Understanding Pro Forehands
A previous article (So What is the ATP Forehand Anyway?) described the pillars of the Type III ATP forehand. These pillars are exclusively defined by attributes of the forward swing – that is, they are independent of the backswing and follow through. The four pillars are:
- Fractionation of the racquet velocity sources to unique body rotations.
- Independent contribution of the hitting arm.
- Linearization of the hand path.
- Neuromuscular enhancement of vertical racquet head speed acquisition.
The Type III forehand is an ATP forehand model based on biomechanical research, neuromuscular theory and experimentation on the court. Models explicitly filter individual outlier characteristics to arrive at a composite, in this case a technical composite indicating what optimal technique might look like from a biomechanical perspective.
For this reason, it would be expected that few forehands would exactly fulfill all the model attributes. At the same time, it would be expected that most world-class forehands would fulfill at least some of the model attributes. The interesting question is at what point is a forehand close enough to the model to be classified as Type III? And if not Type III, what?
This is the question I’m most often subjected to regarding a myriad of male and female professional players. The Type III forehand model was created primarily as a template to teach the forehand to (my) developing players but also to serve as an empirical baseline to analyze and understand technique across a broad spectrum of forehands. The latter is the goal for this article.
This article will address a variety of forehand options from both professional tours in the context of the Type III model attributes. Toward that end it is necessary to review concepts not explicitly linked to the Type III definition but important to the discussion. Specifically, these concepts are the implications to the forward swing of backswing types and different elbow angles.
The diversity of backswings in pro tennis is extensive. To discuss this diversity as it relates to the forward swing requires a universal definition of what separates the backswing from the forward swing: The forward swing begins at the first instant the hitting hand acquires BOTH forward and lateral (to the contact side) velocity.
The similarity across backswing types is the preparation of the lower limb and the torso for the forward swing. For a given stance this means setting proper joint/segment angles and optimizing muscular contractile conditions. Lower limb and torso preparation vary by stance but are not fundamentally different based on backswing type for a given stance.
The diversity across backswing types is in the preparation of the hitting arm segments and racquet throughout the backswing. In a macro sense, the primary distinction is based on whether the hitting arm backswing mechanics are primarily positional for entry into the forward swing or the mechanics are mostly functional. Functional means that the motion produced (primarily hand speed) is important to the forward swing.
Positional oriented backswings are predominantly elbow driven. In an elbow driven backswing the shoulder joint is stabilized. The motion of the hitting hand is a function of extending the elbow (straightening). The goal is to optimize the hitting arm position for entry into the forward swing. This backswing type is most often seen for forward swings with straighter elbows.
Functional oriented backswings are predominantly shoulder driven. In a shoulder driven backswing the elbow joint may or may not extend. Either way, the primary source of hand motion is derived from motion of the shoulder joint. The goal is to build hand speed entering the forward swing (and perhaps externally rotate the shoulder). This backswing type is seen most often for forward swings with bent elbows.
In the article defining the four pillars of the Type III swing it was indicated that a straight arm (or close to it) was an important requirement for the forward swing. The reality is that most forehands on both professional tours are hit with a bent elbow. The amount of bend is diverse and has implications to forward swing mechanics.
One implication of a bent elbow configuration relates to the process of accelerating the hitting arm through the torso rotation (Pillar 2). A bent elbow reduces the inertia of the arm plus racquet system. The reduced inertia hampers the ability to produce the muscular benefits and forces needed to independently accelerate the arm. This mechanical concept applies to the initiation of hitting arm motion as well as to the acceleration of the hitting arm through the torso.
The hitting arm acceleration consequence of the bent arm configurations is the primary reason the associated backswing must be functional. That is, these configurations must rely on hand speed built during the backswing. The enhanced acceleration benefit of the straight arm allows the backswing to be predominantly positional. That is, hand speed developed during the backswing is not needed and probably is contraindicated.
Ultimately the goal of the independent arm motion (Pillar 2) is to produce forward hand speed. A bent elbow is less efficient in this regard. The hand speed produced by non-twisting shoulder rotation is a function of the velocity of that joint rotation and the distance between the shoulder and the hand – a distance greater for a straighter arm.
