December 2009 -- The modern forehand has become the weapon of choice for most high-performance players.
The majority of world-class players has shifted the traditional baseline "home base" 3 to 5 feet to the backhand side, strategically imposing the power of the forehand over two-thirds of the court. The biomechanical swing on the forehand side has kinetically evolved from a traditional, mild-elliptical swinging pattern to a more extreme and elongated arching motion. This wider arch enables the velocity of the racquet head to continuously increase throughout the swing and makes the energy transfer to the ball more fluid and powerful. However, the biomechanics of a world-class forehand are complex. In this article we focus specifically on key technical components that are a common denominator among top players: the three "L's."
The first and second "L"
One of the commonalities of the world-class forehand originates as the unit rotation begins. As the shoulders and hips turn, top players cock the wrist up, placing the racquet straight up, perpendicular to the court (aided by the nondominant hand). The forearm of the hitting arm and the racquet shaft resemble an "L," with the tip of the racquet head usually higher than the player's own head. The elbow of the hitting arm is typically bent nearly 90 degrees, thus forming the second "L."
The "L" positioning of the elbow and wrist is critical to the ability to generate speed and explosiveness in the forehand. It places the racquet head high above and allows it to begin dropping from this high location in a circular pattern, accumulating velocity at a continually increasing rate throughout the motion. At the bottom of the circular pattern, the racquet will be below the level of the ball and will immediately move forcefully but fluidly forward and up, continuing to accelerate through the point of contact. The player's dominant arm is naturally relaxed throughout the entire elongated motion. In the following photos, the "L" formed by the elbow bending at 90 degrees and the "L" formed by the racquet shaft and the forearm are clearly seen:
The first and second "L" positionings create a longer swing pattern that facilitates not only the continuous acceleration of the racquet head throughout the entire motion, but also the fluid transfer of energy through the kinetic chain.
The third "L"
The third "L" found in world-class forehands refers to the elbow positioning on the forward swing, which is bent typically at around 90 degrees. The exact amount of bending varies from stroke to stroke depending on height of the ball, tactical situation or balance, but the third "L" is consistently present in the majority of world-class strokes. This positioning of the elbow, which acts as a pivoting point, allows the stroke to be "driven" forward through the shoulder, elbow and palm of the hand solidly and with accuracy.
Note that the wrist is also bent, oftentimes at a 90-degree angle in what's commonly known as the "double bend." As discussed earlier, the first and second "L's" elongate the backswing, creating a tremendous amount of racquet speed at the point of contact. The "L"-shaped elbow, coupled with the bent wrist, provides a consistent angle on the racquet face, allowing the player to exert critical control over the high velocity of the racquet head and ball at the point of contact. Furthermore, having the ability to pivot on the bent elbow allows the natural rotation of the forearm, wrist and hand as the ball is struck (commonly known as the "windshield wiper"), imparting a tremendous amount of topspin to the ball. Virtually all world-class forehands use the windshield-wiper arm rotation action and the third "L" facilitates this biomechanical process.
In the following examples, please note that the elbow in the hitting arm is consistently pointing at the rib cage of the player. A common error that lesser players commit is to flare the elbow out (pointing it at the back fence) at the point of contact. That elbow positioning will result in significant loss of velocity and power on the stroke. Furthermore, the "elbow-out" position will impede the smooth rotation of the arm in the subsequent windshield-wiper follow-through. Many world-class players will have the elbow pointing at the back fence in the second "L" phase of the stroke as they take the racquet back (demonstrated in the earlier photos), but the majority of them tuck in the elbow and point it to the ribs immediately prior to the point of contact.
However, not all world-class players use the third "L" in their forehand. The two top players in the world, Rafael Nadal and Roger Federer, bend back their wrists 90 degrees, but straighten their elbow out as the racquet moves forward toward the contact point with the ball. Federer tends to adjust and bend the elbow slightly depending on the situation, whereas Nadal fully straightens the elbow, almost locking it. The athleticism and eye-hand coordination needed to strike the ball successfully with the arm straight is exceptional, but the fact that the two best current players in the world employ this technique perhaps reveals glimpses of the forehand of the future.
It is clear that in order to become a top performance player, developing the forehand as a weapon is a must. Top players have a variety of styles and techniques, but this article focused specifically on the biomechanical common denominators of a world-class modern forehand - the three "L's." Players wanting to improve their forehand should experiment with the concepts presented here, including the "straight arm" forehand, and incorporate what works and feels natural into their game.
Photos courtesy of Tennisplayer.net. Click here to see much more.
Raul Saad, USPTA Master Professional, is a former director of tennis at the USTA Player Development Headquarters in Key Biscayne, Fla., and holds the High Performance Coach certification. Saad has coached hundreds of ranked players, from juniors to world-class professionals. He was a high school state champion and collegiate national champion (1984), and has held USPTA top-10 national rankings in singles, doubles and mixed doubles. Saad traveled internationally as coach of the U.S. National Team and was named the USPTA Touring Coach of the Year in 1999.