"Holy ****!  This is the new forehand, baby!"
     -- Nick Bollettieri, on seeing 12-year old Jimmy Arias hit his huge topspin forehand for the first time
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Tennis has undergone a number of significant changes over the past few decades.  Innovations involving technology, technique, conditioning and, to a lesser extent, court surfaces have created an all-court sport that is, at the highest professional level, played with intensity and great athletic skill.  Players today have superior gear and a different approach to stroke production -- and are far better conditioned than in the past; they have to be given the pace of the modern game.  The result is a game that taxes the physical ability of its competitors to the limit.

By far the most influential changes derive from a triad of far-reaching advances that, along with rigorous off-court conditioning, gave birth to the modern game.  They are graphite racquets, polyester strings and the modern forehand.  Graphite racquets and the modern forehand were introduced in the late 1970s, and graphite became an almost overnight success.  The effect on the game of the modern forehand was slower to be fully felt.  It was Guga Kuerten's 1997 Lulixlon-powered French Open win -- accompanied by high-kicking topspin groundstrokes off both sides -- that showed just how incredibly formidable and versatile -- and transformational -- a weapon the modern forehand could be.

Technology and the Modern Game

Each component of this revolutionary tennis triad -- racquet, string, technique -- played an essential part in creating the modern game.   Heavy wood racquets strung with gut were once used by all, and most players favored a serve-and-volley attacking style.  One-handed backhands were almost universal -- usually hit with sliced underspin -- and forehands were hit flat, with little topspin using a continental grip and a closed stance.

The introduction of lighter graphite racquets meant faster swings and thus more power.  It also dictated a grip change.  The continental grip ("shake hands with the racquet") is the only one that presents the same face angle to the flight of the ball whether hitting a forehand, backhand, volley or serve.  But, it also makes topspin production difficult.  Thus, Eastern, and particularly semi-Western and full-Western grips came into widespread use because they more readily enabled the generation of spin and the safety margin that it provides on the powerful shots that modern racquets and strings make possible.  For an explanation of the various grips, the site below provides both graphic and textual explanations.

There were pioneers along the way.  Rod Laver hit heavy topspin off both sides, even in the wooden racquet era.  Bjorn Borg hit topspin forehand winners on both clay and grass with swing mechanics that look a lot like Roger Federer's.  Ivan Lendl was among the first elite players to capitalize on the lighter weight, larger hitting surface and greater power available from graphite, employing a topspin baseline game off both wings and an intensive focus on conditioning.

Lendl also made a practice of running around his backhand to hit heavy topspin forehands into his (right-handed) opponent's backhand corner -- today called the inside-out forehand, a standard part of every pro's game.  This was possible because of his emphasis on conditioning.

Serve-and-volley play continued through the 1990s, with its last great champion, Pete Sampras, winning 14 slams, including seven Wimbledons.  The one-handed-backhand was already in retreat, and then technology changed again -- the slick grass of Wimbledon disappeared and, more importantly, Luxilon and other polyester strings brought the possibility of topspin with power and control -- beyond anything anyone would previously have dreamed.  Polyester made high velocity, precision passing shots almost routine.  In doing so it signaled the decline of the serve-and-volleyer, ushering in the age of the power baseliners, the new standard in tennis.

The advent of polyester was the final part of the trio of change that created the modern game.  In the 1990s, the modern forehand found its technological complement with the introduction of polyester -- and it was at long last ready to drive serve-and-volley players into the background. 

The Modern Forehand Arrives

The modern forehand arrived, fully developed, in the unlikely person of diminutive 12-year old Jimmy Arias, of Buffalo NY.  Already a highly successful young player in the Buffalo area, his father decided that he was ready for professional instruction.  At the time, Nick Bollettieri's Bradenton FL tennis academy was developing a reputation for honing the skills of talented juniors, so to Bradenton Jimmy and his father went in 1977.

"Soon came the day that changed the face of modern tennis.  That happened when a 12-year-old boy, Jimmy Arias, turned up at the Academy.  Arias already had a booming forehand, the product of a semi-Western grip, exaggerated follow-through and superb timing.

"Bollettieri recalls that at that time he was still 'teaching by the book.'  Forehands were hit with an Eastern or Continental grip with no real follow-through, legs glued to the ground like mechanical structures:  'Arias's father got out of a little old Volkswagen. . .  And out got this skinny little kid who started beating some big college players and I said:  Holy ****!   This is the new forehand. . .'  That started it!"

       -- UK Independent, 5 January 2003

Arias went on, at 15, to become the youngest male player ever to gain a world ranking.  Bollettieri was soon turning out other successful players employing his "killer forehand," among them, Andre Agassi, Jim Courier and Monica Seles.  (Bollettieri also claims development of the drive volley, now an essential component of every pro's game.)  The forehand itself diversified.  Pete Sampras invented the reverse forehand, wherein the racquet finished over the head and on the same side of the body as it started.  His reason -- this type of swing saves time, particularly on a wide, running forehand, a shot at which Sampras excelled.  Rafael Nadal used an exaggerated reverse forehand with outrageous topspin to become the greatest clay court player of all time.

