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Is your Forehand and backhand grip correct?

As a coach, I used to get this request all the time: "Can you improve my forehand or backhand, without me having to change my grip?". The answer is always the same: "Yes, I can improve your forehand or backhand, but if you are using a grip that is unsuitable for the shot you are trying to make, the improvement will only be marginal". In a situation like this, there are only two things a coach can do:

  1. He can show you how to use your existing technique in a smarter way. Let's say, you play your forehand with a continental ("hammer") grip. With a grip like that, you will have a hard time hitting a topspin shot. But there are things you can do, like hitting rather "straight" shots (with little or no forward rotation of the ball). Also, you can take the ball at the highest point (ideally over net level) and hit a deep slice shot.
  2. He can work on the quality of the shot, in a way where you try to achieve (in that order) more consistency, more depth of shot, and higher accuracy. He would do that by simply practising the shot with the goal of one specific improvement in mind. For example, trying to make the ball land within two meters of the baseline first, then one meter, then even closer; or practising the different angles, or hitting certain goal areas etc.

Should you change your grip?

Well, if your coach tells you that your grip is not good for what you are trying to achieve, then you should probably listen to him. Changing your grip to improve a shot is a long process, and most players shy away from it. But if you play using a continental grip for forehand and backhand, chances are that you started playing tennis in  the 1970s or 1980s, or the tennis coach who got you started was stuck in the 70s or 80s, or you never even had a coach.

In that case, you will have to make a choice: stick with your technique, and accept that you will never have a really powerful forehand or backhand, or start over and accept that your game will be worse for quite a while before it improves. It will require a period of at least a year before the new technique will have become consistent enough. By that, I mean consistant in a match situation where the pressure is on. In the meantime, your match results will probably worse that before. You will need to practise the new technique a lot. But once you trust that new shot, you will find that your game has improved beyond what you were able to do before.

Here's a good tip: Once the new shot seems kind of stable, the best thing that can happen is to play a match against someone you can never hope to beat. Set yourself a different goal: not to win the match, but to simply use the new technique in any situation humanly possible, no matter what the score may be. You can do the same when you are up against a player that you will always beat, no matter what.

Those are the types of matches that can help you establish the kind of trust you need for a new technique to work "under pressure". And that is actually what training sessions are there for. It's all about knowing that you have practised that specific shot, or that specific situation. You will know that you are prepared for it, and all you have to do is execute, without having to think about it. Just let the body's motoric memory take control, and you should be ok.

So what grips are actually recommendable for a "modern" technique?

Let me explain two things first before we look at techniques and grips:

  1. In modern tennis, as opposed to 30 years ago, a powerful baseline shot is not achieved by muscular strength, but by coordinated tension and rotation of the entire body, and a movement that resembles a dynamic "throwing" of the racket towards the ball. The main change came about when players stopped using a closed stance (forehand stance of a right-handed player with left foot forward). With that technique, there is little body rotation and the ball would be hit relatively late and not in front of your body.
  2. Those older techniques used to ignore the most basic facts that you are dealing with in tennis: namely that you are playing on a court with a) an obstacle in the middle, and b) with a baseline limiting the back of the other player's court. That said, what is the most logical solution to these two problems? Well, that would be a ball that passes the net at a certain minimal height, and then has a tendency to fall down with an increasing rate as it approaches the baseline.

See where we are heading with this? You need to be able to hit the forehand and the backhand with at least some forward rotation, e.g. topspin. Now I am not saying that you need an enormous amount of topspin all the time. But you do want to be able to control the depth of your shot by adding enough topspin to land in the zone that you want it to. And actually, in specific situations, you will want to reduce topspin in order to give the shot maximum speed for a winner. But once you master a basic topspin technique, going from more to less spin is so much easier that going from a fast straight shot to a more secure shot by reducing the speed you hit the ball with.

Ok, so how do I learn to play a topspin forehand and backhand?

For both shots, you need to be able to hit the ball well in front of your body. Look at the movement the racket makes when you hit. At which point does the racket start its natural upward movement? That is the area where you need to hit the ball. This area is going to be at least 40 to 50 cm in front the center of your body, otherwise you will not be able to rotate your body towards the ball.

The most important concept here is the concept of the "contact point". Obviously, at the point where you make contact, two things must have happened if you want to hit a ball that has forward rotation:

  1. The racket must have started an upward movement towards the point of contact. A steeper upward movement means more spin.
  2. The grip you have chosen must allow for the racket to hit the ball at a perpendicular angle. If the racket "open" and you hit the ball with an upwards movement, the ball will fly high and long uncontrollably. For a dynamic shot, you simply cannot control that angle by making active corrections using your wrist. You need a good grip to do that, and let the wrist simply follow - do not "block" your wrist. If you were throwing a ball, would you make an effort to block your wrist? Certainly not.

So, finally, this is how you define the right grip: 

Take the stance you would use in the specific situation. Bring the racket to the point of contact (remember, well in front of your body). Now use a grip that allows your racket to be "straight" (perpendicular angle) at that point. There you have your correct grip.

As you can see, the grip will also depend on how tall you are, how high the ball has bounced before you hit it, even how long your arms are. That is why kids will tend to use more extreme grips to hit topspin shots. An average ball bounce that would be hip level for an adult is head height for them! That is, by the way, one of the reasons why kids train with softer balls nowadays.

One final tip: when you try to get accustomed to a better forehand and backhand grip, take a look at the position and angle of your racket after your backswing. Memorize this position. In order for your racket to have a perpendicular angle towards the ball, in the backward position, just before you start swinging the racket forward, the side of the raccket you want to hit the ball with should be pointing more or less towards the ground. Then, as you swing forward and finally upward, it will righten its angle until, at the point of contact, it will be straight, thus allowwing you to give the ball the forward rotation that you want.