Forehand Theory: Developing a Virtuous Swing Path
Updated: May 5
Lorenzo Musetti is the latest youngster to capture the attention of tennis fans after his semi-final run in Acapulco last week. I caught some of the action and was impressed with his athleticism and tennis IQ. A modern-day athletic Gasquet comes to mind with his deep positioning, heavy strokes, and trigger backhand at times, but I think Musetti has a greater ability to move and play cat-and-mouse and I'm excited to see how he plays during the clay swing this year. His forehand has a distinct trait that is now common among some of the ‘NexGen’ players, and I believe this shot will be his weakness. An analysis of two forehand techniques is analysed and a theory of technical foundation is established.
The last 20 years has seen the technological aspect of the game stall; the string and racquet materials used today are much the same that was available to players at the turn of the millennium. Despite this, many of the NextGen players coming through have a forehand set-up where the racquet tip 'lags' or faces their opponent or the ground for much of the take back (most notably Frances Tiafoe, Karen Khachanov, Jack Sock, Nick Kyrgios, but also including Musetti, Thanasi Kokkinakis, and Tommy Paul). The wrist position is called flexed but is misleading for this phenomenon because it is actually due to the player having an extremely relaxed wrist during take back. This creates a whip effect, where the lagged racquet head is snapped through violently, and coupled with some of the extreme grips we see from these players, the spin and power can be impressive. However, this NextGen swing is inferior to the typical modern forehand we have seen employed by Nadal, Djokovic, and Federer. A comparison of their initial take backs can be seen below.
I don’t think this has been due to a concerted effort on the part of coaches; much of this evolves naturally—a players technique and style is shaped from the environment they learn in. So if the equipment has not changed in these years, why has this occurred? Whilst pro-level equipment has remained relatively static, the development of equipment catered for juniors has increased massively, allowing kids to start with 19-inch frames and work their way up a few inches at a time. The same is true of weight; many frames are specced to 250/60/70/80/90 grams in ever finer adjustments. This is in stark contrast to 20-30 years ago. Back then, junior frames were not carried by every brand and most frames started at 300 grams; it wasn’t uncommon for juniors to use tour frames (Prestige’s, 200G’s, Pro Staff’s) that weighed in the 330-340 gram range with a swingweight (SW) above 330 because that was all the market provided. This is no longer the case. Most juniors play with lighter frames on slower, bouncier courts and fluffier balls; the result is an environment that rewards lagged swings that can generate more power and spin and handle higher balls whilst not being tested under time constraints. So what you get is faster improvement in Goldilocks conditions, but with ceiling effects in the pros. The outline of this is broken down into two main issues; difficulty increasing SW, and difficulty in timing faster shots (return of serve, quicker and/or lower bouncing courts).
The Nextgen swing path has the wrist flexed before snapping up and through to the ball. There are some differences in elbow separation; Kyrgios and Kokkinakis have a more traditional high elbow pull first (swing starts with elbow pulled toward the back fence with racquet face closer to body) that is reminiscent of Lendl (Kyrgios is sometimes very similar) and Sampras, but with more extreme grips. Tiafoe and Khachanov on the other hand, employ a wider take back that keeps the racquet head far away from their body (elbow is taken back in a more rotated, circular motion. Coaches often say 'beachball' when creating space this way in the set up). In terms of speed and RPM, Kyrgios has hit some absolute missiles and Sock is known for spin that rivals and perhaps surpasses Nadal. I contend that both of these men have gifted ‘quick’ arms that allow them to get away with this, and that they can still only achieve this by using a lighter set-up. The maximum possible SW a player could handle by relying so much on the small muscles in the wrist is significantly lower. A quick look at SW statistics between this NextGen group and the bunch of modern technique forehands I have compiled is displayed below.
You can see from this data that the weights of the NextGen are far below that of the recent crop of top forehands, with an average SW difference of around 23, and if Sock is removed from the data (due to his chocked grip) the average SW difference approaches 27. A higher SW has advantages (if you can wield it effectively; over five-sets you need favourable technique) over a low SW all things being equal: more stability (and therefore more control), more power (a feeling of ‘easy’ power). It is interesting to note there is a correlation between SW and career high ranking observed from a group of 50 players I analysed below. Of course, it may entirely be that better athletes can handle higher SW and that is why they are ranked higher, but nonetheless I think there is a case for to be made that a higher SW allows a player to access power and control.
Timing the ball depends on a number of factors: speed of incoming shot, pace of court, spin rates, how early you try to take it, whether you are blocking the ball versus swinging through it, and whether you are trying to hit with spin versus flat. Whilst there is no statistic that relates specifically to timing the ball, return stats versus first serves is an indicator of some ability to handle pace. This is of course, a very imperfect comparison of an elite Grand Slam grouping against young players yet to prove themselves, however, the stark difference in this area was interesting. Some notes I have observed having watched them; Kyrgios’s forehand return grip is far more conservative than his actual forehand and he is reduced to blocking returns. I would wager he nearly uses an eastern forehand grip to block returns in; Khachanov’s forehand grip is so extreme he uses the same side of the racquet face for forehands and backhands during rallies, yet doesn’t do so on returns when time is of the essence; Sock uses the same side of the racquet on all topspin shots due to his extreme grips on both wings; Djokovic is the only player in the modern forehand group with something a little more extreme than semi-western perhaps, yet he is the greatest returner of all-time. His forehand is textbook modern; Federer and Gonzalez are the only one-handers in the group and they often chipped their backhand returns (Gonzalez a lot more) but their return percentages are still quite high; Rafa stands very far back and his return stats are surely due to his clay court prowess. Still, at events where he has held the baseline, he usually comes over his forehand return.
