on the reverse is nowhere near as full as on the shoulder wrap. Watch on the reverse that after contact the racket is going almost straight up before going over TLM’s head.
TLM’s reverse finish does appear to generate a lot of spin. But a true heavy ball is a blend of speed and spin.
With the reverse, Nadal can hit 90mph plus forehands that average 3200rpm—20% more spin on average than other top players. TLM isn’t going to hit those numbers in this lifetime, but I don’t think he is maximizing his ball speed either. I think he can have it both ways—keep his current spin levels on his reverse but add speed.
Watch TLM’s racket move almost directly upward on the reverse.
So what I am suggesting is that TLM create a model extension position for the reverse finish, just as we did with the turn. Although Nadal hits with a straight arm we can still use him as the model. It’s an overcompensation because the straight arm players tend to swing more directly outward. But that will actually probably help TLM gain the feeling of swinging the racket further forward and reducing the radical upward aspect.
Basically the key image here is of his arm pointing directly forward and perpendicular to the net. He should visualize reaching this point just as his racket hand starts to cross in front of his body.
Again, he should establish the position physically with out the ball, starting the forward swing in slow motion and then stopping at the new extension point. The arm should be about parallel to the court or a little above, perpendicular to the net, and at roughly the right edge of his body.
As with the turn, he should practice with his eyes closed and create a detailed mental image and then imagine how the position feels. Again he should do the same in front of a mirror.
Now when he starts to hit, he can imagine that position as a mental blue print. He should visualize a ghost image of the extension point in his mind’s eye, and then swing through that image with his arm and racket. The motion will still have the same fierce upward component, but a lot more velocity.
The model image for extension on the reverse: hitting arm pointing to the net.
So I’ve gone into detail here for the sake of understanding and clarity. But really it boils down to mastering those two positions physically and mentally. The Turn and the Extension.
And I predict one thing: TLM will unleash so much more energy into the ball that he might hit the first few over the fence. And that would be a good sign. And it will be an even better sign when those crushing lasers start to find the court with all the possible combinations of placements and angles that amount of spin allows.
And here is the final point. One of myths about teaching is that information in and
of itself equals change. Unfortunately, not true.
This is not the way the body learns or changes physical motions. Players who take a lesson, garner some information, and then immediately step on the court to play their next match almost never improve.
A lot of players, particularly at the mid to lower levels think this: “Just explain to me what I need to do and I’ll do that and then the problem will be solved.” Usually, all that is all happening strictly at the verbal level.
Developing high quality tennis strokes is a progressive process that involves learning to feel the motion in your body. So I am going to suggest the same series of practice exercises to TLM that I do for everyone I work with.
The image of the turn, then the image of the extension.
First, work in basic controlled drill on the ball machine just like in the video you sent in. Video yourself and see how you do with the changes.
As you improve and your confidence increases, progress to rallying—hopefully with someone with a nice consistent rhythm. When you have success with this, now gradually phase in competitive elements.
Play drop and hit backcourt points to 7 or 11. Now take turns serving and play service point games where one player serves all the points. Again play to 7 or 11, or even 21. Now you are ready to play sets, and then matches follow.
At each new level, if you find the stroke is slipping backwards or degrading, drop back down to the previous level and reestablish. Working back and forth between the levels will eventually lead to integrating the technical improvements seamlessly into your game.
And one final thing. Take some more video for us, hopefully more along the guidelines above, and let us see the benefits of your work!
Let's Talk About this Article!
Share Your Thoughts with our Subscribers and Authors!