The first step to a successful forehand swing is the racquet drop. This step seems pretty simple as it is basically what the heading says, the dropping of the racquet. Simple right?, in reality the racquet drop is crucial for several reasons. It is the step that determines if topspin can be put on the tennis ball. Its where the body starts to transfer its weight forward and the kinetic energy chain starts, giving a more powerful shot. It determines the overall length of the swing and it is where most players start to incorrectly move their wrist and racquet head. If a player successfully does a racquet drop there is little chance of messing up the rest of the swing. For these reasons the racquet drop is the most critical element to the forehand swing.
Racquet Drop Timing
It is crucial that the racquet drop starts at the correct time so that the swing is smooth and quick. The problem is that its very hard to correctly time the ball every time. Even the pro’s will time the ball wrong from time to time. Some times this error is from their own doing, other times it is a result of their opponent actions.
Too Early of a Racquet Drop
Starting the racquet drop too early is not a huge problem for the pros as they swing vertically and have an elongated hit zone. The hit zone is the area where a ball can be hit and have a high probability of being a successful shot. Hit zones can vary in size. An elongated hit zone allows for a player to swing early as the area they can successfully hit the ball in is much bigger then for players who don’t extend their hit zone. The hit zone is elongated from the contact point and extends several feet past. Hover over the below image of Taylor Dent to see him extend his hit zone.
For players who start the racquet drop early, but do not extend the hit zone, the racquet will be forced to keep moving slowly throughout the swing in order to hit the ball as there is really only one small area that the ball can be hit in. In the below image the players hit zone is only his contact point. Hover over the below image to see.
This will slow down the overall racquet speed at contact giving a less powerful shot since the racquet will not be moving as fast as it could. It also is very difficult to time the racquet just right to hit the ball with a small contact point. This is very common for beginner students and is a big reason why they have a hard time hitting the ball. They are not giving themselves much of a chance to hit the ball with such a small area. For players who do not extend the hit zone and start the swing too fast, the racquet will be forced to slow down during the later part of the swing. If the racquet must be slowed down later in the swing it will quickly get out of unison with our body. The body will indeed slow down, but instead of slowing down the racquet will actually accelerate and get out of sync with the rest of the body as it will be moving much faster then the body. As discussed in the kinetic energy section as a segment of the body decelerates, another part accelerates. If the body slows down it will accelerate the racquet. With a correct swing, starting the racquet drop too early is the lesser of two evils. With an early swing the player does not have to alter their swing pattern.
Too Late of a Racquet Drop
If the racquet drop is started too late the shot will most likely be missed because the racquet will not make it into the hitting zone in time to hit the ball. There are several ways that the ball can still be hit if the swing is started late, but none of these options are good as it requires a different swing pattern. An even worse solution (done by most recreational players) is to not adjust the swing pattern and to just adjust the wrist.
The swing pattern can be altered by either shortening the backswing to compensate for the late start. Here is Roger Federer’s normal forehand swing from the baseline.
Here is Roger’s backswing when he is rushed.
The shortening of the backswing is what most pro’s will do when returning serve. There is generally less time to react to the incoming ball so the only way to get the racquet to the ball is to shorten the path of the swing. Its what Roger Federer is doing in the above images. Notice how much higher the backswing goes in the first set of images compared to the second? This is really noticeable in the below images.
Another way the pros handle balls they are late getting to is by moving the contact point (the actual place where the ball is hit) to a position closer to the body by swinging up at a greater angle during the forward swing part of the forehand. Here is Rafael Nadal increasing the angle because he is hitting the ball later.
The changing of the forward swing angle is what most pro’s will do from the baseline when late. Here is Rafael Nadal’s normal follow through when he hits the ball more out in front.
Notice how much further the hit zone extends out past Nadal’s body compared to when he hits the ball later?
Notice besides the swing angle on the follow through being greater that his arm is bent more, the body is rotated less and the weight is more on the back foot? All this is done so that he does not need to move his wrist early.
Another alternative is to swing very fast, but if the swing starts out very fast it will be difficult to control. Most recreational players who start their swing late will either just try to swing faster to maintain the same swing pattern or will adjust the contact point further behind them by moving their wrist to try and maintain the same swing pattern. Moving the wrist is necessary if trying to maintain the same swing pattern as the racquet face is slightly closed until right at contact if the wrist stays fixed.
If the wrist is not moved, the ball would end up going straight into the ground due to the closed face. By moving the wrist the player can hit the ball and quite possibly hit it in the court, but if they constantly do this they will be very inconsistent. On some days they may make all their shots and play like a champion, then the next day when they are a not playing as well they will miss a lot. Another long term problem can be possibly injuring the wrist.
The Hitting Arm
To start the racquet drop several things need to be done before the racquet physically drops. The hitting arm needs to straighten out. The arm will go back, not down at the start.
