Don’t Watch The Ball Like Federer

I know, I know. The way Federer watches the ball is beautiful. It’s elegant, it’s graceful, and it looks really, really good in slow motion.

But it is not the way every player should watch the ball.

Every athlete and coach can quickly recite the meme that “every athlete’s body is different,” and yet few of us actually apply that idea to our own athletics. This causes certain techniques – like Roger’s visual technique – to be misunderstood as universal, even though they aren’t.

“Watch the ball” often isn’t specific enough to fix a player’s visual issues. Of course your student is trying to watch the ball – they’ve been told to “watch the ball” a hundred times. They’re probably also trying to keep their head still at contact. They’ve seen countless images of Federer like the one above, so they know what it’s supposed to look like.

But is it really always supposed to look like that?

No, and for certain athletes, imitating Federer will never help, because their own tracking issues are related to one of the biggest differences between their own body and Roger Federer’s.

Their Eye Dominance.

What is eye dominance?

A person’s eye dominance is their tendency to prefer visual input from one eye. Almost every human being has a dominant eye and a non-dominant eye. Roughly speaking, your dominant eye is the eye that you “see through” when both of your eyes are open.

(There are actually a few, distinct ways an eye can be dominant, and they’re probably heavily correlated).

The easiest way to observe your own eye dominance is through a visual task called “sighting” – focusing on a distant object. To test yourself, find an object in the distance, make a circle with your fingers, and then look at your distant object through that circle you’ve made. Close one eye, then close the other. Do this a few times, and observe what happens.

Almost every human being has a dominant eye and a non-dominant eye.

When you close one of your eyes, the image you’re seeing will barely change. In this case, you’ve closed your non-dominant eye. When both of your eyes are open, your consciousness prioritizes the image from your dominant eye, and more or less ignores the image from your non-dominant eye, so when you close your non-dominant eye, nothing really changes.

When you close your dominant eye, on the other hand, that distant object will move in relation to the finger circle you’re viewing it through. With your dominant eye closed, your consciousness is now forced to view the world through your non-dominant eye.

About 60-70% of people are same-side dominant (known as “pure dextral”) – right-eye dominant righties and left-eye dominant lefties. The other 30-40% are cross-eye dominant (or “cross dextral”).

Eye dominance matters in tennis?

Your dominant eye is almost definitely better at… well at seeing.

Subjects are more accurate using their dominant eye; images appear clearer and larger; and stabilized retinal images fade slower when viewed by the dominant eye The diplopia threshold (i.e. the extent to which the eye overcomes prismatic stress before binocular single vision is disrupted) is greater for the dominant eye. Imaging studies with monocular stimulation found more, i.e. larger area, bilateral activation when the dominant eye was stimulated. Recently, [researchers] found that the dominant eye is functionally activated prior to the non-dominant eye following a horizontal saccade during reading. Taken together, these phenomena suggest that inputs from the dominant eye may be more sensitive, responsive or numerous, and/or may capture attention more readily, leading to a more salient percept.

Eye dominance effects in feature search. Shneor, Hochstein. 2006.

In an ideal world, we track every ball with both eyes, at all times. In that world, eye dominance barely matters, because whichever you dominant eye is, that eye always has a clear sight-line to the ball.

But we don’t live in that world, and, even worse, some players aren’t even aware that they should be attempting to track every ball with both eyes. As a result, eye dominance significantly effects tennis performance.

Often, a player’s preparation causes their non-dominant eye to have a much clearer, more direct view of the oncoming ball than the player’s dominant eye has. This puts the brain in an awkward spot. Should it pay attention to the image with the better angle, but coming from the inferior eye, or the image with the worse angle, coming from the superior eye? The result, either way, is degraded visual performance.

A player’s head can sometimes get so far turned that their nose completely blocks an eye’s view of the ball.

Even worse, though, a player’s head can sometimes get so far turned that their nose completely blocks an eye’s view of the ball. In these cases, the player is literally playing the shot with one eye. In no situation is this ideal, and when the blocked eye is the dominant eye, its a recipe for disaster.

Same-Side Dominant Players (Pure Dextral)

The most common kind of player – a right-handed, right-eye dominant player – runs into an interesting problem on the forehand.

