The following is a page from The Fault Tolerant Forehand, available in eBook and paperback formats on Amazon (click here).
At Fault Tolerant Tennis we teach fundamentals. Our aim is not to provide assorted tips and tricks that apply only in certain cases, but rather to educate our readers about the essential biomechanical movement patterns that underpin each shot. We teach principles here – principles that lead to fault tolerant, effective strokes in every situation, whether the shot is being played high, low, wide, or close.
That said, the low forehand still deserves its own section, because it is such an important, frequent, and mistake prone shot.
The Common Pitfall Against Slicers
In a match against someone who only hits slices, you’ll be forced to play nearly all of your forehands from knee height or lower. Without an effective, fault tolerant low forehand, these matches are extremely frustrating.
The mechanics that make the forehand fault tolerant, the mechanics we teach in this book, are very natural on waist height and shoulder height forehands. That’s why, in a normal match against a non-slicer, your forehand feels fine; almost all of those forehands are played from waist height or from shoulder height, and as a result, you naturally apply fault tolerant mechanics.
Everything we’ve discussed – from preparation, to body rotation, to swing path – once you’ve practiced a little, using those mechanics will be your first instinct on a typical height forehand. But on a low forehand, they’ll initially feel very unnatural; if you’re not consciously focused on using on them, you’ll probably accidentally abandon them.
And that’s when you get a bunch of mishit low forehands, lost points, and a smashed racket.
Utilizing Waist Height Mechanics
To transpose our fault tolerant mechanics to a lower contact point, we need to adjust our preparation appropriately. We’ve already discussed adjustment, but it bears repeating – you adjust to a low forehand by sitting lower with your legs and tilting your torso, not by pulling your hand closer to your body. Adjusting this way allows you to maintain the same alignment of your racket, hand, and arm relative to your trunk that you use on a waist height forehand, thereby allowing you to rotate your hips and trunk in the same manner as on a higher shot.
When preparing for the low contact point, many players’ first instinct will be to pull their hand in, rather than tilt their torso. This kind of hand adjustment is sometimes necessary on exceptionally low balls, but just be aware that the closer you pull your hand in, the more you inhibit the transfer of energy from the trunk’s rotation into the racket.
At a given angular velocity, translational velocity is always greatest farthest from the center of rotation (the bigger the circle, the faster the points on the circle are moving). You can prove this to yourself at home – pinch your elbow into your side, bringing your racket in close to your body, and twist forward like you would on a swing. Now hold it away from you, and do the same. Can you hear all that extra wind through the racket when it’s far?
The more the racket is allowed to flick away from the body, the more the trunk’s rotation will accelerate it.
Preparing the Hand
On any forehand, it’s nice when we can prepare our hand below the anticipated contact point, because then it’s really easy to throw it up through the ball. However, this isn’t actually strictly necessary.
On the low forehand specifically, the out vector of the swing actually helps drive your hand down, thereby making it possible for it to move up through the contact point, even if it didn’t start below the contact point in the first place. This is a physical consequence of your tilted torso – as your elbow extends and your racket flicks out (aka, away from your torso), that out angle is now diagonally down, rather than straight out.
Since that elbow extension will drive our hand down, even if we prepare our hand at the level of our contact, or even slightly above it, the stroke can still succeed. The up vector of this kind of swing will be muted, since the hand will barely be below the ball at any point, but that doesn’t mean we can’t generate topspin.
Windshield Wiper Spin is Enough
Due to the racket’s rotational whip (about the axis of the forearm) through the hitting zone, the racket head itself will still be moving up extremely quickly through contact, even though the hand isn’t moving up through contact much at all. Thus, the strike will still generate significant topspin.
Just the rotational whip of the racket alone, the passive “windshield wiper” motion generated from rotating the trunk and throwing the racket out – just that vertical racket head speed will often provide enough topspin to keep the ball in play, even absent a strong up vector in the swing path.
But How Low is Too Low?
Sometimes, though, the ball is so low that there’s simply not room for a topspin swing path; if you tried, either your racket would hit the court, or the ball would hit the bottom of your frame and fly out. It’ll take practice to train your instinct for when this is the case, but make no mistake, there does exist a height below which a successful topspin forehand is impossible.
When you find yourself there, you’ll have to slice or push the ball back. All of our typical fundamentals – from the fundamental theorem of tennis, to adjusting using your prime movers first, to tracking the ball all the way into the strings – they apply just as much on a forehand slice as they do on a topspin stroke. Stay focused, stay relaxed, and catch the ball out in front of you.
