I work with a 10-year-old girl named Anna who presents with an interesting issue. When she’s pulled out wide on the forehand, her stroke looks great, but when the ball comes right to her, her stroke breaks down.
On the wide shot, she naturally prepares her body on time, finds a nice contact point out in front of her and away from her, and in doing so rotates into her shot and contacts the ball with her hips and chest square to the net.
On forehands that come right to her… not so much. She’s often late, often under-rotated, often contacting the ball too close to her body, and the entire stroke looks awkward and forced. If you’d only seen her hit a wide forehand, you’d be impressed, and then subsequently very confused when you saw her hit a typical shot.
It’s not just Anna, though. I’ve seen this in many students’ games, most notably, my own. I myself have had this exact same problem where my wide forehand is much better than my regular shot, and that’s why I was able to help Anna so quickly. This brings us to today’s insight:
All forehands are inside-out forehands.
Move Away, Move Away, Move Away
When a ball comes straight at you, you have to get out of the way of it before swinging. And I mean significantly – you can execute the shot if you only move a little, but it won’t be very effective, and if you do try to hit it hard, it won’t be fault tolerant.
Forget the notion that there are three locations for a forehand: wide forehands, forehands that come right to you, and inside-out forehands. There are only two: wide forehands, for which you move right, and inside-out forehands, for which you move left (lefties, switch those directions).
Again, all forehands that come down the middle are inside-out forehands, and even some forehands that end up on your hitting side are still inside-out forehands. You need to move away from the ball more than you think you have to.
A Visual Explanation
Let’s look at Rafael Nadal for an example of a player who moves exceptionally well on every forehand. Below is an image of Rafa preparing for a ball that’s been hit to his hitting side. This isn’t even a ball that’s come straight at him, but one that, were he not to move at all, would actually land to his left (Rafa is lefty).
Even though the ball is coming to Rafa’s hitting side, he will still move his body away from the ball before swinging, in order to harness rotation as he swings.
Rafa plays this forehand from a neutral-stance (slightly semi-open). This allows him to easily turn his hips away from the target, such that he can rotate them back towards the target through the swing.
As shown by the bottom line on each image, Rafa’s back foot is very close to where the ball will land to start, and then he moves it much farther from the ball during preparation.
The hips themselves must also move away from the ball to facilitate explosive rotation. It’s a smaller difference than for the back foot, but you’ll notice that during preparation, and even during contact, the hips are farther from the ball than they started.
This is because Rafa needs this little bit of extra space to harness the kinetic chain properly; were he any closer to the ball, his arm wouldn’t be able to freely whip around like it’s doing.
The Hitting Shoulder
Rafa’s hitting shoulder also starts very close to the ball, and turns well away from the ball during preparation. Then, even at contact, it’s still farther from the ball than it started. Again, if Rafa were closer to the ball at contact, his arm wouldn’t be as free – he’d feel jammed and awkward.
Make Kids Hit Inside-Out
This concept is why I always have children practice inside-out forehands, even from our very first lessons at 5 years old. The inside-out forehand isn’t a “specific kind of forehand” or a “forehand variant” – the inside-out forehand is the forehand.
If you aren’t comfortable hitting a forehand on your backhand side, then you’re not not comfortable with a movement pattern that is fundamental to the forehand stroke: moving away from the ball before swinging. Teaching kids to hit inside-out from the start drills that “move away” movement pattern into them as an essential, necessary part of the forehand stroke. This emphasis on moving away before hitting helps to avoid the common problem of only having an effective wide forehand, but improperly spacing the ball when it comes right to you.