Every player wants to prepare for the forehand by turning their body away from the ball, such that they can explosively turn back towards it during the forward swing. For a right-eye dominant player, turning away from the ball turns our right eye, our dominant eye, away from the ball as well.

This is why you’ll often find right-eye dominant, right-handed pros making heavy use of the open stance – it allows the player to turn slightly less, giving the right eye a clearer sight line to the ball.

Right-eye dominant Novak Djokovic (left) is much more likely to keep his feet fully open, and his head forward, when playing a forehand, than is left-eye dominant Roger Federer (right).

Fixating Before Contact

When looking closely at elite right-eye dominant forehands, you might notice something even more surprising than their heavy use of the open stance. Often, at contact, they aren’t even looking at the ball. They are looking past the ball.

Both Novak Djokovic and Alexander Zverev are right-eye dominant. On their forehands, they perform their final fixation just in front of contact, rather than at it.

This means that their final fixation is just in front of their contact, rather than at contact itself. This is totally acceptable. It is a damaging myth that you have to literally “see the ball hit the strings,” or that you have to hold your head completely still while striking the ball.

The reality is quite different. What’s required is:

  1. A final fixation at or just piror to your contact point, at which you pick up the ball, crystal clearly, in focus, before you initiate your swing.
  2. You hold your gaze still during stroke production.

It’s almost impossible to actually see the ball for the last few milliseconds before contact, and, furthermore, at this point, you’ve already committed to your swing. That’s why a final fixation just before contact works equally well to a final fixation at contact – you aren’t actually losing any optionality.

For a right-eye dominant player, fixating in front of contact can help orient the head forward, giving the dominant right-eye better sight of the ball throughout the tracking process.

Backhand Preference

Many right-eye dominant players have elite forehands, but they tend to be known for their backhands. Novak Djokovic, Alexander Zverev, Andre Aggasi, Richard Gasquet – while each one certainly possesses a great forehand, it’s their backhand that really shines.

Accept it; master what you’ve got.

You can adjust to your right eye dominance in order to develop an elite forehand, but it’s still not what we’d want, in a perfect world. Ultimately, you’d like for your dominant eye to naturally end up in front of you, towards the ball – it gives you more flexibility with preparation and execution, and for a right-eye dominant player, this will only happen on the backhand.

Accept it; master what you’ve got, and take advantage of the ease with which you can track the ball on your backhand side.

Things to Remember

If you’re a right-eye dominant player, there’s a good chance you’ve had mishit issues on your forehand and never understood why. I have many students like this, and with a few tweaks, they’re able to drastically improve their contact consistency.

Simply put:

  1. Keep your head forward
  2. Utilize the open stance
  3. Fixate just before contact

These three tips will help offset the the natural disadvantage of having your dominant eye in the back on your forehand side.

Cross Dominant Players

Sometimes, I wonder if “natural talent” and left-eye dominance are synonymous. Left-eye dominant righties are over represented at the top of tennis, despite the fact that it clearly isn’t that much of an advantage.

Players like Novak Djokovic and Alexander Zverev are the best in the world, and they’re right-eye dominant. Right-eye dominance isn’t a pure disadvantage, either; it’s actually a significant advantage on the backhand return, one of the most important shots in the game.

I think the primary reason that left-eye dominant players have an advantage during development is that their optimal way to track and prepare for a forehand is intuitive. It makes sense to turn sideways, it makes sense to let your head turn with your body, and it makes sense to fixate at contact.

It is counter-intuitive to do the opposite. To only turn your upper body, to keep your head forward as you do, and to fixate just before contact, instead of at it.

Try to allow both eyes to see the ball at every fixation.

If you’re cross-eye dominant, feel free to watch the ball like Roger Federer. In fact, you should. Allow your head to turn, hold it still, and fixate on contact. Apply the advice in this article on your backhand – utilize more open stance, a more forward head posture, and a farther forward fixation.

Whatever your eye dominance, try to allow both eyes to see the ball at every fixation as you track it in. Understand that, when your dominant eye is forward, you can get away with a little more turn, but if you try that while it’s back, you’re probably in for a crazy shank.