Another variable is the grip -- Eastern, semi-Western or full-Western.  Both Roger Federer, who holds between Eastern and semi-Western, and Nadal, who uses a semi-Western grip, hold the racquet with palm facing down and arm fully extended during their swing.  Federer finishes across his body and Nadal, as mentioned, often finishes over his head -- the reverse forehand.  The more extreme full-Western forces the palm to face upward, which in turn virtually requires that the swing be made with a bent elbow and arm tucked in to the body.  This style is exemplified by Novak Djokovic.  Thus, the three best players of our time -- and three of the best ever -- execute the modern forehand with different but highly effective mechanics.

Elements of the Modern Forehand

With that introduction in mind, here are key elements of the modern forehand:

  • Open or semi-open stance (designed to facilitate recovery back to middle of court)

  • May be closed if moving forward for offensive shot, particularly when going down-the-line

  • Semi-Western or full-Western grip usually preferred

  • Pete Sampras employed an Eastern grip and Roger Federer holds somewhat past Eastern

  • High-to-low looping capital “C�? take-back

  • Left hand initially on racquet during take back to assist grip change

  • Load up on back foot and turn body in preparation for swing

  • Wrist laid back steeply as racquet starts forward

  • Swing variations:  

  • Elbow remains strait, with arm extended and palm initially facing down (e.g. Federer, Nadal)

  • Elbow is bent and tucked to body, with palm up at contact (full-Western grip) (e.g. Djokovic)

  • Racquet face is either perpendicular to court or tilted slightly forward at contact

  • Topspin comes from upward swipe of racquet across ball rather than tilt of racquet face

  • Up, across, and down windshield wiper racquet path

  • Racquet may finish across body rather than over shoulder as with earlier forehands (e.g. Federer)

  • Variation:  reverse forehand, AKA “helicopter forehand�?, racquet finishes on same side (e.g. Nadal)

  • Modern polyester strings and poly/gut combinations enable controlled power through spin

Examples of three different forehands are shown below from the 2016 Western & Southern Open.  All sequences were shot at 14 frames per second.  Click on the thumbnails for larger images.  First is young American Taylor Fritz, hitting a full-Western forehand.  Note that up to the contact point, the palm is facing up.  Images two and three illustrate the tight-to-the-body, bent elbow swing characteristic of the full-Western grip.  In this case, Fritz finishes over his shoulder.

TaylorFritz_FullWestern_2016Aug_4DXA1776 TaylorFritz_FullWestern_2016Aug_4DXA1777 TaylorFritz_FullWestern_2016Aug_4DXA1778 TaylorFritz_FullWestern_2016Aug_4DXA1779 TaylorFritz_FullWestern_2016Aug_4DXA1780

The next sequence shows Grigor Dimitrov holding semi-Western, with palm initially down and arm extended through the point of contact.  Dimitrov's palm is facing forward at impact -- different from the full-Western example  For both players, the wrist is laid back at a steep angle as the racquet starts forward, then it snaps toward the moment of contact.  The racquet face is at or near perpendicular to the court at impact with the ball, and the path of the racquet is low to high to impart topspin, with the racquet following the windshield wiper follow-through.

GrigorDimitrov_SemiWestern_2016Aug_4DXA5539 GrigorDimitrov_SemiWestern_2016Aug_4DXA5540 GrigorDimitrov_SemiWestern_2016Aug_4DXA5541 GrigorDimitrov_SemiWestern_2016Aug_4DXA5542
  GrigorDimitrov_SemiWestern_2016Aug_4DXA5543 GrigorDimitrov_SemiWestern_2016Aug_4DXA5544  

The final sequence shows the eventual WTA tournament winner, Karolina Plishkova, hitting a reverse forehand.  Wrist is initially laid back and palm is up, typical of full-Western, although her grip looks a little short of that.  In this case the elbow is bent at almost a right angle, tight to the body.  All three players are hitting from a semi-open stance; that is, body angled at about a 45o angle to the net.

KarolinaPliskova_ReverseForehand_2016Aug_4DXA2262 KarolinaPliskova_ReverseForehand_2016Aug_4DXA2263 KarolinaPliskova_ReverseForehand_2016Aug_4DXA2264 KarolinaPliskova_ReverseForehand_2016Aug_4DXA2265
  KarolinaPliskova_ReverseForehand_2016Aug_4DXA2266 KarolinaPliskova_ReverseForehand_2016Aug_4DXA2267  

Taken together, these sequences illustrate the three most significant modern forehand stroke variations in use today.

 Putting it All Together

The impact of these three changes -- graphite racquets, polyester strings and the modern forehand -- has pushed the intensity level of tennis to new heights.   Olympic decathlon gold-medal winner Ashton Eaton calls tennis "the next most athletic sport."  Top pros can hit 100 mph forehands on the run and keep the ball in play with topspin that would have been inconceivable to players when 31-year-old Rod Laver won his Grand Slam in 1969 at the beginning of the Open Era.

One cannot fully appreciate the athleticism of today's players on television.  Cameras are located behind the action, and the ball seems to travel out and back at a deceptively leisurely pace due to the compressed perspective of telephoto lenses.  Sitting on the sidelines in a Center Court stadium at one of the slams or Masters 1000 tournaments -- and to a slighty lesser degree, watching the more capable women players -- the projectile-like velocity with which balls are struck and still dip down inside the baseline has to be seen to be believed.  The rules are the same, but the game is more demanding than ever before.

  © 2016 Michael W. Masters   Return to top