Almost every tour player prepares for their waist height forehand with their strings down, often with their palm down as well. Some even begin with the hitting face of their racket pointing behind them.
They prepare this way in order to account for how the string angle will change during a properly executed forward swing – the strings are going to open up.
When creating correct forehand contact, we have two fundamental goals relevant to this discussion:
- Contact the ball with a slightly closed string angle.
- Relax the hand as much as possible while doing #1.
By striking the ball with a slightly closed string angle, we generate a small downward normal force, which pushes the ball down into the court. This small downward normal force is necessary to offset the upward frictional force generated between the ball and the strings.
We try to achieve this slightly closed string angle with a relaxed wrist, because a relaxed wrist functions most effectively as a hinge to transfer the force from our core movers into the racket.
Preparing with the strings down is the key to achieving both of these goals together.
Why Strings Down?
As the hand pulls forward and up (via the core and abs), inertia naturally both pulls the racket head back and rotates the racket such that the strings turn upward. This effect will be more pronounced the more topspin we’re hitting, and less pronounced the less topspin we’re hitting. The more drastic the upward vector of the swing, the more the strings naturally rotate.
If we want to relax the hand as we swing, we must account for this upward turn, lest we hit every forehand long (or wide).
This is why most tour players prepare with their hand oriented such that their strings point at the court. When they initiate their swing from that position and their strings open up, that opening up creates the correct string angle through contact. Because the strings started facing down, more closed than we want at contact, the opening up that happens as a result of the relaxed wrist is a good thing.
It is due to the fact that the best players are able to both relax their hand and still control their string angle that they’re able to consistently and explosively generate so much topspin.
The Common Issue
Many players start with their strings at their desired contact angle before they initiate their forward swing, or at least close to it, forgetting (or not knowing) that the strings will naturally open up further from there as the racket drives forward. Because of that further opening, the string angle by contact will be far too open to keep the ball in.
This opening up can be prevented with grip and wrist tension – you can actively use your hand and forearm muscles to prevent the string angle from opening up as you swing, but as we stated earlier, relaxation is one of our fundamental goals on the forehand.
The cost of using hand and wrist tension is two fold.
First, the small muscles in the hand, wrist, and forearm are quite weak relative to the weight of the racket and the forces generated during an explosive swing, so actively using them on every stroke, rather than having them merely passively stabilize, is likely to cause a hand, wrist, or forearm overuse injury.
Second, and equally importantly, this tension prevents the windshield wiper whipping action that’s responsible for much of the racket head speed generated by your swing. With wrist tension, creating topspin while also driving the ball is all but impossible, because the racket isn’t going to whip around your hand through contact, and therefore you lose the upward racket velocity that comes from that racket rotation.
Anatomy of a Problem
Palm down seems like an easy solution, but if it’s so trivial, why do many players seem to have such a tendency to hit long when they fully relax, and only feel confident they can keep the ball in when tensing up?
Because old habits die hard.
The goal of tennis is simple – hit the ball over the net, but the simplest way to accomplish that simple goal turns out to to be a rather tricky habit to break later in tennis development. To hit the simplest possible forehand, you place your racket behind the ball, with the strings facing the net, and then push the racket forward so that the ball gets blocked over the net.
Therein lies the problem for later development. When we try to, later on in our tennis career, relax the hand and fling the racket, instead of pushing it, our natural preparation position, the strings facing the net, fails us.
Luckily, this problem is in the class of problems that can usually be fixed just by focusing on it. Take a few shadow where you prepare with your palm down. Once your hand is in that position, the next thing that happens is the forward explosion – the hand never volitionally turns via active effort.
When you get out on the court, do the same thing. You might have to adjust your swing path a little, perhaps tilting more in order to get more net clearance on the swing, but, long term, the hand down preparation position is going to unlock a level of relaxation, and thereby topspin, which allows you to truly explode into the shot without missing.
You can rest assured any time you spend practicing it now, even while it feels counter-intuitive, will be well worth the cost.