  1. David
    September 29, 2022

    Superb, thank you. Right eye dominant here. I’ve always felt like I was doing something wrong because when I really pay attention to my visual awareness I’m actually looking through the ball, not at it, in the milliseconds before contact. I’ve seen the ball’s trajectory presumably and I’ve judged where it’s going to be? But then I’ve thought: you’re doing it wrong, you have to see the ball hit the strings. But at speeds this is impossible. Thanks!

    1. Johnny (FTF)
      September 30, 2022

      Yes! So you’ve discovered what many right-eye dominant players ultimately discover on the forehand side – looking “through” the ball often works better than trying to literally watch the contact.

      Also, your diagnosis is correct – if you’re able to consistently strike fast, heavy incoming balls from your opponent while looking “through” it, then it means your brain is gathering sufficient tracking information by swing initiation, and those last few inches before contact don’t matter.

      If it works, keep doing it. In the words of Rick Macci “there isn’t a right way, or a wrong way. there’s a better way.”

      Every athlete is different. What Roger does is the “right way” for him (and for many others), but not for everyone. The technique that allows *you* to find consistent contact is your “better way.”

      1. David
        May 4, 2024

        What I’m unclear about, however, is this: on the backhand side, Federer ALSO turns his head and his entire body. Shouldn’t this issue be experienced by him on the backhand side if he’s left-eye dominant?

        1. Johnny (FTF)
          May 6, 2024

          Yes, it does make it more difficult, but still possible. When you’re turning your dominant eye away, make sure you stress the chin-over-shoulder position. You will always see Federer in this position on the backhand – torso turned, but chin over shoulder, both eyes looking forward. It’s uncommon for cross-dextral players to have one-handed backhands, and I recommend against it, precisely because of how difficult the timing is with your dominant eye in the back. Federer is one of the few players that’s successfully made it work.

          1. David
            May 6, 2024

            I see, thanks! So while not ideal right eye dominant righties can use a semi-open and closed set up on the forehand, but ought to make absolutely sure that they are facing, both eyes at least equidistant to the incoming ball?

          2. Johnny (FTF)
            May 13, 2024

            Pretty much. Chin-over-shoulder; both eyes forward.

  2. Andre
    October 3, 2022

    This article makes sense to me being a right eye dominant right handed player. I prefer forehands, and probably aim to hit them 80% of the time if I can, but I always wondered why my backhands seem more consistent when it comes to timing. I’ll have to try the open stance and looking ahead more.

  3. Anonymous
    November 17, 2022

    Interesting data. Another vital component to tennis is the serve (33% of all points don’t go past the serve!). A cross dominant player will be able to rotate their body much further and still have full visual of the ball, the court and their opponent. They have a distinct advantage over regular dominant players when serving.

    1. Johnny (FTF)
      November 19, 2022

      Yep, this is very true. For anyone who wants a reference for this, take a look at Dennis Shapovalov’s service preparation, verses Alex De Minaur’s.

      1. Dave
        April 14, 2023

        Is Sharapova cross dominant?

        1. Johnny (FTF)
          April 15, 2023

          I haven’t seen an official source on this, but based on her play, she almost certainly is, in fact, cross-dominant.

  4. Sandeep
    March 10, 2023

    As long as you hit the ball out in front of you it shouldn’t be a problem. Del Potro, in spite of being right-eye dominant, has a monster forehand. James Blake despite being left-eye dominant has a very nice backhand. Nalbandian like Federer keeps both eyes on the ball after hitting the shots on bh and fh. But yes ideally being cross-dominant is nice for forehands.

    1. Johnny (FTF)
      March 11, 2023

      Yes that’s exactly right. Novak Djokovic is right-eye dominant and has maybe the best forehand in the world. His gaze behavior shows it – he looks far out in front of him, and takes the ball there as well.

      This article is meant to educate players on the differences in ideal gaze behavior from one player to another, so that each player can find what works for them, even if it looks/feels different than Roger Federer (or whoever your favorite player is). It is by no mean meant to discourage same-side-dominant players!

  5. Jochin
    November 22, 2023

    What do you mean by fixate before contact?

    1. Johnny (FTF)
      December 10, 2023

      Here’s an example: when playing a shot that bounces very close to your feet (regardless of your eye dominance), I recommend you hold your gaze on the bounce point as you swing. You are fixating in front of where you’ll ultimately contact the ball.


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