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The Left Hand's Role on the Backhand
Like the first two articles, this instruction is not solely for left-handed players; nor is it exclusively for right-handers. The word left is being interchanged with non-dominant; thus, right-handed players should read this article as it’s written, while left-handers should substitute left hand with right hand (which is their non-dominant hand).
The goal of these articles—which cover the serve, forehand, backhand and volley—is to improve both your game and your understanding of how to more efficiently and effectively play tennis.
From 1978 to 1983, the sport was booming, and at that time I was directing summer tennis camps in Austria while working with Peter Burwash International. Adult recreational players would flock from all over Europe to attend the weeklong camps. At the end of each five-day session, the instructors distributed prizes—some serious, some not. One of the attempts at a humorous award was for players who continued to hit their backhand without using their non-racket hand.
Imagine a right-handed player hitting a one-handed backhand with his or her left hand just dangling during the entire shot. If you are creative, you will visualize a player who resembles a gorilla with its long arm hanging down. In good-natured humor, we awarded these “gorilla” players with a banana. Of course, in hindsight, I fear that we may have offended a few people. After all, who would like to go on vacation and receive such a dubious award?
Anyway, you should get my point (without the banana): The left hand is critical to hitting a successful backhand. In fact, of all the shots in tennis, the left hand is probably most involved and most influential on the backhand groundstroke. The left hand plays an important role the following areas.
In the ready position (see photo 1), it’s critical to relax the racket hand in order to quickly prepare the racket for a stroke. As mentioned in the previous article about the left hand’s role on the forehand, the left hand supports the racket head, ensuring your right hand stays relaxed while in the ready position. Because most players hold a forehand grip in the ready position, the left hand’s support is even more important when a backhand shot must be hit, as they will need to make a grip change.
In photo 2 the left hand is in the process of taking back the racket and changing the grip to set the angle of the racket face for a one-handed slice, or backspin, backhand. The right hand will then slide into the correct grip position. The only thing to double-check is that the racket hand ends up in a grip with a neutral wrist position, or a position of strength.
One-handed: The classic backswing for a slice, or backspin, backhand is shown in photo 3. Notice the left hand in place, with the index finger feeling the slightly open angle of the racket face. Photo 4 shows racket preparation just before contact on the topspin one-handed backhand. Just be aware that, unlike the straight-back backswing of the backspin one-hander, a looped and rhythmic backswing is recommended for the topspin alternative.
- Two-handed: For those of us who remember former World No. 1 Jim Courier’s two-hander, we should recall that his style was more the exception than the rule. Right-handed Courier hit his two-fister with a dominant right hand. Most players either balance the workload of the swing between both hands or use their left hand to push the racket from behind to generate most of the swing force.
A good two-part exercise to get a better feel for the role of the left hand is to simply hit some topspin lefty forehands (see photo 5). The next step would be to place the racket hand on the grip but only hold it with the thumb and index finger to ensure that the left hand remains the primary force swinging the racket. This simple progression can quickly improve most two-handed backhands in minutes. After a dozen or so balls in each step, just hit a two-hander with both hands fully on the grip; however, continue to emphasize the dominant effort of the left hand.
Balancing on the Follow-Through
Photo 6 shows a solid finish for a one-handed slice backhand. Notice the balance displayed with the left hand as it finishes behind but on the same level as the racket. At first, I recommend finishing as much as possible with the racket strings facing in the direction the ball was hit. This finish should result in more solid contact with the ball to help with control and consistency. As players progress, the racket head will naturally accelerate more and the follow-through may continue past this forward-pointing position.
See photo 7 for the finish on the topspin one-handed backhand, noting that the finish is high, as she has brushed up the back of the ball to create topspin. The left hand finishes behind, as in the backspin backhand, but lower to counterbalance this high follow through. I often suggest using the following checkpoint while learning to hit this shot. Pretend there is a crowd sitting in the bleachers above the back court that you are facing and you need to show the audience the logo on your strings. As a player advances, like the backspin backhand finish, the one-handed topspin backhand may naturally finish a little further around than the photo indicates.
An Aid to Running Quickly
Finally, the left hand aids in running. Many players make the error of taking the racket back too early and keeping the left hand on the racket while running. However, everyone knows that arm pumping while running actually speeds up the stride rate, and therefore, the runner’s speed.
Please keep in mind that this article presents general guidelines for different types of backhands in the context of the important role of the left or non-racket hand. While players may develop their slightly unique swing patterns, the active involvement of the left hand in tennis is critical. After all, trophies are much better awards than bananas!
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A lot of players have trouble with the serve and many books and internet sites offer break-downs of the stroke, however, they don't offer solutions to fix specific problems. In this video, WTA touring Coach, Marc Gellard, offers up three simple drills designed to fix some of the basic problems affecting the serve: failure to use the kinetic chain efficiently, the inability to turn and rotate using the shoulders, and a low contact point.
Novak Djokovic – Spinning like a Top
Perhaps, more than any other sport, tennis has changed and continues to change. once a long time ago, when wooden racquets with smaller head sizes roamed the earth, strokes were more linear than rotational. That is, players stepped in and shifted their weight – Tom Stow called this “coming against the ball.” Those strokes looked entirely different than what we see today. So, as far as contrasts go, we could call the modern game more of a rotational stroking model, where players accelerate the racquet through powerful turning motions. Jim McLennan Explains.
ProStrokes 2.0 – Xavier Malisse Serve and Net Game
Journeyman, Xavier Malisse of Belgium has never fulfilled the promise that his early junior career showed. Considered one of the more talented and athletic players on the ATP tour, Malisse has only reached a ranking high of 19 while floating around the top 50 for most of his fourteen years on tour. Malisse brings a lot of color to the game, exhibiting not only some terrific shot-making, but a lot of emotion at times. A solid two-handed backhand complements his fluid forehand side; his first serve is as big as his kicker on his second serve. 2011 seemed to be a productive year for the Belgian, especially in doubles where his ranking has climbed to a top 30 spot for the first time in his career. New this issue, the Malisse Serve and Net Game.
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