Ah, "roll your racket over it" – the epitome of everything that’s wrong with tennis coaching, our Coaching Cues Hall of Shame champion, and probably the sentence that’s caused more forehand errors and wrist pain than any other ever spoken. Let’s begin with a story.
Last year, I worked with a 14 year old girl who had one of the most mismanaged forehand strokes I’ve ever seen. Her problem: “roll your wrist over/around the ball.”
Rarely, if ever, could she make two forehands in a row. Her wrist hurt every time she hit the ball, and she wasn’t enjoying the game.
There was a point during one of our lessons when I asked her, “Anything not making sense, any questions?”
She turned to me, scoffed, and asked, “Why do I suck?”
Multiple times during our lessons, she cried, and I don’t blame her. She was an obedient student who did exactly what her coach told her to do.
Think about it from her perspective – The coach clearly tells her how to strike the ball. When she hits it that way, she can’t make two shots in a row, and her wrist hurts every shot. The coach can’t be wrong, of course, so what’s the only variable left? Clearly there’s something wrong with her; the only logical conclusion is that she just inherently sucks. It’s an easy conclusion for a 14 year old adolescent to draw.
And unfortunately, a 14 year old girl has no practical way of identifying when her coach has unwittingly set her up for failure.
So for her sake, let’s set the record straight on the most egregious misconceptions fueling the most damaging cue in all of tennis coaching. The following is an explanation of how racket rotation and wrist movement actually function during a useful, fault tolerant forehand.
The Racket Rolling Over Is Part of the FOLLOW THROUGH
First, one of the reasons this mess got started in the first place: pros “roll their rackets over” when they hit forehands. This is part of the follow through of the stroke. Not the swing, the follow through. It’s difficult to see the difference in real time, but search up some high fps slow motion footage of top forehands, and you’ll see that the string angle hardly changes through the hitting zone; it only changes after contact. Often, this rotation is not even caused by forces the player generated themself, but rather by the force of the ball’s impact on the racket, which imparts a torque on it.
Racket Rotation in ALL Planes is PASSIVE
Another common misconception is that players actively engage the wrist musculature to whip the racket through the contact zone. This is also false. The wrist is passive at contact, merely acting as a hinge. The energy generated by the rest of the kenetic chain whips the racket around in the wrist; it’s not the tiny wrist muscles doing that work, and if you try to use them for that, you’ll injure yourself.
Rotation Through Contact Does NOT Alter the String Angle
Through contact, the string angle is maintained in order to maximize our margin for error. Maintenance of the string angle through contact is one of the primary drivers of fault tolerance in the forehand – the stroke’s ability to withstand small mistakes without failing. This pernicious myth explained in The Fault Tolerant Forehand:
If we allow the racket-face angle to change dramatically through contact, say, “rolling over” such that the strings are pointing towards the sky at the beginning, and towards the ground after contact, then our margin for error evaporates; if we hit the ball slightly too early, our overly open strings will send the ball flying out, and if we hit the ball a little too late, our closed strings will smother it down into the net. If we don’t time it perfectly, we’ll miss. By instead keeping the angle consistent through the contact zone, we allow ourselves to consistently strike the ball with the proper up-and-forward diagonal contact, even in cases when the swing is slightly mistimed.
“Rolling Over” Does Not Create Topspin
This one is a simple physics myth. Just because the ball is “rolling” doesn’t mean your racket also needs to roll to create that motion. Topspin is generated by a strong, upward frictional force between the strings and the back of the ball at contact. The free body diagram here is from the Understanding Topspin Contact section of The Fault Tolerant Forehand. This is how topspin is generated – by transient forces that act on the ball for a few milliseconds during contact – not by somehow mirroring the ball motion you want to cause with your racket.
This is true of all spin, by the way, not just topspin. You don’t slice a serve by “carving around the ball.” You don’t hit a backspin shot by “scooping under the ball”. That’s not how physics works. Spin is created by friction, by a transient force which lasts a few milliseconds and applies a torque to the ball, causing it to rotate. Our goal is to facilitate this contact in as fault tolerant a manner as possible, and that means not rotating our racket face unnecessarily through contact, dramatically shrinking the contact zone during which a quality shot will be produced.
Rotating The Racket Correctly (Not By Rolling it Over)
Racket rotation is an essential part of the modern forehand, and it is racket rotation that ends up generating a large majority of the spin during the strike, but not because getting the ball to rotate necessitates that the racket must rotate. The racket rotation during the shot dramatically increases the vertical racket head speed at contact, resulting in a larger upward force on the back of the ball. That vertical force is what generates the spin. The rotation we use to increase that vertical force does not close the strings through contact; that would ruin our consistency. Here’s one final passage from the The Fault Tolerant Forehand that sums up correct rotation and hand behavior during forehand contact. Internalize it, and you’ll never be tempted to "roll your racket over the ball" again.
From the section – Fault Tolerant, Effective Contact:
Correct rotation happens in a plane which does not effect the angle of the strings, and therefore it’s not a rotation which ruins our fault tolerance. Instead, the racket rotates about the axis of our forearm, and the forearm rotates with it, while the string angle with respect to the ground remains constant. And again, this rotation is passive, not active. The hand is relaxed, and the racket, hand, and forearm rotate as a result of forces generated during the rest of the swing, not because the player is actively trying to twist the racket around their forearm using their wrist muscles.
Our girl from the beginning did get somewhat of a happy ending. After two months of working together, her strokes were vastly improved, and, even more importantly, she ended each session pain free. Our average mini-tennis rally length increased from less than three shots at the beginning, to roughly twenty by the end. She was quite fond of mini tennis once she’d mastered her new, simpler, fault tolerant contact. Her feel for the ball in unique situations became much better, and, now that she was actually practicing the right stroke, her consistency improved as we drilled. Given where she could have ended up if we’d never connected, though the ride at times was rocky, I’d say things worked out pretty well in the end.