I can still remember my first tennis lesson. “Just put your hand on the strings and slide it down to the handle. Now pretend the racquet is an oversized hand, like a big glove you are using to hit the ball.”
Logical enough advice, and reinforced countless times by numerous instructors throughout my tennis life. So then why has it taken me 40 years to sort through the subtleties of this sound and simple strategy?
Doug King describes how to reference the hand to the racquet face.
Could it be my own limitations? Maybe, but through my 25 years of teaching and watching thousands upon thousands of players, I would say that there are some very commonly shared breakdowns in this approach. Although on the surface it appears very sound, I would like to expand on what I have found to be some of the keys to translating this advice into improved technique in your tennis game.
I will look at two ways which we use our hands to develop racquet control. The first part is developing a feel as to how the racquet can “become the hand,” how they can join together properly. Then I will look at how to use different hand positions to create proper alignment with the racquet face to perform the two fundamental functions of stroking.
Connecting the Racquet to the Body
The idea of seeing the racquet face as an extension of the hand is a concept I entirely endorse; however, as simple as this sounds, it is actually quite tricky to implement.
Most people make the mistake of thinking of the racquet handle as an extension of the arm and the racquet head as a “hand” attached to the end of the racquet. Instead, the entire racquet should be felt as part of the hand. The difference is that the hand should be thought of as the center of the racquet, not the end of the racquet.
Imagine hitting a tennis ball with a shield you are holding in your hand. The hand is positioned behind and in the center of the shield, with the edges of the shield extending equidistance from the hand. Even if you hit the ball at the edge of the shield, you are still applying force from the center. When the force is applied in the center, there is more stability to the edges. In addition, there is more uniformity to the alignment of the edges to the center point. The extension of the shield equally to all sides of the hand creates “balance” and confines force to the center. In such a case the shield moves with the hand in a more unified way. They work much more as a single unit.
King talks about how to get the hand and racquet to achieve a unified feel.
The problem we have with the tennis racquet is that we hold one end of the racquet and the racquet extends out on one side as though it is an extension of the arm rather than like a shield. We can generate more speed by swinging the end of the club or bat but we lose stability and we lose a true sense of the end of the bat as “being the hand.” The further the “sweet spot” moves away from the hand (as in golf), the more difficult it is to create synchronization between the hand and the sweet spot. This is why we can attain better control with two handed strokes since the sweet spot is closer to the hands. In order to achieve this unity of the racquet and the hand it is critical to maintain force in the handle of the racquet rather than trying to get the racquet head to swing. Imaging the racquet as a shield that extends to both sides of the hand, will help get the racquet and the hand working as a single unit.
Aside from getting the racquet and hand to work as a single unit, the other challenge in connecting the hand and racquet is learning to adjust the hand position (grip) to perform various stroking functions.
The Two Grip Categories:
Catching and Striking
I believe that our grips are the most defining characteristics of our stroke. The grip will not only orient the racquet face to the hand, it will also orient the arm and hand to the body. There is so much discussion of the nuances of grips that you can go crazy trying to figure out all of the implications. What I propose is that we take a slightly different approach to grips – a very broad perspective that will address grips indirectly by seeing how the hand functions in some very basic and familiar physical actions.
Closed fist (knuckles) for striking, open hand (palm)
First, let’s think of two classes of grips – “Catching Grips” and “Striking Grips.” What you call these grips is less relevant than what they are designed to do, and that is either absorb power (Catching) or deliver power (Striking).
The common way of thinking about the hand-to-racquet face alignment is that the palm of the hand corresponds to the racquet face
(or back of the hand in the case of the backhand). In my opinion this is at the very root of most people’s problems with grips.
This “palm to strings” way of aligning the hand and racquet is actually a “catching grip” and when we try to power with that grip we end up with more of a slapping action. Do a simple experiment. Make a stroking motion (shadow stroke) without a racquet. Chances are you extend your fingers, made a flat surface with your palm and fingers, and used this as though it was the racquet face stroking the ball. What I suggest is that what you really have done more closely resembles an “open handed slapping” action, rather than a power drive.
Striking grips with knuckles under for forehand and knuckles on top for backhand.
Now compare that with a closed fist shadow swinging model. Close your fist and reproduce the swing and what you will feel is something very different than the open handed slap. Instead, you will get a much more of a compact, solid strike. This is exactly how a boxer or martial artist would hold their hand and arm to deliver a powerful blow. Instead of the palm orienting to the racquet face, the knuckles of the hand now align to the racquet face. If you look at any top player, you will always see this alignment of the knuckles to the racquet face on both forehand and backhand drives. If you can relate it to how a boxer delivers a blow, it makes perfect sense.
If you use the “knuckles to strings”, closed fist alignment, you will have the knuckles down on the forehand and knuckles up on the backhand.
Positioning the hand into a closed fist and leading with the knuckles reorients the arm to the body. It draws the arm and hand into a much more stable and supportive position, and automatically connects and involves the larger muscle groups (hips and shoulders). The body, arm, hand, and racquet become connected and are transformed into a “battering ram.” When the palm is held open to strike an object, it forces the relationship between the body and the object being struck into a very weak position. That is why the open palm position actually works well to “catch” the ball. If you had on a baseball glove, the palm is always held open to the oncoming ball. This is much better for catching a ball because the hand is weaker and the body position is weaker, and as a result the ball will tend to absorb into the glove rather than spring out. This is effective for volleys and other shots where “touch” is more critical than power.
Now this does not necessarily mean you cannot put power onto a ball with a certain grip or you cannot take power off of a ball with another grip but there are what I would call primary natures and secondary natures. Consequently all grips are not equally suited for all actions. This is how we define a more “technically correct” stroke and insure the correct grip is used for the desired result.
"Open hand" grip to catch with underspin.
Learning to create the proper association between the hand and the racquet is fundamental to the game but hardly simple. Not only are there many variations, there are also many physical, anatomical, and mental obstacles to creating a proper connection. Even the identification of the strokes as “forehand” and “backhand” imply an association of the front of the hand and the back of the hand with the racquet face and that can be very limiting. Below is a summation of the key elements to creating a solid hand-to-racquet connection.
Think of holding a shield and apply force at the center. Always feel as though you are hitting the ball with the handle of the racquet rather than the head of the racquet. Push or drive the handle through the ball rather than swing the head.
Think of two hand positions; closed fist striking (add power) and open palm catching (absorb power). When you align your hand on the racquet (grip), think of these two actions and their corresponding hand positions. Align the knuckles to the strings for the striking blow (knuckles down for forehand and knuckles up for backhand.) and align the palm (or back of the hand) to the strings for the catching move.
Fully adapting to the nuances of the hand and racquet connection will take time and effort but if you can make the association of hand and racquet face to “knuckles for power” and “palm for softening” and clearly distinguish between catching and striking, I think you will have made a huge jump in understanding and internalizing grips, racquet face orientation, and stroke patterns.
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