The Type III pillars article (Pillar 4) explained that a straight arm enhanced the shoulder internal rotator pre-tension (stretch-shorten mechanism) during the “flip” and optimized vertical racquet head speed development from shoulder internal rotation in the “roll”. This implies a bent elbow complicates these mechanisms to some extent.
During the flip of a straight arm swing the arm segments (forearm and upper arm) are aligned. This creates a direct link between the rotating racquet and the shoulder (external rotation) with the forearm simply being a transmission segment. A bent elbow removes the direct link as the flip tends to rotate the forearm independent of the upper arm. This forearm orientation facilitates the inertia of the forearm and rotating racquet to cause external shoulder rotation.
During the roll a bent elbow complicates the relationship between internal rotation and vertical racquet head speed development. Internal rotation with bent elbows (below 165 degrees) creates vertical racquet head at the expense of forward hand speed (Pillar 1) and linearization (Pillar 3). Very bent elbows (around 90 degrees) negate vertical contribution from shoulder internal rotation completely.
The analysis of the professional forehands proceeds with four primary classifications. Players are grouped according to their general adherence to these classifications: ATP Type III, ATP Classical, ATP Modern, WTA Type II.
ATP Type III Forehand
The Type III Forehand by definition conforms to the pillars of the Type III model. It is a well linearized stroke with significant independent motion of the hitting arm and clear rotation sequencing. External shoulder rotation in the external to internal coupling mechanism is driven by the racquet in the “flip”. The elbow is maintained straight (180 degrees) and the backswing type is positional.
Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal are perhaps the best examples of this type. I think many would agree these players have the best forehands on the planet if not in history. Observers have noted some obvious differences in terms of the grips, the backswings, and the finishes. Based on the core mechanics, however, these forehands are very similar by my definition.
ATP Classical Forehand
This is the most common forehand style on the men’s tour and it is becoming more prevalent on the women’s as well. It utilizes an outside oriented hand and racquet position (entering the forward swing) so it is moderately linear. The primary difference from the Type III forehand is that the elbow is bent. This minimizes independent arm motion, alters the shoulder external rotation mechanism, and generally requires a functional backswing.
Novak Djokovic and Dominic Thiem are very good examples of this type. Analogous to the Federer/Nadal comparison, these strokes are very similar in the core mechanical components. Thiem does maintain a more bent elbow which is the most significant difference. Interestingly, in a recent video (Western and Southern practice) he appears to have changed his forehand in important ways including the elbow angle.
ATP Modern Forehand
The ATP Modern Forehand is the most recent development in tour forehand styles. It utilizes an outside hand and racquet position (entering the forward swing) but the racquet is far more outside than the other types. The elbow tends to be very bent minimizing independent arm motion and moving rotation sequencing toward a unit rotation. Shoulder external rotation is primarily muscularly driven which is the most significant difference with the other ATP types. The backswing is positional.
Jack Sock seems to be one of the pioneers. Nick Kyrgios is often cited as an example of this modern style forehand. However, based on close examination of his transition to the forward swing it is pretty clear his is a hybrid of the Classical and Modern styles. My opinion is that the pure modern type is far too complicated, cumbersome and potentially dangerous. I believe it will be short-lived and I would not teach it to my players.
WTA Type II Forehand
The WTA Type II forehand is the most common on the WTA tour. The fundamental difference with all ATP types is the inside racquet position (entering the forward swing). The reason for this is shoulder external rotation occurs during the backswing rather than during the forward swing like the ATP types. It is a circular swing type with a bent elbow and minimal independent arm motion so the body and arm rotate in tandem (no sequencing). The backswing is the most functional of all types included here.
Garbine Muguruza and Simona Halep are typical examples of the WTA Type II forehand style. This stroke has held up well at the highest level of women’s tennis for a very long time. I’ve pointed out though that I believe this swing type is on its way out. The reason is that it is best suited for hitting hard and flat (little variability) and does not have great solutions for certain incoming shots like higher balls. Halep is included here as a high contact example.
The primary forehand types have been briefly described in terms of their mechanics in this part of the article. Analysis of strokes was based on concepts of the previous Type III Pillars article and the prerequisites of this article. Obviously within each type we see some variability but (I think) a general adherence to the group attributes. The group attributes based on the Type III article and this one are summarized below:
Professional Video Courtesy of TennisPlayer.net