This will have the effect of making the racquet go further towards the back fence. Hover over the below image to see the racquet moving towards the back fence. This is a slow movement. The racquet will not start to really speed up until after it reaches its lowest point.
The racquet should stay on the right side of the body as it is straightened out and not go behind the back. Hover over the below image to see the racquet going behind the back.
The arm should end up in what I call a relatively straight position. What that means is the arm should not be completely straightened out to the point where it is locked. If someone where to do this it would make the arm too stiff and impede a powerful and smooth swing. The arm should be almost straight with a little bend in the arm. This will allow the arm to stay relaxed which will make the swing more powerful.
There are several reasons the arm needs to be straighten out. It allows the racquet to get further under the ball then with a bent arm. This is imperative to hitting topspin on the ball.
The racquet can get a good 6 inches lower under the ball by just straightening out the arm.
It also puts the racquet in a position that is further away from the body at ball contact which means the ball will be able to hit further out in front of the body and further to the right.
This will give a substantial amount of added power over a bent arm as the racquet will be moving at a much faster rate of speed since the swing radius will be much greater. For a greater explanation of this click here.
Straightening out the arm also allows for less moving parts as the arm will only need to be brought forward to contact the ball correctly and will not need to use any other muscles to adjust the swing. Think of the arm acting like a pendulum swinging forward.
The Left Leg and Foot
Stepping into the ball with the left leg is another important element of a successful racquet drop. The step will usually start as the arm is straightening out. Stepping fairly early and somewhat slowly into the swing allows for the kinetic energy chain, the main power source for the forehand, to start to build up energy early into the swing. Stepping into the ball is a huge power source as it will start to transfer the weight loaded from the right foot onto the left foot. The step should be a pretty big step forward, approximately 12 inches in front of the left shoulder. Hover over the image to see Andy Roddick stepping into the ball.
After stepping the toes of the front foot should now be pointing towards the net post. This allows for a greater rotation of the knee and leg then if the toes were still pointing towars the side fence. If the toes are pointing too much towards the net there is a potential for the swing to end up horizontal. The back foot should still be parallel to the baseline with the toes pointing towards the side fence. Hover over the below image to see the foot position change.
If using an open stance, there will not be a step, but the weight should still transfer onto the front foot. Hover over the below image to see the weight transfer onto the front foot without a step.
Remember if there is not time to get into a neutral stance, an open stance should be used, especially for more advanced players.
During the racquet drop the the front foot should have stepped forward.
And the front foot should be pointing towards the net post.
After the arm has straighten out the racquet should be allowed to drop on its own. This part of the swing should start in a relatively slow fashion which means just let gravity drop the racquet. If timed correctly, this is all the speed that is needed at this stage of the swing. As the racquet drops it should stay on the right side of the body.
By keeping the elbow up during the unit turn the swing will stay on the right side of the body.
With the elbow up it is virtually impossible to get the racquet to go behind the back. If the elbow drops, the racquet is easy to put behind the body.
If the racquet drops behind the body it is much more difficult to have a vertical swing and much easier to have a horizontally swing. The below images show what can happen when the racquet goes behind the back.
If the racquet goes behind the body the swing will not only be vertical, but will be too long.
A long swing is not a big problem if playing against someone who hits the ball slowly or the court is a slow surface like clay. But, this becomes a big problem if playing someone who hits the ball with a lot of pace or the court has a fast surface like grass as there will be much less time to hit the ball. The bigger the swing, the longer it takes to finish the swing. Ideally we want the overall swing to be about 16 feet from start to finish.
If the racquet goes behind the body the overall swing can be up to 24 feet as the additional distance the racquet travels behind the back can add as much as 8 feet to the overall swing.
That is a substantially longer overall distance the swing will need to travel in order to hit the ball.
As the racquet starts to drop you want to make sure to NOT move the wrist. By not moving the wrist the racquet face will be in a semi-closed position as it drops.
The more extreme the grip, the more the racquet face will be closed during the racquet drop.
The closed racquet face is obtained, by keeping the 30 degree bend in the wrist that was initially done during the ready position as well as having a eastern or more extreme forehand grip. If the the racquet face is closed it will end up in a vertical position at the contact point.
As long as gravity is the main driving force for the racquet drop, it will remain closed as the arm muscles will not be activated.
Most recreational players will put the racquet in a vertical position while dropping it as they feel they will not be able to hit the ball unless the racquet is in a vertical position during the entire swing.
The only way they will be able to have a vertical racquet face at ball impact is by moving the wrist a second time. If the wrist is not moved again the racquet will end up in an open position at the contact point.
(picture of racquet vertical at drop and then brought forward to contact point w/o moving wrist again.)
Most likely the player will attempt to move the wrist a second time to get a vertical racquet face (much easier to do since they’ve already moved it once and activated the arm muscles), but will very rarely be able to keep it vertical at the contact point and will end up with a racquet face that is either somewhat open or somewhat closed at impact. This will make it virtually impossible to put topspin on the ball.
