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.
March 18, 2021
I’d be interested in your opinion regarding where the player, utilizing topspin, should focus on making contact on the ball itself. Players have been told to brush up the backside of the ball–I would venture that makes as little sense as simply throwing a dart towards a dart board, versus focusing on the “bullseye”. I could brush up on the ball and easily launch it over the back fence..so..at which spot on the ball itself would you advise your student to aim at with the face of their racket….Lastly–in a typical match between accomplished players (4.5–5.5), what do you suppose the percentage of balls hit long versus into the net, would be?? My charted observations are that a quite a bit higher % of shots go long..than into the net.
Thanks for your responses!
May 21, 2021
I’ll address both.
1. I’m not sure that we have the athletic precision to try to hit the ball on a precisely specific place on the racket, but certainly roughly thinking about hitting the sweet spot is a good idea. (Quick note – the optimal spot for a serve, which is hit while the ball is stationary, is actually the “dead spot,” a few inches higher than the sweet spot.) In general, I do think that visualizing contact before you make it is a good idea.
2. From a game theory perspective, if a player is trying to hit a winner, the same number of balls should be hit into the net and long. On rally balls, on the other hand, more misses should be long. Let me explain.
On winners, if you’re hitting more than 50% long, you can probably improve your success rate by moving your target lower over the net, and if you’re hitting more than 50% into the net, you should move your target higher. That’s pretty simple.
On rally balls, however, the math is different. First of all, just from a technical perspective, lots of net misses are simply caused by bad technique, bad contact, lazy footwork, etc, and once you get up to the 4.5 level and higher, those things are far less common.
That said, even once you *have* mastered correct technique, net misses are uncommon because *near* net-misses also suck. They become short balls which immediately allow your opponent to take offense. Near long-misses, on the other hand, are actually great – you’re the one who ends up on offense. This is why high level players aim deep, and tend to miss long more than they miss short.
March 19, 2021
Great, I strugle with wrist pain playing tennis for a long time. I was thinking it was about my technique, but this is the first time that I have found something of real value that I can understand.
Now, the problem is going to be trying to apply that to myself and change a technique that is natural for me right now. Thanks for the article.
May 21, 2021
Awesome to hear. I really hope it improves. Striking an extremely effective forehand completely painlessly IS possible.
Good luck 🙂
July 20, 2021
Does the actual wrist angle change through the rackets rotation? I suspect that a lot of people are messed up and confused about being told by many coaches to keep the wrist locked at 90degrees throughout the swing and there are “training devices” sold that force the wrist back 😮
Appreciate your thoughts and insights.
July 21, 2021
Good question. The 90 degree training devices are definitely useful to get you about 80% of the way to a very technically sound forehand, because they force you to use the bigger muscles in your body (not the forearm and wrist muscles) to manipulate the racket.
But, yes, the wrist of most top players does unwind between 15-45 degrees throughout their motion.
On most of Roger Federer’s forehands, for example, peak wrist lag is around 90 degrees, and contact is around 135 degrees. This is NOT volitional. He’s merely relaxing his arm and accelerating the racket with his hips and abdominal muscles by twisting his body.
This extra level of relaxation is what adds the extra spin and power that transforms a high quality, solid, match forehand into an elite weapon.
The 90 degree insight is most helpful for touch shots (volleys, slices, drop shots, etc), and for adult beginners trying to get a feel for how to manipulate the racket through space and have it actually work.
July 26, 2021
Very helpful followup, much appreciated. I initially thought that those wrist training devices were detrimental, however, your answer has made me rethink this, “it gets you 80% of the way there.”
Re Federer’s wrist lag, wouldn’t 135degrees be hyper extension? I’ve heard he has incredibly flexible wrist extension, and that would explain the blistering speed and rpms, Nadal also appears to get the wrist into hyper extension. In general, I’ve noticed that people with good wrist extension often develop good forehand ball shape, speed, and spin velocity. Does this correlate to the “hinge” aspect of the forehand? Or am I misinterpreting the hinge function of the wrist?
July 27, 2021
The looser the wrist, the less energy from the trunk is lost during the swing. This means that loose wrists transfer close to 100% of the strong muscles’ energy into the racket. The consequence of the looseness is that there’s a large degree of writs lay back as the racket is pulled forward.
