The Tennis Forehand And The Role Of The Wrist

In the modern tennis forehand, pro players today are hitting the ball with much more power and topspin than ever before. When we observe the modern tennis forehand in slow motion video, it is apparent that the forehand wrist position has changed drastically than what was being utilized in the traditional forehand of the past.

Professional players and champions of the past utilized the tennis forehand wrist position in a static manner, with the wrist hardly moving throughout the forehand swing. In today’s modern tennis forehand that has changed. Pro players today use the tennis forehand wrist position to accentuate the movement of a “whip.” This type of swing is utilized by modern tennis players such as Federer, Nadal, Justine Henin and the majority of the top pro tennis players in the game today.

Back in the day of wooden rackets when grass courts ruled and most professional players used eastern forehand grips or even continental grips, it was unheard of to be taught that you should “use” your wrist during the forehand swing, with good reason. It was strenuous on the wrist to try to whip a 14 ounce wooden stick.

Role of the Wrist in the Forehand: In the Past

The way to hit a proper forehand back then was to take the racket back with a relaxed but relatively straight arm and only a slightly laid back wrist. As the ball approached, the player swung at it maintaining this position of the arm and wrist but firming up the grip at impact and hitting through the ball.

The follow through was straight forward in the direction of the ball then wrapping slightly around the front past midpoint but not totally all the way over the shoulder or torso. It seemed that in order to hit a proper tennis forehand, the wrist had to be firm and stable.

Role of the Wrist in the Forehand: In the Modern Tennis Forehand

Fast forward to the late 70’s and early 80’s when wood started giving way to graphite and the majority of courts started changing from slick grass to higher bouncing asphalt and slow clay, players began adapting by moving to stronger eastern and semi-western grips.

Bjorn Borg, who would win five consecutive Wimbledon titles, revolutionized tennis by using a western grip to produce heavy but still fast topspin forehand drives. But he was considered a genius and a natural so his style wasn’t widely accepted as something that could be taught to the new generation of players.

Even so, as graphite rackets became more mainstream, players started to adapt strokes that were loopier and featured more of a whipping action. Because the rackets had become bigger and lighter with stabilizing and vibration-reducing technologies, hitting heavier topspin became possible without greatly compromising ball speed.

Using the Tennis Forehand Wrist Position as a Lever to the Stroke

It was during this period when players were first taught to develop a swing that incorporates the tennis forehand wrist position to create a “whipping” heavy topspin effect. Players were still able to position themselves take the ball early and step into the shot. It was preferred that they use a semi-western grip and prepare with a looped backswing and a laid back wrist.

Indeed, when their shots were analyzed through slow motion video, it would seem that the wrist was indeed straightening out at contact and rolling over the ball for topspin or whipping through it for power. The tennis forehand was now a shot dictated by snappy wrist action.

The Effect of the New Strings on the Modern Forehand

Then, in the late 90’s, a young and charming Brazilian player named Gustavo Kuerten shocked the world by coming out of nowhere and winning the French Open. He was using a new kind of string made of polyester, instead of the traditional natural gut. Natural gut provided power, control and feel but it broke easily as players started to swing harder and harder.

Polyester strings were more durable and it allowed Kuerten to stroke the ball with as much racket head speed as he could possibly generate. This resulted in unprecedented spin and pace. The balls that were coming off his racket were fast and heavy like never before. His swing style on the forehand featured a western grip and a follow through that ended by wrapping way past his left side so that his right shoulder was pointing toward the net with the racket head behind him.

Windshield Wiper Forehand Follow through & The Tennis Forehand Wrist Position

Other players started using polyester strings and hit with this style. The windshield-wiper follow through was now a common thing and this particular tennis forehand appeared as if it required a perfectly-timed wrist snap at contact.

Additionally, players could now also commonly afford to hit off the back foot or from wide open stances when rushed and still create shots that were heavy and penetrating. They did this by whipping the racket steeply upward and way over the head using a very fast action of the shoulder, arm and wrist. Once again, it looked as if there was a precisely timed snap of the wrist for this kind of tennis forehand.

Evolution of the Modern Tennis Forehand & The Wrist Position

Coaches felt that these new forehand stroking styles were just a continuation of the evolution of the stroke from the 80’s. A lot of junior players were taught to snap the wrist through the ball at contact because that was the way to produce maximum racket head speed. These players nonetheless evidently thrived with this instruction. Ultra-heavy topspin drivers like Rafael Nadal as well as flatter power hitters like Novak Djokovic took the tennis world by storm.

Modern tennis forehand in action

In truth, there had been numerous video analyses done during this period of the “new” modern tennis forehand. These studies utilized even more precise slow motion captures and biomechanical correlations. It was being revealed that the wrist wasn’t at all moving at contact.

Instead, the wrist stayed in the exact same laid back position at impact and beyond. As the ball left the racket, only then did the wrist start straightening out and the forearm start pronating. The modern forehand was now proven to be almost like the classic forehand. The role of the wrist was non-existent at impact.

The Impact of the Forehand Wrist Position in Tennis

How could that be? Players were taught to use the windshield wiper forehand with the wrist brushing the ball at contact and they were getting results. Balls hit off these forehands were faster and more heavily spun than ever before. The coaches’ instructions had to be correct. But why were the videos showing otherwise?

Tennis had become such a fast sport that the human eye, and indeed the brain, couldn’t keep up. The racket head moved so quickly to hit the ball which was then launched too rapidly for the eye to see and the mind to feel and know exactly what was going on. Anyone who has ever hit a tennis ball using modern equipment and techniques will tell you that it feels like the wrist is snapping through the ball or rolling over it at contact.

Nadal demonstrating excellent forehand form

This is because the milliseconds when the ball contacts and launches off the string bed and the milliseconds when the wrist does finally does start straightening out are seen and felt like it is all happening at the same instant. These things are happening too fast for the eye and the mind to process accurately.

Tennis Forehand Wrist: Feeling Vs. Actuality

Therefore, in a way, the coaches are correct to teach such a technique. If it sounds right and feels right and produces the right result, why say that it is wrong just because something that would otherwise never be seen is really happening?

Another essential thing to consider is that the motion of the wrist and forearm after impact is actually part of the follow through. A student is never taught to stop his racket at impact because the ball has already left and any extra motion of his racket is useless, even though in purely physical terms there is truth to this statement.

Forehand Wrist Position Leading Up to the Follow Through

On the other hand, from a biomechanical standpoint, the follow through is just as important a part of the entire swing all the other parts. In order to build up maximum racket head speed at contact, it has to be moving continuously even after contact

It is part of the momentum of the swing that takes the racket to the completion of the follow through. It is in this sense that brushing the tennis ball from low to high via the windshield wiper forehand and pronating the forearm became an integral part of the tennis forehand. But as proven by video analysis, this is not part of the hit or contact and it is not strictly the reason why so much spin and ball speed can be produced by the pros.

Rather, it is primarily an essential aspect of the follow through. In the end, the role of the wrist on the tennis forehand was there all the while, but for a long time, it was just attributed to the wrong part of the swing!

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