Just as the grip (western, semi-western eastern, continental, and even an eastern backhand) will influence the path of the swing, the hitting stance will influence the use of the body during the swing. And just as there are many ways to hit that ball, there are truly many options for the placement of the feet and the resulting use of the hips and body weight. But to my eye, as the racquets get lighter and as the professionals rule the day with “racquet speed,” we may be losing sight of how to use the legs and hips when striking the ball.
Hitting stance, or placement of the feet, whether on the forehand or backhand groundstroke (for this doesn’t really apply to the volley or serve), can be described as open, square, or closed. Each version is slightly different. Each may have its own unique benefits. And each influence how the body is used in the subsequent swing. To further complicate the picture (if not already muddied), the effects of a closed stance on a forehand are far different than on a backhand. But because there is so much discussion of the open stance forehand in the modern game, let’s look at the foot placement on the forehand (but the same would pertain to a two handed backhand).
Footwork is the Name of the Game
One caveat: Tennis is a moving game with some hitting, rather than a hitting game with some movement. And really those of you in the second camp (as it were) often lose to players with less than stellar strokes, but who are willing to scramble, to move their feet, and never give up on the ball. Now, in this moving game there are balls you can easily reach, balls you move for, balls you sprint to retrieve, and some that are totally out of reach. As regards foot placement, let’s focus only on the balls that are within your reach and not the impossible balls (and this in a nutshell is why the return of serve is so darn important, for in nearly all instances you do not really move all that much to return the opponent’s second serve).
The following example concerns a right hander hitting a forehand. And further, this example assumes you have either not moved to this ball, or if moving, you were able to stop running and set up for the hit. Ideally, the back foot, or in this case the right foot, is the one you stop on and the one that you set up on. The left foot can then be used either to adjust to the ball or for rhythm.
If you arrive on the back foot and your weight remains on this foot as you swing, you are likely hitting from an open stance. If you arrive on the back foot and step to the left with the front foot, this is another variant of the open stance. In the former method one leg drives the swing, and one leg is used to rotate the hips. In the latter method two legs drive the swing and two legs are used to rotate the hips.
At the professional level, the one-legged method is used more often when scrambling or defending, and the two-legged model is used when there is a little more time to set up and drive the ball with offensive intent. But (and I believe this is apparent) two legs are generally better than one, when jumping, throwing, or even punching.
With respect to the changes occurring in the modern game, the open stance is preferred by many of the players. Consider it the “rotational” model, for the racquet acceleration is generated by either the turning of the shoulders, or the shoulders and the hips, into the swing. Further, as the athletes become more highly conditioned, many can achieve incredible racquet speed when hitting off the back foot. (See Vic Braden's piece on Rafael Nadal.)
If you arrive on the back foot, and step directly toward the net with the front foot, you are hitting from a square stance. This method engages both legs (when the weight is evenly balanced) and also achieves some linear momentum or weight transfer into the hit. In some instances, a slight weight shift from the back foot to the front foot precedes the hip turn into the ball. Stepping in, getting your weight into the shot, moving forward or even inside the baseline, this is the old school method (before the advent of modern tennis). It is an open and engaging debate when comparing the open and square stance, remember, “There are many ways to hit that ball.”
If you arrive on the back foot and step across with the left foot, you are hitting from a closed stance. This method blocks the hip turn into the ball, and any force in the swing will be generated from the shoulders and arm rather than the hips, shoulders, and arm. When the ball is outside the optimum hitting area, this foot placement will generally suffice. But in most recreational instances, players default to this stance because they really haven’t gotten to the ball.
The legendary Fred Earle called the back foot (in this case the right foot) the “educated foot,” meaning that one established perfect position for the ball on the back foot and simply stepped in to the hit for rhythm and weight transfer. But when players position for the ball on their educated foot, and achieve position by stepping across with the front foot, the closed stance will rob power and increase the effort of the swing.
Next time on court, pay close attention to the placement of your feet on the forehand (or two handed backhand) and monitor your balance, your ease (or dis-ease), and the feel of your swing when hitting open, square or closed.
So lately, we have been experimenting with a 12 pound plyo or medicine ball. The kids do a simple drill where one moves to the forehand side, then stops and hurls it to another kid who then carries it back toward the forehand and hurls it back. Without input, some will move and hurl off the back foot, some step across and hurl from a closed stance, and some will stop on the back foot step exactly forward and hurl from a square stance. But with a little practice, and/or the onset of fatigue, most, if not all, will ultimately discover and then employ a square stance. I find this particularly telling. For if it actually feels more efficient to hurl from a square stance, then perhaps this footwork would offer similar dividends when swinging heavily at the ball.
Years ago, one of the beloved tennis coaches at our club, Frankie Brennan III, used to liken the forehand to swinging a 20 pound sack of flour. I came to know that Frankie was a third generation tennis professional, and that the original Frank Brennan spoke about things that his students really knew about, in this case 20 pound sacks of flour. It just might be that with the light racquets and emphasis on swing speed rather than body mechanics, we have lost sight and lost the feel of that “heavy” swing.
(Click link to purchase Jim's McLennan's Secrets of World Class Footwork Video.)
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James Blake has just concluded a breakout year, with a fabulous finish at the season ending 2006 Tennis Masters Cup. When the dust settled, James finished the yearn ranked fourth in the world and first in the United States. Not bad for a guy who cracked his neck against a net post while practicing at the 2004 Italian championships and whose ranking plummeted to 210 that same season. But is there room for improvement? Jim McLennan thinks so.
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For more than twenty years Pat Etcheberry has been providing athletes from around the world with the winning edge. We call this the Etcheberry Experience, and players with an Etcheberry experience have hoisted Championship Trophies at over one hundred major championships, including 28 Australian Opens, 18 Wimbledons, 22 UP Opens, 22 French Opens and 15 Olympic medals.
And now it's your turn! This is your chance to experience the same drills, exercises and words of tennis wisdom that Pat gave to Pete Sampras, Andre Agassi, Jennifer Capriati, Martina Hingis, Jim Courier, Justine Henin-Hardenne, and others, that helped launch them on their incredible careers. For the first time, Pat Etcheberry shares his training secrets in a series of DVDs for players of all ages, their coaches, and trainers.
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