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Technique: Stroke Fundamentals

(The information in this article was taken or adapted from the High Performance Coaching Program Study Guide.)

Presented next are several examples of fundamentals of tennis techniques: grips, footwork, preparation, stroke patterns, and follow-through.  Stroke fundamentals will be extensively covered during the training week. Good books that show how biomechanics can be used to understand tennis fundamentals are by Elliott and Kilderry (1983), Groppel (1992), Plagenhoef (1970) and Schonborn (1998). . The books World-Class Tennis Technique (2001) and The IOC Book on Tennis Medicine (2002) are very good texts where coaching and science have been combined.  Information on the application of biomechanics to tennis also can be found in USTA’s quarterly High-Performance Coaching newsletter.

Grips

Four main types of grips are used in advanced tennis: continental, eastern, semi-western, and western grips.

Each grip has advantages and disadvantages relative to hand/wrist strength and motion, optimal contact position, and spin generation. The type of grip used also affects the player’s game style and tactics. The very short duration of tennis impacts (five to eight milliseconds) limits the effect of grip-force on ball speed.

Example—For serves and groundstrokes players only need to use moderate grip forces that peak near impact.  Studies of groundstrokes have found that hand forces (how hard players squeeze the grip) peak near impact with values about half of the player’s maximum grip. Volleys with little racket motion, however, require greater grip forces to utilize the speed of the ball and prevent loss of rebound speed and accuracy.

  • Continental. The continental grip tends to slightly open the racket face for the forehand. It is one of the most common grips for the volley and serve.  High-performance players do not use the continental grip for the forehand groundstroke; however, they do use it for one- and two-handed backhands.
  • Eastern. The classic eastern forehand and backhand grip is suitable for all spins and stances. It has a hitting zone slightly farther in front than the continental or western grip.
  • Semi-Western.  Rotating the hand backward to the semi-western position allows the player to close the racket face or lay the wrist back (extension).  The semi-western grip is effective for topspin strokes hit from semi-open and open stances.  The hitting zone for the semi-western grip is, naturally, between the zones for the western and eastern grips.
  • Western. The western grip places the hand beneath the grip and is quite effective for generating topspin on the forehand with wrist action.  The western grip tends to close the racket face and make the hitting zone higher and closer to the body than any other grip style. This hitting zone close to the body makes the western grip a good match with the open stance forehand.

Footwork

The following are the four primary objectives for footwork:

  1. To get an explosive first movement to the oncoming ball.
  2. To get to the ball quickly and efficiently while maintaining dynamic balance.
  3. To get the body to the optimum location in relation to the ball in order to facilitate the shot.
  4. To quickly recover into position for the next shot.

To train players in footwork, you need to understand the following terms, how they are executed, what the benefits and drawbacks are to each, and how to teach each one:

  • Split step
  • Step out from unit turn
  • Drop step
  • Shuffle step
  • Crossover step
  • Two-step recovery
  • Hop/half-recovery step
  • Open stance
  • Squared stance
  • Closed stance

Preparation

The preparatory actions of tennis strokes are critical to success of the stroke.  This fundamental truth has increased in importance with the higher rally speeds in the game today. The following are some important fundamentals of the preparation phase: split step, unit turn, movement to the ball, loading of large muscle groups, loading/backswing/racket preparation, and body positioning.

Split Step 

One of the most important footwork fundamentals is related to readiness or the ready position.  The timing of a hop or split step as the opponent strokes the ball is vitally important to facilitate quick movement to the ball.  Lowering the body’s center of mass (bending the hips, knees, and ankles) as the opponent strokes the ball puts the muscles of the legs “on stretch”, which then through a stretch-shortening cycle action maximizes muscle force that can be generated and permits the use of elastic energy to initiate a quick movement to the ball.

Unit Turn

The unit turn is generally the first move players make as they come out of the split step.  The outside leg (the one close to where the ball has been hit) turns and steps out or, in the case of a drop step, steps back in the direction of the ball while the upper body begins to rotate.  With the forehand, we sometimes see that the dominant arms elbow “leads” the stroke with the upper body rotation beginning almost simultaneously.


Movement to the Ball

The flexed body posture of the split step/ready position is important for two biomechanical reasons: 

  1. It prepares the muscles for a strong stretch-shortening cycle action, and
  2. It maximizes the athlete’s ability to initiate an explosive move in any direction. 

The initial move out of the split step or ready position varies with the distance that must be covered to intercept the ball.  When preparing for the stroke, the player executes a unit turn (Groppel, 1992) by stepping laterally with the nearest foot and rotating the trunk and racket back.  For short distances, research has shown that lateral movement is quickest with shuffle steps. To intercept wider shots, the player should step out and run to the ball.

Loading of Large Muscle Groups (Groundstrokes)

Loading of large muscle groups goes hand-in-hand with racket preparation. During this phase the player starts the pre-stretching or loading of the large muscle groups—chest, shoulder, torso, and legs (the exact muscles depends on the shot being hit)—in order to prepare to accelerate into the shot.

Loading/Backswing/Racket Preparation 

In order for a player to produce the optimal stroke, she or he must stretch or load the muscles during the backswing. The player must stretch the muscles approximately 20% beyond resting length to achieve maximum force.  This stretching should be done in chronological order from top to bottom. Contrary to popular belief, the backswing begins with the rotation of the shoulders, not with the moving back of the arm.  It continues with the backward rotation of the hips and legs.  The point at which the hitting arm actually starts taking the racket back varies with different styles of racket preparation; however, it is usually not until at least 50% of this rotation process is completed. 

Players vary tremendously in how they take the racket back. They may move the racket straight back or in a loop (large or small), lead with the elbow, or use other motions. These are generally functions of style and are not fundamental aspects of technique.

Example—One way to improve a player’s groundstrokes is to evaluate the player’s footwork and racket preparation.  Errors in positioning the body and racket prior to the forward stroke have a dramatic effect on the timing and effectiveness of the stroke. 

Body Positioning in Relation to the Ball

Players need to establish consistent hitting zones for all strokes.  The hitting zone is the distance away from the body that the ball is contacted.  The contact point should vary depending on the type of shot being hit.  A coach must also be conscious of the fact that the grip and foot position both influence where the ball is impacted in groundstrokes.

Stroke Patterns

Biomechanics research on skilled tennis players has identified the desirable racket head orientations (position), stroke paths, and major body actions in all the strokes. For most groundstrokes, the racket face at impact tends to be very close (less than five degrees) to vertical, so spin production has more to do with the motion of the racket through impact, not slight rotations (opening or closing) of the racket head.  The typical stroke paths (direction of racket motion at impact) of various strokes are summarized in the upcoming section on spin.

Follow-Through

Elongating the follow-through (wrapping it around the neck through internal rotation of the upper arm and pronation the forearm) on standard groundstrokes is an important stroke fundamental for several reasons.  First, a good follow-through decreases the risk of injury.  The racket typically has about 80% of its pre-impact speed in groundstrokes after impact; so having a longer distance to slow the racket in the follow-through prevents strain on the arm. Second, by keeping the racket in the correct stroke path for a slightly extended period of time, a player can increase the chance of making an accurate shot.  Players need to learn to extend the hitting zone even when using a follow through that is rapped around the body as described above. This ability to elongate the hitting zone promotes accuracy by minimizing the effect of small timing errors if the follow-through is toward the target. Although it is a fallacy that the follow-through allows a tennis player to “hold” the ball on the racket strings longer, having the proper follow-through can promote a sense of control and the feeling that the ball is on the strings longer.  Third, the follow-through can be an effective learning tool for players to establish the correct racket head positioning (orientation).

 
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