While there are many ways to perform successful tennis hitting movements, there are underlying commonalities that unify and define them all. I would call these universal stroke production characteristics “fundamentals.” These fundamentals are based on the static and immutable laws of physics, mechanics, kinesiology and motor learning. If your strokes adhere to the demands of the aforementioned principals, you are likely to succeed. There are also variations that occur in the production of movements. They involve a different way to achieve the same important goal. I would call these variations “style.”
One of the biggest mistakes any tennis instructor or player can make is focusing on developing style, rather than emphasizing fundamentals. While each individual player may find a particular style suitable and beneficial, my redress is focused on the teaching of playing style at the cost of the development of strong fundamentals.
For example, look at the variation of footwork style exemplified by the world’s current three top ranked players in the execution of a backhand. Rafael Nadal will usually bring his back foot around after impact with the ball. Roger Federer tends to push both feet up together and land them in a position similar to his start. Novak Djokovic will often lift his rear leg up to counterbalance his body’s forward weight shift during the hit. All three styles are common amongst top players and achieve their desired results, yet all are performed with vastly different—yet valid—styles. The unifying factors that make these strokes useful are their adherence to the principles of good balance, stability and kinetic linking.
First, all of these backhand techniques start with a lowering of the player’s center of gravity and an explosive leg drive upward using their rear leg and gluteus muscles. All three players have a unit take-back emphasizing the activation and use of their core muscles. Next, the lifting of their legs are seamlessly linked to the rotation of their torso. All three players demonstrate the balance necessary to keep their hips stable during the hit. These same qualities of balance and stability are important in their consistent and complete finish. Sound instruction and productive learning should emphasize the achievement of all of these skills, as well as other fundamental movements rather than focusing on how the movements are achieved. It is alarming to see the same style directed toward every student. It is almost comical to wonder which player a style-oriented method of teaching would suggest is doing something dramatically wrong. “Sorry Rafa, you need to change that stroke. You should watch Roger, he’s hitting it correctly.”
A United States Tennis Association-funded study conducted several years ago examined Andre Agassi’s stroke production using high-speed video over several thousand strokes. In the execution of his forehand, it was found that the single highest correlation to success was the shifting of his weight from right to left during the stroke. Interestingly enough in this study, there was no connection between the direction his foot stepped and his stroke success. In other words, stepping “in,” “sideways” or even “back,” was irrelevant to Agassi!
Ultimately, adherence to universal integrated principles of stroke production, rather than ancillary or unnecessary dogma, will be the most direct path to the development of great strokes.