Maintaining The Swing Path
As you swing at a low forehand, your mind is yelling at you that, “this ball is low, so you’ve gotta really pull it up.” While this thought is technically accurate, in practice, it tends to be a recipe for disaster. Even when the contact point is low, our conscious focus needs to be on the fundamentals which create fault tolerance in our stroke, not on “getting it up.” This tends to lead to three common mistakes:
- Forgetting to extend through the ball
- Forgetting to swing out to the ball
- Opening or changing the string angle through contact
1. Forgetting the Through Vector
Over focus on the up vector will often cause you to accidentally forgo the through part of the swing. As a result, you’ll spin the ball down into the net – the shot will have plenty of topspin, but your purely up swing path won’t supply the required forward momentum to drive the ball back over the net.
Luckily, this mistake falls into the class of issues that’s fixed simply by thinking about it. Instead of allowing your mind to yell “Get it up! Get it up!” at you, focus on your forward extension. Tell yourself, “Out, up and through,” and ensure that the “through” part of that cue is strong in your consciousness as you swing.
2. Forgetting the Out Vector
The mind’s natural over emphasis on up will also often make you forget the out vector, and forgetting the out vector also severely damages the stroke’s fault tolerance. As we’ve discussed, the out part of the swing path is actually just as responsible for topspin generation as the up vector.
By allowing the racket to flick out to the ball, rather than just straight towards it, we impart forces on it which cause it to whip around the axis of the forearm through the hitting zone, creating the “windshield wiper” motion. That motion results in a ton of vertical racket head speed through contact, and thereby topspin, but without the out vector, it doesn’t happen.
Fundamentally, the low forehand is the same swing.
We’ve said it before, but we’ll say it again – Out, up, and through.
The out, up, and through swing path, which causes the racket to whip around the axis of the forearm through contact, is responsible for at least half of the stroke’s topspin. Abandoning it for a purely up and through swing path is quite counter-productive, especially on a low forehand, a shot for which each additional RPM grants significant extra fault tolerance.
It’s extremely easy to forget about both the through vector and the out vector when swinging at a low forehand, because your mind is so strongly focused on up, but lose those other vectors, and you lose the stroke’s fault tolerance with them.
3. Subconsciously Turning the Strings Up
The mind’s natural over emphasis on “getting the ball up” will also tempt you to alter your string angle, angling the strings towards the sky. Unless you swing really, really slowly, this string angle will cause the ball to sail out.
I know it’s counter-intuitive, but even on a low forehand, the strings, through the hitting zone, should be either parallel to the net, or angled towards the court. At contact, there exists a ton of frictional force between the racket and the ball while the racket is flicking up and through it; that friction will drive the ball up. You’ve just gotta trust it.
If the string angle is altered such that the strings are pointing up at contact, then a rotational swing utilizing a relaxed lagging and snapping wrist simply won’t work – the ball will fly off the racket at an angle such that it always goes long.
No “Rolling the Racket”
If you try to fix your open string angle problem by rolling your racket over the ball through contact, that will completely destroy the stroke’s fault tolerance; unless you time the hit perfectly, you’re going to miss.
This kind of racket rotation (as opposed to rotation about the axis of the forearm) is the quintessential fault tolerance killer – hit the ball just slightly too early, and it’s going long, but hit it slightly too late, and it’ll hit the net.
Maintain your consistent string angle through contact, just like on any other forehand. Trust the friction, and trust your natural topspin, the result of your relaxed wrist and your out, up, and through swing path.
You Can’t Beat a Slicer Without a Low Forehand
To the uninitiated, the low forehand seems like a completely unique shot – a different stroke to practice, separate and distinct from the waist height forward. This is not the case.
What is the case, though, is that the biomechanical techniques that make the forehand so efficient and fault tolerant are very easy to accidentally abandon on the low forehand, because on the low forehand they’re initially quite counter intuitive.
And that’s why the typical player’s game falls apart against slicers.
In the normal match, they’re using a fault tolerant stroke – they often slightly mistime or mishit the ball, but they probably don’t even notice, and it doesn’t matter, because the resulting shots are still effective. But against Mr. Slice, they’ve accidentally abandoned that fault tolerant stroke, and now, unless they strike those low forehands perfectly, they miss them.
Effective Low Forehands Dominate Slicers
To beat the slicer, you have to keep the points neutral, even when forced to play low ball after low ball. To beat a particularly good slicer, you’ll also have to hit passing shots on some of those low balls. With fault tolerant mechanics, this is easily doable.
Though it might not come naturally at first, those mechanics that we utilize on waist height forehands can be used on the low forehand as well, and they will give you that same fault tolerance advantage – not every strike will have to be perfect; they’ll still go in.
Practice implementing these mechanics on low forehands during your training, and you’ll be able to hit 10, 20, or 50 low forehands in a row without missing. It’ll take some conditioning – the leg musculature required to get that low, that often is certainly non-trivial, but hey, that just takes more training.
After that, it’s just a regular match – once you stop missing rally low balls, you force the slicer to try to find offensive opportunities the same way you yourself are trying to. The slicer can no longer win just by letting you miss out of neutral.
And it’ll be a lot more fun, certainly more fun than mishitting every ball and not knowing why.