In 2013, my article "Get A Grip" examined why poor grips are often “correcting compensations for movement dysfunction" because they offset poorly linked movements.
Today I'd like to explore grip changes. You may not want to read further unless you’re brave as grips are the mysterious enigmas of tennis shrouded by esoteric names like "Eastern," Western" and "Continental." Grips are so misunderstood that the term "grip change" brings terror to even the bravest players and coaches. You have probably heard that to change your grip from Eastern to Continental on serves, or from Western to Semi-Western on forehands will take months of hard work and compromised performance. Even Robert Lansdorp, legendary coach of Pete Sampras, Tracy Austin, Maria Sharapova and Lindsay Davenport, maintains that "after the age of seven or eight, grip changes, even subtle ones, are IMPOSSIBLE." Indeed, horror stories of top players who fell into the tennis abyss never to escape as a result of a failed grip change abound.
Grip changes should not be undertaken lightly because grips are the most direct connection to the racket and so proprioceptively sensitive that even the slightest change can be overwhelming. Moreover, most grip changes are poorly executed, extraordinarily uncomfortable and counterproductive to performance and safety. Such difficulty is not inevitable, however. In fact, grip changes are manageable if undertaken at the right time and in a logical progression.
Here are three things you need to know how to do in order to quickly, safely and successfully modify a grip:
Change a grip only when it will help
The so-called "bad" grips can be best understood from a performance context. Therefore, an extreme Western Forehand grip, when viewed in isolation, might seem like a dysfunctional grip unless the larger picture is examined. A Western grip encourages and rewards excessive internal rotation of the forearm. This rotational movement is a source of power and while not a good solution, it may be may be the only available power source, especially for high balls. Therefore, don't change a grip until the conditions are ready for the new grip to work. Players revert back to a Western grip almost every time it's "corrected" because the change is premature. Before correcting the grip, you must address and successfully correct the underlying problem that encouraged the poor grip in the first place. In most cases, players need to learn how to bring force from the ground up to the racket better.
Correct the movement before correcting the grip
Here is a simple but highly effective progression for transitioning an Eastern serving grip to Continental. Have the student stand in the deuce court and serve to the wrong or Ad box as this is where an Eastern serving grip would naturally take the ball with a mechanically sound service motion. Once the student feels comfortable with a corrected motion that now includes natural forearm pronation, modify the grip. Try 30 serves to the wrong box with the old grip and a few to the correct box with the newly modified grip. Go back to the old grip for 20 serves and now a few more with the new grip. Repeat this process until the student feels comfortable. Most players using this progression can comfortably change a serve grip in a few hours, rather than a few months. Remember, fundamentally grips do nothing more than provide aim and poor movements can offset poor aim.
Allow the grip change to evolve
Most grip changes that are evolutionary will be more successful than those that are revolutionary. I know that many will disagree with this claim maintaining that it's best to fully and aggressively commit to a change to get the pain of a grip adjustment over and done with as soon as possible. Superficially it's a sound theory yet most that follow that logic have anything but fast and positive results. I say "trust the talent." Bad grips are usually very adept solutions to poor movement patterns. If the student has developed a bad grip as a correcting compensation, they feel more comfortable with a bad grip. Thus, correct the dysfunctional underlying movement and most intuitive students with just gentle prodding will accept the corrected grip because it will both feel and work better.
A bad grip is a symptom of a problem so to make a change, first correct the faulty movements that created the grip.
Always correct mechanics before technique.
Steven Kaplan is the owner and managing director of Bethpage Park Tennis Center, as well as director emeritus of Lacoste Academy for New York City Parks Foundation and executive director and founder of Serve & Return Inc. Steve has coached more than 1,100 nationally-ranked junior players, 16 New York State high school champions, two NCAA Division 1 Singles Champions, and numerous highly-ranked touring professionals. Many of the students Steve has closely mentored have gone to achieve great success as prominent members of the New York financial community, and in other prestigious professions. In 2017, Steve was awarded the Hy Zausner Lifetime Achievement Award by the USTA. He may be reached by e-mail at StevenJKaplan@aol.com.