The flexed wrist forehand struggles as the pace and speed of the shot increases; it has one more moving part that makes it that little bit harder to execute. The NextGen forehand is best suited to conditions where the player has a ball that is not too low or not too fast.
Aspects of Virtuous Technique
An analysis of the most devastating groundstrokes of the last 20 years has brought to mind the following forehands: Del Potro, Gonzalez, Federer, Nadal. The most devastating single-handed backhands I believe belong to: Wawrinka, Gasquet, Thiem, Almagro. When I use the term devastating, I am considering the ability to inject/generate huge pace, change direction, and be a consistent weapon across their career. In analysing these shots, there are three key points I believe are instrumental in their success and that should be followed when developing a shot. By employing these characteristics together, these shots achieve what I like to call ‘virtuous’ or parsimonious technique; they use the simplest but most effective building blocks of pace and control. An explanation of each is outlined below.
Look at any slow-motion video from the above player’s shot and one facet that is common in all of them is the use of gravity to generate power. The modern forehand technique is characterised by a racquet tip that is pointed at high noon with good elbow separation. The racquet head drops considerably before being pulled through to contact. You probably have noticed in your own life that gravity is an effective way to generate speed; rollercoasters, biking, skydiving etc. Furthermore, gravity is a constant and irrespective of how the player is feeling this part of the downswing will remain constant through millions of iterations. So what we have is a powerful and repeatable generation of racquet head speed. The same is true for the backhand. High take backs with the racquet above the shoulders or head lead to a massive drop before being pulled through. Gasquet is probably the most famous example as this clip demonstrates. As Robby Koenig notes at one point, "it’s not often you hear a commentator say ‘vaporise’ and ‘backhand’ in the same sentence" (Gasquet’s groundstrokes both utilise conservative grips and gravity, not surprisingly his SW is also very high, noted in the 380'S).
Extreme grips are more common on tour nowadays, after all they can handle higher balls better, generate spin more easily, and are accommodated with larger racquet faces. However, I still believe greatness on the forehand side rests somewhere along an eastern to semi-western grip. A more conservative grip allows a player to ‘plow’ through the ball more, makes it easier to time or block serves and fast shots, and requires a smaller grip change when moving between forehand and backhand grips. Of course, generating spin is more difficult and handling higher balls are tougher, especially as a junior without the requisite wrist strength, but a player who stays the course with this grip has a better chance of generating an all-time great forehand in my opinion, as wrist strength—especially for men—allows one to overcome this. The two biggest forehands of the last twenty years probably belong to Juan Martin del Potro and Fernando Gonzalez. Both men have extremely high take backs, conservative grips, and maintain efficient wrist placement during take back. The two best forehands belong to Federer and Nadal, and although both of them have relaxed their wrist more in recent years, I believe their best forehands were on display when wrist set-ups were extended (Federer circa 04-07, Nadal early career, 2013).
The image below highlights the different names for wrist positions.
From this chart you can see that a NextGen forehand employs a flexed wrist during initial take back with some radial deviation, before snapping through/rolling over to a supinated contact point due to their usually more extreme forehand grip. Try moving your wrist through these positions now and it will give you an idea of what kind of movement occurs with the wrist in the milliseconds before contact. By comparison, now take note of the modern forehand take back that utilises modern technique; an extended wrist position during set-up and take-back, drops into position and snaps through with ulnar deviation and does not require much supination and may in fact need some pronation on contact. Move your hand through those positions and note how little the angles and positions of the wrist must change in this take back and contact; it follows a small and beautifully simple path. It allows a player to maximise SW and maintain easy timing with fewer moving parts. You get more power and more control.
Development of a Forehand
It is my belief that juniors should not be overly pandered to in terms of equipment, soft balls, polyester strings, and slow courts. These things are inherently easier to use compared to traditional tennis conditions and given that humans are misers, you are setting a player on a path of least resistance that will reap no rewards down the road. Tough conditions create tough players with tough technique; it forces a player to look for the simplest building blocks of power and control. If I was to take a player from scratch at the age of 7 or 8 today, I would find some old garage sale racquet with some heft. A heavy racquet does not promote a flexed wrist and a young player will instinctively seek power generation through a longer and higher take back with an extended wrist. Further, I would be wary of playing on bouncy courts — a high bounce promotes a more extreme grip for a youngster, and I think a pure western grip has ceiling effects at the top level. Lastly, mix up the conditions as much as possible; play with wooden racquets, synthetic strings, old balls, new balls, tattered balls. Enjoy the wind, the heat, the cold. Variety develops resistance. It is no wonder most top players come out of Europe, they have the benefit of variety in many aspects; more players, more surface variety, weather variety, more tournaments. Below are some forehands from youngsters who went on to greatness (Federer, Nadal, Djokovic, Agassi).