Only with the racquet closed as it drops can you get a vertical racquet face at impact without moving your wrist.
At the end of the racquet drop phase of the swing the racquet should be about level with the back knee (unless the ball is bouncing high).
The racquet should be fairly close to the body
and the racquet face should be somewhat closed.
The racquet should still be on the right side of the body.
The butt of the racquet will be pointing towards the net once it reaches its lowest point.
The butt of the racquet pointing towards the net is not something that anyone needs to think about doing, it is a product of several factors explained in greater detail here. If not enough power is being generated, which could happen because the player is just not wanting to swing fast, then the butt of the racquet will not point towards the net. In the below pictures, both swings are done exactly the same way. In the first picture the swing is done relatively slowly so the butt of the racquet does not point towards the net. In the second image the swing is exactly the same as the first, but the swing is done much quicker.
The bottom line is, if the swing is done correctly and there is enough speed behind the swing, this will happen without any thought needing to be put into doing it. In fact trying to point the butt of the racquet at the net would not add anything to the swing, it would actually make the swing lose power because pointing the butt of the racquet towards the net would activate arm muscles to get it to point towards the net.
As the racquet starts to drop the knees also need to start bending. Hover over the image to see the knees bend.
The body needs to stay in unison with the racquet so as the racquet drops the body needs to drop with it. By bending the knees the body lowers with the racquet. Bending the knees also helps to get the racquet the 12 inches under the ball needed in order to hit topspin.
The bending of the knees eventually helps in lifting the ball up over the net as its much easier to lift things if under them. Hover over the image to see the unbending of the knees help lift the ball over the net.
Knee bend will vary based on the height of the ball being hit. The higher the bounce, the less the knees will need to be bent.
The lower the bounce, the more the knees will need to be bent.
If the knees are not bent and the ball is low, the player will be forced to drop the racquet head far below the hand if they wish to put any topspin on the ball (or even hit it for that matter). As soon as this happens the racquet will be much more difficult to control as the head of the racquet will get out of sync with the rest of the body.
It also makes it much more likely that the wrist will need to be moved before ball contact.
Bending the knees also helps load into the ground (and eventually push off) which is an important element in the kinetic energy chain which is explained in detail here.
At the end of the racquet drop phase the knees should be bent enough to get the racquet 12 inches under the ball to maximize the potential to hit topspin.
The correct bending of the knees will also help the back stay straight.
A straight back will help to maintain good balance by keeping the bodies center of gravity centered. Many recreational players bend their back instead of their knees to get under the ball.
This will move the center of gravity too far forward and make it difficult to maintain balance. It also makes it difficult to lift the body up in a smooth fashion later into the swing.
Bending the back will also put stress on the back muscles. Bending the knees keeps the back straight which keeps it from being stressed. A stressed back can lead to injury. Think of it like lifting a heavy package.
To effectively lift a heavy object, and not get an injury, the back must stay straight and the knees must be bent.
As the knees bend and the racquet is dropping, the left arm needs to come down with the rest of the body. Hover over the below image of Mikhail Youzney to see the left arm drop with the racquet.
Once again, the whole body needs to stay in unison with the racquet so if the right arm is lowering and the legs are lowering, the left arm should lower as well. Both hands should generally stay at about the same height.
As the racquet starts to reach its lowest point the left arm will start to rotate forward as the shoulders and trunk start to uncoil. This will create a greater space in between the left and right arm. The left arm should stay relaxed and only be moving because the shoulders and trunk are rotating, it should not be moving because the player is using arm muscles to move it. Hover over the image below to see how the left arm has rotated forward and created a greater space between the left and right arms.
The right arm will lag behind because of the heaviness of the racquet and the momentum of its movement down.
After the left arm has started to separate by rotating forward and as the racquet has reached its lowest point, the left arm will start to rise higher then the right arm for the same reasons the arm separates. Hover over the below image to see Mikael’s left arm rise.
The left will always be slightly ahead of the right, so the left arm will raise slightly before the right. Once again this is due to the inertia of the racquet keeping the hitting arm down.
By the end of the racquet drop as the racquet reaches its lowest point, the shoulders and trunk will have already started to uncoil. This must start before the racquet reaches the lowest point because the momentum of the racquet moving down will always carry the racquet further down then anticipated. If uncoiling of the shoulders and trunk didn’t start until the racquet reached the lowest intended point, the racquet would continue to travel beyond the intended lowest point. The effect of the uncoiling of the trunk is easiest to see by looking at a persons belly button. The belly button will be moving towards the net post once the racquet reaches its lowest point. If the belly button is still pointing towards the side fence the shoulders and trunk will not have started to uncoil yet. Hover over the below image to see the movement of the belly button.
This will also start bringing the right shoulder and then right hip forward which will eventually lead to the right arm and racquet coming forward during the forward swing part of the forehand.