The Forehand and the Whippy Wrist?
USPTA and PTR Master Professional
You’ve probably seen a handful of average recreational players hit forehands with an extremely whippy wrist and considered them to look extremely sloppy. Then you’ve seen what appear to be wristy shots from the pros. It can be confusing. Is using the wrist a good thing? If so, how much? Let’s see what light we can shed on this controversial topic.
Most likely, your teaching pro has told you that being "wristy" was not a good thing. But there is more to this than meets the eye.
The technical name for the body movement of swinging a tennis racquet is “kinetic chain” and the wrist is the final body part in that chain. Simply put, the kinetic chain is a combination of several successive and sequential movements that create a complex motor skill. Think of the different moving body parts as links on that chain. Coaches would say that the forehand groundstroke, for example, would be a kinetic chain that starts with the legs and goes up through the torso, through the shoulder and ultimately ending with the wrist.
Click photo: In this slow-motion video of the Nalbandian forehand, we clearly see that there is backwards wrist flexion well before contact and then forwards again in the other direction towards the end of the follow through.
But you were taught to keep the wrist firm. And a good number of coaches teach that. This is why this topic is a bit controversial. In slow motion video, we clearly see that there is backwards wrist flexion well before contact and then forwards again in the other direction towards the end of the follow through. But this does not mean that the wrist snaps at contact
The wrist is actually fairly stable at contact. While the wrist joint is like a hinge on a door, the initial backwards flexion of the wrist occurs well before ball contact. This is commonly described as a “laid back” wrist. Then well after contact towards the end of the follow through the wrist flexes in the forwards and opposite direction.
So, if the wrist flexes back and then forwards again, then why bother letting it flex at all?
There is good reason to perform this backwards and then forwards wrist flex. It significantly ramps up the speed of the racquet face, which is exactly what players want in order to ultimately create faster ball speeds or more powerful shots.
Does this mean that at contact you have to squeeze to make the wrist firm when contacting the ball?
While it is true there may be a slight squeeze to stabilize the racquet in case of an off-center hit, squeezing too tight will inevitably slow down the arm speed. And slower arm speed results in slower racquet speed, something you want to avoid. Also keep in mind that the distance that the ball is actually in contact with the strings is only 2-3 inches for the average tennis player.
Click photo: This wrist flex in the backswing is also referred to as the "lag," and Federer's is more extreme than most. Think of it like a whip that snaps backwards and then forwards as the user's arm goes forwards.
So, how close to actual ball contact is the wrist flex taking place?
The answer is not very close at all. Since groundstroke swing speeds for highly competitive players can reach over 60 miles per hour, the wrist and racquet head position should ideally be steady and stable for some distance before and after contact. Since it will vary from player to player based on their own natural rhythm and the general ball speed they generate, players are best served by thinking of accelerating the racquet leading up to contact but also giving themselves some space before contact to also stabilize the wrist and racquet head. Think of a trick bicycle acrobat. They pedal really fast to gain speed leading up to a jump, but then settle down to a steady speed just before the jump so they are on balance.
This wrist flex in the backswing is also referred to as the “lag.” Think of it like a whip that snaps backwards and then forwards as the user’s arm goes forwards. The whip actually “lags” back behind the hand and then slingshots forwards. The racquet can do the same thing if your hand holds the grip loosely.
If you look closely you will notice that some players finish and it looks like their wrist is bent forwards at the end of their swing on forehand groundstrokes.
Again, picture a whip collapsing into a relaxed position after the forwards “cracking” motion. The relaxed wrist bends forwards as a natural consequence of the lag in the backswing that was just discussed.
Don’t be confused by the role of the wrist and think that a forehand with a whippy wrist is always a bad thing. Use the wrist in the right way, and you can get faster racquet speeds and more power than you ever thought possible.
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