In almost every article, I say something along the lines of “lead with the hips” or “power comes from the hips, not the arm,” but how do you actually put that concept into practice? What does it mean for power to come from the hips, not the arm, when it comes to the actual, physical positions your body enters during a forehand swing?
Most players’ initial instinct is that the arm should drive the racket. The idea of “swinging” a thing is typically understood as taking said thing in your arm, pulling your arm back, and then throwing your arm forward.
It’s really only athletes, whether natural or trained, who have determined that, in the context of something like hitting a baseball or striking a tennis ball, it’s actually better to “swing” not by pulling and throwing the arm itself, but rather by twisting the trunk and allowing the arm to come along for the ride.
Though it’s initially counter-intuitive, the arm barely participates in either the backswing, or the forward swing. The trunk drives the racket.
Aslan Karatsev’s Compact Preparation
Aslan Karatsev has been on a tear recently. He qualified for the Australian Open in 2021 and then made the semi-finals. Since that breakout performance, he has:
- Won the Qatar Open Doubles Title (with fellow Russian Andrey Rublev)
- Made the finals of the Serbia Open, beating (1) Novak Djokovic along the way
- Won the Dubai Championship, an ATP 500 level event, beating Dan Evans, Jannick Sinner, and Andrey Rublev en route to that title
There are hundreds of things that make Aslan Karatsev a great player, but we’re going to focus in on his forehand and, specifically, his “backswing” (or lack there of).
Karatsev is one of the players on the tour who most exemplifies the idea that arm swing is completely unnecessary for power generation. He hardly brings his hand back at all during his forehand preparation, and thus, instead of using his arm to generate power, he simply unwinds his kinetic coil.
Abbreviate, Abbreviate, Abbreviate the Arm Movement
Many players take their arm back unnecessarily far. This adds a significant burden of execution to their swing while providing hardly any benefit in return.
Why is this so common?
Too far doesn’t feel like it’s too far, and, further, the the proper distance often doesn’t feel far enough.
In the above shot, Aslan Karatsev is about to flick a cross-court passing shot winner past Jannick Sinner, despite the fact that Sinner’s approach shot is struck exceptionally hard and hit away from Aslan.
How does he do it?
Not only does Karatsev prepare his racket on the hitting side of his body here, but also his entire hand, wrist, and forearm, all on the hitting side of his body before he initiates the swing. Further, in this particular case, Karatsev has barely wound up his kinetic coil at all. His chest is turned away from the ball a little, but not to nearly the degree that we see on his aggressive shots.
Taken together, these preparation techniques mean that the distance his racket needs to travel to get to the ball is very small. This makes the shot far easier to time, because there is far less swing time during which small faults can effect the swing. There’s literally less movement to mess up. This is the only way that a difficult defensive shot responding to a high quality aggressive shot (the kind of shot Karatsev is playing here) can be even remotely fault tolerant.
Load in the Hip Pocket
As an approximation, “load in the hip pocket” pretty accurately describes the starting position at the end of forehand preparation. We don’t literally want to start our hand at our hip pocket, because, of course, that’s too close to our body, but with respect to the back/front loading position, the hip pocket is perfect.
The hip pocket is typically on the front of the leg, and that’s a good place to prepare the hand. There’s really no need to send the hand all the way around the body back to the back fence. Any additional small acceleration you might get from preparing the hand farther back is dwarfed by the reduction in fault tolerance that doing so introduces.
But then how do I get any power?
Twist. If you want a little power, twist a little. If you want a lot of power, twist hard. If you really want a lot of power, twist back farther during preparation such that you can twist forward more during the swing. But twist the body, don’t pull the arm back.
Here’s a shot of Aslan preparing for what ultimately becomes a down-the-line-winner. Yes, a winner, despite the abbreviated arm takeback. To the naive athletic mind, it’s quite surprising, when looking at Aslan’s arm preparation, that this shot is struck exceptionally hard. Everything is on the hitting side of the chest. His racket, hand, forearm, and even his upper arm are all in front of his chest before he swings.
How does he hit this ball so hard, despite the fact that the arm hasn’t been pulled back in order to do so?
The secret how far Aslan has wound his abdominals – his trunk is turned a full 90o away from his target. His arm need not participate in the power generation process when he prepares this way, because his explosive trunk rotation will generate all the acceleration he needs.
Trust The Trunk, Abandon the Arm
It’ll feel weird, at first. When you try to implement a hand preparation similar to Aslan Karatsev’s, you’ll feel constricted. How am I supposed to get any swing going from this position? The racket is already so close to it’s final contact point.
Just try it, though. Once the ball gets to its proper location, both away from you and in front of you, twist. If anything, this preparation will help you catch the ball well in front of you. You’ll have to, because your racket is starting so much farther up in the court than you’re used to.
Twist hard, catch it early, and you’ll be surprised just how much pop your shot still has.
I’ll leave you with a quote from the Forehand Preparation section of The Fault Tolerant Forehand, our book, in which all of this content is explained in heavier technical detail:
Nearly all of the forehand killing backswing mistakes aren’t caused by players failing to take preparation steps that they should be taking. Rather, they’re almost always caused by players doing extra things during preparation that they shouldn’t be doing.
October 31, 2021
As a player and Aslan’s fan, great article, thanks!
February 10, 2022
Great article on Karatsev technique, which appears Fed like perfect. What grip or grips do you recommend for this fault tolerant forehand technique. Karatsev seems to be pretty standard semi western?
February 12, 2022
I recommend each student grab the racket randomly, then perform their most natural forward swing. Pause at contact, then rotate the racket in your hand such that the strings are slightly closed.
For most people, this results in a semi-western grip, although I have had a few for which it’s been eastern or full-western.