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Death of a Forehand - Part I
"You fight great, but I'm a great fighter."
There’s a scene at the end of Rocky III where Apollo Creed and Rocky spar in a dimly-lit gym ring—Apollo’s ‘favour’ for training him to victory over Clubber Lang. In reply to Rocky’s taunts, the retired Apollo reminds the champ, “You fight great, but I’m a great fighter.”
Rafael Nadal’s recent triumph at the Australian Open was a stubborn reminder in a similar vein; although the young guns play great, the ‘Big 3’ are great players. An aging Nadal was outgunned for two-and-a-half sets against Daniil Medvedev, yet he somehow found a solution to the Russian’s peculiar game. An applied Taleb-ism, Medvedev plays what I call ‘Barbell Strategy’ tennis: a mix of high risk/powerful serving paired with steady baseline shots. His backhand especially is world-class. It’s a style and strategy that has served him well as the reigning US Open champion, yet there are clear holes in his game. Volleys, slice, and touch are still a work in progress, and his inability to land killer blows with the forehand cost him the match.
By comparison, Nadal is a clay courter who uses heavy spin and power, especially with his trademark forehand, to bully opponents off the court. It’s a style that has won him 20 slams, but to win his 21st required slice, drop shots, volleys, and a degree of game management that saw him tank some return games to manage his body. Very un-Nadal, no? It was similar to Djokovic’s net-rushing victory over Medvedev late last year in Paris. The old dogs keep digging up new tricks.
All of this is to say that the ATP’s young stars feature some hungry, athletic, and strong players who play great, but who aren’t great players—at least not yet. Why? Is it simply that Federer, Djokovic, and Nadal are preternaturally gifted beyond teaching? I don’t believe that. The name of this newsletter is inspired by a quote from Cormac McCarthy’s Blood Meridian:
“The man who believes that the secrets of the world are forever hidden lives in mystery and fear. Superstition will drag him down. The rain will erode the deeds of his life. But that man who sets himself the task of singling out the thread of order from the tapestry will by the decision alone have taken charge of the world and it is only by such taking charge that he will effect a way to dictate the terms of his own fate.”
In this manner, A Thread of Order looks for answers. Great performance has a signal.
Let me start by saying that I am a believer in the motto “swing your swing”. Every player is embued with physical characteristics that make their forehand unique to them. In saying that, great forehands in recent decades have been of the same ‘modern’ kind, tending to differ by degrees only. Players such as Pete Sampras, Roger Federer, Rafael Nadal, Novak Djokovic, and Juan Martin Del Potro have been the best exponents of the modern forehand technique, and while they each have their own style and grip, they all contain two key elements that I believe are necessary for their success. The first is a neutral/extended wrist in the set-up. The second is the use of gravity to start the downswing by pointing the racquet tip up. By maintaining wrist extension and using gravity to generate racquet speed the player creates controllable power that can be dialed up or down depending on the size of the backswing. Below are some examples. Each player displays a neutral/extended wrist, with the racquet tip close to high noon. In order: Juan Martin del Potro, Pete Sampras, Rafael Nadal, Roger Federer, Novak Djokovic, David Nalbandian, Stanislas Wawrinka, and Fernando Gonzalez.
In contrast to these players, many of the younger players today use what has been dubbed the ‘nextgen’ forehand (short for ‘next generation’). The initial set-up has the racquet tip lower and pointing sideways, or to the ‘outside’ of the player, with the wrist sometimes in a flexed position during the take-back (often due to extreme grips). Other times the racquet starts “inverted” or facing toward the opponent (Alcaraz, Thiem, Sock, Kyrgios). Some examples of this lowered take-back forehand with a flexed wrist are shown below. In order: Karen Khachanov, Alexander Zverev, Jack Sock, and Denis Shapovalov.
Not many promising young pros employ the classic modern forehand with an extended wrist and high racquet head set-up.1 In fact, it is worth noting here that Federer and Nadal have drifted (slightly) towards the nextgen forehand; Federer now takes the racquet back with a smaller loop, with the racquet tip lower towards the side fence; Nadal still takes the racquet head back above his shoulders, but when he drops the racquet head his wrist loosens into flexion with the tip more outside (on his hitting side) as well.
Much has been said of the power and spin players like Sock, Tiafoe, and Shapovalov can generate on their forehands. It’s clear that the Nextgen style creates plenty of racquet head speed using a “flip” in the dynamic slot, as mentioned on tennisplayer.net, but at what cost? A flexed wrist or a lowered/side-pointing racquet that flips the racquet head violently may create a lot of racquet head speed in a short amount of time and space, but it may have come at the expense of racquet face control.
