The straight arm forehand is a technique used in the modern tennis forehand in recent champions such as Roger Federer, Rafael Nadal and Fernando Verdasco. In traditional teaching circles of the modern tennis forehand, the double bend forehand technique is the most common and popular hitting arm position known on the forehand side.
Most coaches and players recommend the use of the double bend hitting arm position as a means of achieving clean contact with the tennis ball and is often associated with proper stroke mechanics.
Today, however players such as Federer, Nadal, Verdasco and even Mardy Fish utilize a different hitting arm position, which has been termed as the “straight hitting arm position.” This variation in the forehand hitting arm position is present in a few of today’s top ATP tour players, but it is also an advanced forehand technique. This article will discuss the intricacies of the straight arm forehand in tennis.
The Straight Arm Forehand: Style or Stipulation?
One of the great things about the sport of tennis is that it can be played with different styles and different techniques. The styles and strategies that a player brings to the court often reflect his or her personality while the techniques compliment his or her physical make-up. A tall and long-limbed player might make use of more sweeping-shaped strokes while a more stocky-built player uses a more compact style. There are also many examples where the opposite of this applies.
We know that the forehand can be hit in a variety of ways. There are different grips, stances, backswings and follow-throughs. One of the key aspects of the swing is the position of the arm and wrist at the point of contact. There are two mains kinds: the straight arm forehand and the double-bend forehand.
Mechanics Behind the Straight Arm Forehand in Tennis
The straight arm forehand means that the arm is literally straight. The elbow is extended and the ball is met at arm’s distance from the body. Only the wrist is laid back at contact. The double-bend forehand is seen when the arm is bent at the elbow with the wrist cocked back as well. That these two joints are bent gives this technique its name. Both forehand techniques have been used by some of the best players in the world throughout the history of the sport. Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal are two of the best recent examples of players who used the straight-arm forehand. Novak Djokovic and Serena Williams both use the double-bend forehand.
The Tennis Forehand: It’s History and Differences
Traditionally, the classic linear “over the shoulder” forehand used to be more common. This was especially true especially for American and Australian players back in the days of wooden rackets with grass being the dominant surface. Before the mid 1970’s, three of the four grand slam events were played on grass. Balls bounced lower and faster. But since players were playing with far less powerful rackets than what is commonly used today, they had to make use of a swing that provided as great leverage as possible.
At the same time, the wooden rackets were heavier than today’s graphite rackets so they couldn’t really use a whippy stroke because that would cause injuries. Therefore, the mechanics of the stroke had to be simpler and more efficient. A more stable and slower moving racket swing resulted in less power and very little topspin when compared to players in modern tennis.
Players commonly used the eastern forehand grip and took the racket straight back. Some of them took it back already with a straight arm, but there were a few who used a led with the elbow on the take back. On the forward swing, they straightened out the elbow and laid back the wrist all the way to the contact point and beyond.
The follow through usually went in the direction of the shot. It would sometimes continue on over the left shoulder, but this was far less pronounced than what many pros execute now. Some players who were already using the semi-western and western grip still straightened out their arms on contact.
The Double Bend Forehand Technique
The double-bend forehand keeps the racket closer to the body on contact. The idea behind this technique is that you can control the ball better if it is closer to your body without necessarily cramping your stroke. This technique gained popularity when the game started evolving more in the direction of powerful baseline exchanges. Bjorn Borg is usually credited for inventing the modern forehand.
Although there have been other players before him, he was indeed the first high-profile player who was able to win a multitude of grand slam titles using what looks like the same technique that many players use today. Borg still used wooden rackets but the players he eventually influenced were all graphite era users.
Bjorn Borg: The Evolution of the Modern Forehand Technique?
Borg’s technique saw him take back the racket high in a circular loop and sweep it downward below the level of the ball. As one of the pioneers of the topspin heavy baseline game, he would then swing upward and forward through the ball before finishing with a windshield-wiper follow through. On his point of contact, his elbow was bent. But it was not as severely bent as many modern players do. Many of today’s players really tuck their elbows close to their bodies on contact.
The player that immediately succeeded Borg, John McEnroe, used a classic “straight back” forehand, as did another American rival, Jimmy Connors. John used a continental grip and had a very keen sense of timing. He would just feed off the pace of his opponent’s shot. Additionally, he was a serve and volley player and didn’t rely on his forehand to do the damage. Rather, he won almost all of his points by volleying.
The compact forehand, along with his continental grip, had a lot more in common with his volleying technique. The two top women of that time, Chris Evert and Martina Navratilova also used this type of forehand.
Straight Arm Forehand and the Progression of the Modern Forehand
The next great forehand was Ivan Lendl’s and he used the double-bend forehand. Lendl was the first player who could really play the modern power-baseline game dominated by the forehand. He did not just use the shot to out rally other players and construct points carefully. He used it to literally blow the other guy off the court.
He could do this because he was already using a graphite racket. He took the racket back with the elbow leading and then unleashed his forward swing, hitting through the ball with a bent arm. Again, it was not as severely bent as some modern players do.
Additionally, when he had to run for a wide forehand, he could still hit effectively with the arm straightened out. Pete Sampras adapted Lendl’s stroking style on the forehand. His usual forehand was also of the double-bend kind but he was actually best known for his ability to hit winners on the run, which means that he hit the ball stretched out.
The adaptability of Sampras and Lendl to hit the straight arm forehand made them absolutely lethal from that wing. On the women’s side, Steffi Graf was fashioning out arguably the greatest career ever by hitting countless winners off her forehand to win title after title. Her technique was very unique because she prepared late and seemed to hit the ball off her hip. She had a rather cramped stroke so her elbow and wrist were really bent when she hit the ball. If there was one thing she didn’t do so well off her forehand side, it was to hit it dead on the run. However, since she had nonpareil athleticism and court coverage, she was very rarely caught out of position.
As the game moved forward, players were more athletic than ever and the reliance on powerful ground strokes became virtually mandatory. The main emphasis was power and topspin. Courts were also getting slower at the same time as rackets and strings becoming more and more advanced. The new rackets featured vibration dampening technologies and the strings changed from natural gut to predominantly polyester and hybrid set ups.
The Straight Arm Forehand Vs. Double Bend Forehand Technique
While these changes provided players with ever more power, control still needed to be maintained. The double-bend technique provided this better for many players. Today, the top women including Serena Williams and Kim Clijsters use this technique. However, on the men’s tour, two men brought back to the spotlight the straight arm forehand. Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal established a rivalry that dominated the tennis world. Both players straightened their arm on their forehand but they combine elements of today’s stroking style as well.
Straight Arm Forehand: The Pinnacle of ATP Tennis
They both prepare with a looped backswing and follow through extensively. Federer uses the windshield-wiper while Nadal frequently lassoes the racket over his head. It is only at contact that their arms straighten out. This technique is difficult to time and requires a very good sense of keeping the proper distance from the ball on contact. Both men are blessed with unbelievable foot speed, coordination and foot work so this style works well for them. Also, one simply cannot argue with their success.
This year, however, both Nadal and Federer have been passed by Novak Djokovic, who uses the double-bend forehand. Another recent grand slam winner, Juan Martin Del Potro also uses this technique. But Federer and Nadal remain the most popular players so it will be interesting to see if their techniques will be copied by the next generation. We may yet see more straight arm forehands in the future.
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