The forehand has become the premier dominant shot in modern tennis, especially in the men’s game. Toni Nadal, the legendary Spanish coach, even goes so far as to describe the forehand as “the most important shot in the game.”
Most coaches and players would probably disagree with Uncle Toni, and argue that the serve or return is more important than the forehand. Regardless of your position in that debate, the forehand is a critical shot to develop and a weapon that must be maximized.
The forehand is also a shot on the pro tour that has biomechanically and technically evolved tremendously over the past 40 years. Open stances have become more prevalent and swings have become more compact to save time. Players frequently leave the ground with explosions, hip rotation has become more extreme and swing shapes have been modified to create more racquet speed and power, among many other technical adaptations.
Unfortunately, what I see in the junior development trenches with countless young players are forehands that are poorly built, and oftentimes designed with technique that is antiquated. Coaches are still teaching kids the forehand from the 1980s Handbook—which is crazy! I often see stiff or flat forehands. And I see footwork and balance that limits the player’s ability to develop a strong forehand weapon for his or her career.
Here are some of the most salient and common mistakes that I see from players and from coaches too:
1. Staying on the ground
This is a common one. Coaches teach players to stay grounded. Why? Most modern players leave the ground frequently on the forehand due to good lower body and hip explosion. Kids can be taught to use their legs and jump up into shots, and it’s a healthy technique to learn. The key is teaching kids how to jump and land with balance, rotating the body in midair under control.
2. Closed stance obsession
Related to the “staying grounded” mantra, coaches often insist on always stepping forward into the ball. While the closed stance is good for middle and short court balls, kids should be taught open stances, especially for wide balls when the players are moving laterally. The open stances should be linked to good recovery footwork as well, which is another area that players struggle with. Players need the entire panoply of stances, not just the old closed stance.
3. Follow through around the neck
If I see one more player choke themselves around the neck with a stiff swing and finish, I’m going to lose my mind! Can’t coaches and players wake up and stop the insanity? The technical game has evolved and most players windshield wiper the forearm (discussed below) and finish lower than the neck or top of the shoulder. Pro players usually finish with more wiper action and end the motion with the finish around the biceps, side of shoulder, or lower around the hip.
4. Stiff arm, lower arm and wrist
As alluded to above, the wipering action (pronation of the forearm at the humeroulnar joint and internal rotation of the humerus at the glenohumeral joint) typifies the modern forehand. Elasticity in the entire arm structure is another hallmark of the modern swing. Why don’t coaches teach kids to be relaxed and whippy like the pros all hit nowadays? Too often I see forehands that are tight with little rotation in the joints and a slow moving racquet head (discussed below). The wrist should lag and move, rather than be locked!
5. Poor spacing and positioning
I see countless students obsessed with their grip and swing, but clueless about how to position their bodies to receive the ball well—with good spacing. Positioning is super important, but most coaches are not teaching it! Instead, players are being bogged down with an obsession about grips and other technical minutiae. While grips are important, how the player reads with the eyes and positions the feet are perhaps the most important aspects to hitting a good consistent shot.
6. Balance and body control
Related to positioning is the control and balance of the body. Why do I see so many forehands where the player is off balance, flailing, and out of control, especially when trying to accelerate near maximum velocity? Player need to be taught how to swing fast and not lose control of their head position, to maintain control of their base of support, and avoid tilting too far forward or back. These skills are not being commonly taught U10!
7. Flat focus
Too many players hit the ball flat and straight. That’s a good skill to learn, but what about spin and shape? I want my players to have BOTH. They should be able to spin the ball, shape the ball, and also rip the ball more powerfully. I don’t understand how coaches can teach just one or the other, especially in the Northeast. I see a lot of flat ball strikers who don’t have a clue about topspin. That would never happen in Spain!
8. Lack of acceleration
The holy grail on the modern forehand is racquet speed. Whip. Acceleration. Why don’t coaches teach that? Even with the kids who are taught to hit hard, they are often muscling the ball with stiff swings— not ripping the ball with a relaxed, elastic arm. There is a healthy way to teach elasticity and racquet speed to young children. There is a way to teach powerful swings with good control of the body segments and with relaxation. The swing should not be gigantic either, another common error I see. Players should be taught how to accelerate in a compact way. These priorities define the art of teaching the modern forehand!
These eight areas are so commonly flawed in the forehands that I see that I am sometimes shocked at how many kids come to me with these mistakes. Numerous players come through my door, many from Red, Orange, Green systems where they are supposed to have developed higher-level technical skills. That’s not the case. In fact, I see a disturbing trend that many kids graduating from the typical 10-and-under program have terrible footwork and forehand technical deficiencies. These faults have to be fixed in the 10-14 age range or else the player will have limitations or underachieve throughout his or her entire career.
Don’t believe me? Go to a local orange ball tournament in New York. The technique and footwork you will see there is a joke. If you are a player, evaluate yourself based on the eight areas above. If you have fallen into bad or habits, work hard to improve and modernize your stroke. For developmental coaches out there, let’s start teaching the game the way it is played in the modern era, and let’s move away from teaching outdated skills that are biomechanically inferior to the new ways.
In other words, it’s time to EVOLVE!
Chris Lewit is a former number one for Cornell and pro circuit player. He is a high-performance coach, educator, and the author of two best-selling books: The Secrets of Spanish Tennis and The Tennis Technique Bible. He has coached numerous top 10 nationally-ranked players and is known for his expertise in building the foundations of young prodigies. Chris is currently working towards an advanced degree in Kinesiology/Exercise Science with a focus on Biomechanics. Chris coaches in NYC and year-round at his high performance tennis academy in Manchester, VT, where players can live and train the Spanish Way full-time or short-term. He may be reached by phone at (914) 462-2912, e-mail Chris@chrislewit.com or visit ChrisLewit.com.