As Duane Knudson states in Biomechanical Principles of Tennis Technique, “Decreasing the number of body segments and the extent of their motion will increase the accuracy of the movement.” Fewer moving parts make for better timing (Knudson also points out that great “feel” is ascribed to pre-impact racquet head control). Perhaps not surprising, then, that the all-time best hard-court returner of 1st serves is…John McEnroe (34.7%). This video highlights the pressure McEnroe could exert with his short continental strokes.3
For a more recent example, the two videos that follow highlight the textbook modern forehand. Notice how stable Davydenko’s wrist is from the beginning of the swing right up until contact; the range of movement is confined (extended to hyperextended). Speed is generated by getting the racquet head above his shoulders, with the racquet tip pointing to high noon, and using his body’s kinetic chain to uncoil. Reducing movement at the most distal joint may have been a factor that allowed Davydenko to play from a hyper-aggressive court position and control a flat ball. Despite his small stature, he could pressure the very best players by holding the baseline, abbreviating the swing, and taking the ball early.
Dominic Thiem also experienced hardcourt success when he shortened his swing with a more upright racquet head. Thiem always had extension in his wrist during set-up, but his swing was very long, often pointing the racquet head to the opponent with a very high elbow in the preparation phase. Check out his transformation below.
It’s unclear to me whether the technical changes in the forehands of Federer (circa 2013) and Nadal (multiple times) have been made consciously in an effort to place less stress on the body, adapt to the conditions, increase spin and power, or if it has occurred naturally. Federer’s seems to have occurred with a racquet change (to a racquet with a bigger head and lower swingweight, according to impactingtennis.com). Nadal’s forehand especially has undergone many changes over the years. However, I would argue that his best years (2008, 2010, and 2013) coincided with a forehand that reduced wrist action and racquet lag or “flip” by maintaining extension and using a high-noon set-up with a fuller takeback. The same could be said of Federer’s 04-07 forehand swing.
Another interesting trend that coincides with the emergence of this forehand is the move towards lighter frames. Below are the reported weights, swingweights, and balances of various pro-player racquets. The specs listed come from impactingtennis.com and this google sheet. Data comes from people who own player frames, racquet and string technicians, and tennis forums. Player specs vary over time and information is from the internet so make of that what you will. An ‘*’ next to a player's name indicates that the swingweight has been estimated without a swingweight machine. Note: Some players had multiple swingweights reported. E.g. Andy Murray had reported swingweights as high as 418 and as low as 358.
A difference in weight and swingweight this large is non-trivial in my opinion given that a heavier frame provides more power and control. Running down the names in each column, most players born before 1990 use a gravity-assisted forehand without much wrist flexion, whereas those born after mostly use something closer to the Nextgen forehand, with a racquet head pointing lower and more to the outside and often with more flexion in wrists during the set-up phase.4
So, what changed? It’s well known the game underwent several changes in a bid to slow down the ball speed in the early 2000s. Wimbledon changed the grass and hard courts added more sand to the mix. A larger and slower ‘Type 3’ ball was introduced for hard courts. Super light junior frames with ever-finer graduations in weight and length are commercially pushed as the ‘right’ size for a certain developmental period. But the most radical change was the widespread adoption of polyester strings. Andre Agassi explained the effect in his 2006 biography, Open (emphasis added):
People talk about the game changing, about players growing more powerful, and rackets getting bigger, but the most dramatic change in recent years is the strings. The advent of a new elastic polyester string, which creates vicious topspin, has turned average players into greats, and greats into legends. [Coach Darren Cahill] puts the string on one of my rackets… In a practice session I don't miss a ball for two hours. Then I don't miss a ball for the rest of the tournament. I've never won the Italian Open before, but I win it now, because of Darren and his miracle string.
The miracle string is probably the main driver of the Nextgen action we see in forehands today, but the homogenized surfaces and "ease of use" development plans of red/orange/green dot tennis may also play a factor. In my opinion, there is a lack of great forehands in the younger generation, despite a wealth of new knowledge and training methods in sport science, and some of the players (e.g., Zverev, Sock, and Shapovalov) tend to be inconsistent off that wing.5 The nextgen technique suffers when control is required (i.e., on return, on the run, and with variation) and when the pressure increases. In these instances, you want fewer moving parts to help time the ball and make execution easier when you might be tight. The modern forehand accommodates this by simply shortening the backswing and keeping the wrist extended. Power is generated by using a higher loop in the backswing and by relying on bigger muscles with the kinetic chain (and an increased swingweight in the frame). An Argentine who just retired might have the blueprint.
Part II of ‘Death of a Forehand’ will look at desirable difficulties in the development phase.
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With more extreme grips we usually see more flexion in the set-up (Fritz, Kyrgios, Tiafoe, Paul, Sock, Berrettini, Rublev, Ruud etc.) as contact is made with less extension.
Important to note:
I am not saying that 1st serve return percentage on a hard court is a perfect measure of forehand control or mastery, but it is something to think about. McEnroe’s technique was very simple.
My guess is that string tension explains some of the disparities in weight. Polyester can be strung much looser, and perhaps racquet head speed is prioritized to help create spin. Dimitrov (younger version), Korda, Rune, Rublev, and 2021 Thiem are the closest examples of the modern forehand in the younger generation.
Korda, Rune, and Carlos Alcaraz are some exceptions (although Alcaraz does start with a high elbow and inverted racquet head, he doesn’t “flip” his racquet from the outside of his body. Rather, it flips from above, essentially mimicking the same swing path of young Fed/de Potro).