The primary way you adjust your forehand is by altering the tilt of your torso through contact. As we’ve discussed before, there exists only a small range of optimal movement patterns that allow for a forehand swing powered by explosive body rotation. In order for your forehand to be explosive, you need to perform a movement pattern in this small range.
Tilting the Torso
All high quality forehands involve using explosive torso rotation to power the racket. The racket, thrown by that explosive torso rotation, flicks out to the ball, and then up and through the ball through contact.
When the rotational kinetic chain is harnessed properly, nearly 100% of the body’s rotational energy is transferred into the racket by contact, leading to a whipping effect which creates tremendous racket head speed.
We tilt the torso to change the racket path through contact without altering the relative position of the hand, arm, chest, hips, etc. This way, we can alter the resulting contact while still harnessing the kinetic chain in the exact same biomechanical manner. This allows us to alter our shot while still accelerating the racket aggressively.
In the above image, Roger Federer is tilting his body to adjust his contact point. On all three forehands, Roger maintains the same relative position of his racket, hand, arm, and chest. This allows him to generate racket head speed the same way on these three different shots.
Want further proof? Here’s what happens if we rotate the images to align the arm positioning.
What you’re seeing here are the exact same three forehands as above. The images are just rotated. Roger’s biomechanics are so consistent from shot to shot that you almost can’t tell which shot he’s hitting when you rotate the images like this. His kinetic chain is always executed the same way.
Applying This to Your Game
You have to get out of the mindset that the arm determines the swing. It doesn’t (at least, not alone).
The arm can certainly make adjustments, but most of the time you have to sacrifice racket head speed in order to adjust with your arm. While preserving the fully intact kinetic chain, the arm can only make fine tuned adjustments which only effect the ball’s trajectory a little. If you try to do more than that with your arm, often either the fault tolerance of the stroke will evaporate, or the effortless racket head speed will disappear instead.
Therefore, adjust your body in order to adjust your stroke, the way Roger does above. In next few sections, we’ll discuss exactly what this looks like for a few different kinds of forehands.
The simplest forehand is the flat forehand. It can be performed most easily when the ball is around shoulder height. On this shot, the torso remains essentially upright, and you simply twist and let the racket flick straight through the ball, with very little up motion through contact.
This shot won’t feel easy if coaches have been pounding “brush up on it” into your head for 10 years, but if you’ve been reading Fault Tolerant Tennis instead, it will be.
Here, we don’t give advice that isn’t transferable – “brush up on it” is only (kind of) true for a topspin shot, but for flat shots, obviously, that paradigm breaks down. Here’s a much better road map for the forehand stroke:
- Accelerate the racket with body rotation
- Ensure your hips and chest are back around by contact
- Contact the ball away from you and out in front of you
Under these criteria, a flat shot and a topspin shot are not fundamentally different. On a flat shot, merely load the racket behind the ball, roughly at the same level as the ball, rotate, and let racket flick straight through it, instead of loading it below the ball and allowing it to flick upward.
Topspin necessitates that the racket face is moving up significantly through contact. Now, this doesn’t necessarily mean that your arm must also be moving drastically up, but the racket face must be.
First, a refresher on the physics of topspin contact. From The Fault Tolerant Forehand:
In order to hit a topspin shot, the player’s racket must exert an upward force on the back of the ball at contact, causing it to rotate. In addition to this upward force, the player must also supply the large translational force necessary to drive the ball back over the net with speed. This is accomplished by contacting the ball while the racket is moving both upwards and forwards through it, with the strings tilted slightly downward towards the court while doing so.
The upward friction between the ball and strings at impact will both drive the ball up, giving it enough height to clear the net, and also cause the ball to rotate in a topspin manner. The translational impact – the fact that the racket is also moving forward through contact – will impart the ball with significant velocity towards the other side of the court.The Fault Tolerant Forehand. “Understanding Topspin Contact.” Page 28.
The best way to get the racket flicking up through the ball as you swing is to load the racket slightly below the ball on all topspin shots. This will cause your arm to move up a little on every shot, and it’ll also cause the rotation about your wrist to be more vertical, increasing topspin.
To get more topspin than that, tilt your torso as you rotate. That’ll transpose the same relative swing into a more vertical swing with respect to the ball. That transposition of the same racket velocity is what allows you to hit a loopier shot, a shot for which more of the velocity you generate goes into topspin and less of the velocity you generate goes into driving the ball forward.
Here’s Rafael Nadal implementing this idea. The forehand strike you see in the image travels a full five feet over the net, before quickly spiraling down on the other side of the court. Let’s break down the key ingredients that create that beautiful result, one of which is the critical body tilt.
- Rafa is incredibly strong. No matter how good your technique is, you can’t hit as heavy as he does without strength.
- Rafa harnesses that strength by rotating his hips and chest into contact, utilizing his entire body to accelerate the racket to blinding speeds.
- Rafa tilts his torso down by about 30o such that more of this racket motion is transposed into the vertical plane. This, ultimately, is what transforms his blinding racket head speed into vicious spin.
Spin Exists on a Continuum
To close, I want to specify that “topspin shots” and “flat shots” are not a dichotomy, despite the fact that they’re so often presented as such. Instead, topspin exists on a continuum. There are spinnier shots and flatter shots. There are really spinny shots and really flat shots. But even on “flat” forehands or “flat” serves, most pros still elect to add at least a small amount of topspin to increase their margin for error.
That’s why I’m not teaching you how to hit a “flat forehand” or how to hit a “topspin forehand.” Rather, I’m simply teaching you what body orientation produces what result. The more spin you want, the more you have to tilt, and the more your racket needs to go up. Likewise, the flatter you want to hit, the more you need to level out, and the higher you need to load your racket.
Let’s take a look at the Queen of Clay for one final example of this principle.
Iga Swiatek loads her racket below the ball on both shoulder-height and knee height forehands, because she prefers to use topspin on all her shots. This decision comes down to player preference. Some players, like Nick Kyrgios, elect to smack high forehands almost completely flat, while others, like Iga, prefer to use a little topspin to get that extra margin for error.
But even though Iga is definitely a high spin player, she still only tilts her torso on lower balls. This torso tilt further increases the verticality of the swing, allowing her to get significant net clearance on a low ball, and this same tilt would clearly be inappropriate on a higher ball.
Ultimately, every player needs to intuit that their torso angle is their primary tool for altering their swing path. If you can only alter your swing with your arm, you’re going to be very limited in the range of shots you can successfully execute. Learn to alter the torso, and you’ll unlock a new world of forehand flexibility.
June 5, 2021
Thank you for the nice article and kind words. You’ve given me much more credit than I’ve deserved.