Most players’ initial problem is that they don’t understand how to accelerate the racket with their body. Instead, they accelerate it with their arm, forearm, hand, etc. The 90-degree-wrist-locker prevents you from doing this and forces you to accelerate the racket with your body instead. That’s why it gets you 80% of the way there. It forces you into the fundamental where you use the proper large movers to drive the racket.
Once you’ve already mentally cemented using your legs and abs to drive the racket, you can get an extra whip from loosening up the wrist and allowing a natural lag and snap action, but that’s non volitional and attempting to do it consciously is why so many players have such awful strokes.
October 2, 2021
Thanks for the reply Johnny, sorry I missed this earlier. Are there a few mental images and specific exercises one could do to break the habit of using the arm/hand to accelerate the racket and feel the torso/legs doing the work? Trying to do it live ball is next to impossible, even using drop fed balls can “trick da brain 🧠”
October 2, 2021
By far the best exercise for feeling the torso/leg drive if you can’t seem to get it is swinging something far heavier than the racket. A medicine ball on a string, for example, or a ball hopper (since you’ll probably have one lying around whatever tennis club you use).
When you swing something far heavier than the racket in a forehand-like pattern, it forces you to use your stronger muscles for acceleration, because your brain will quickly realize it won’t be able to get things thing going with just your arm.
When you put the heavy thing down and go back to the racket, usually the swing will, all of the sudden, feel great, because all of those big muscles have been primed by the weighted swings.
October 3, 2021
This is a very helpful and interesting thread in that you can synthesize a lot of
the content from the exchanges to cement ideas and actions from the book. I think it’s so vital to understand the current stroke mechanics software in the players mind that’s driving the hardware, their body segments with respect to how they move the racket in space and time. However, if a body segment won’t cooperate, ie. tight wrist, then the mechanics get compromised. Here’s something very interesting from one of your earlier replies:
”The looser the wrist, the less energy from the trunk is lost during the swing. This means that loose wrists transfer close to 100% of the strong muscles’ energy into the racket. The consequence of the looseness is that there’s a large degree of writs lay back as the racket is pulled forward.
Most players’ initial problem is that they don’t understand how to accelerate the racket with their body. Instead, they accelerate it with their arm, forearm, hand, etc”
The analogy I’m thinking of here is that a tight wrist is like a kink at the end of a garden hose preventing the full flow of water to the nozzle (hand) from the tap (the big body part movers). It literally “chokes off” the swing.
The idea of using something heavy to learn to use core power is not only a good learning method but also a good strengthening one. There’s some good video of Djokovic using a medicine ball to work on core strengthening. For the forehand, the medicine ball throws with two hands can’t create the proper arm feel from my experience. I like your reference to using a ball hopper or heavy ball on a string. I’ve seen a tennis tube also used (Justine Henin academy) however I don’t think it was explained properly. I’ve also seen a video where the coach said the feeling “is like throwing a bucket of water outwards”
Here are some swing ideas from Edgar Giffenig who has an international high performance coaching background:
October 8, 2021
I like that analogy “it’s like throwing a bucket of water outwards.” I think that’s an accurate description of how it feels.
It’s actually possible to have a pretty good forehand with a tight wrist. It can be fault tolerant and effective, it just can’t generate the whipping spin or quite the same power as a loose-wristed one. Just set the forearm and racket at 90 degrees, still accelerate with the stable muscles of the core instead of the weak muscles of the arm, and you can hit a pretty decent shot without a lot of wrist action.
It’s a lot more like deflecting the ball towards your target than fully flinging your racket through the hitting zone, but it totally works even up to, say, 4.5 adult singles, and definitely is good enough for adult 4.0.
October 8, 2021
As for the specific videos, a few comments:
1. You can sometimes identify a good coach just by their shadow swing. This guy gets it.
2. GREAT point about waiting to accelerate. We talk a lot about waiting in The Fault Tolerant Forehand. The forward swing is a quick, sudden explosion through contact. The “backswing” isn’t actually part of the acceleration phase.
3. I like his exercises for weighted swings. Agree with that sentiment a lot. You can tell both girls are being forced to recruit their core as they swing.
4. I do a similar drill called 20/40/60/80/100 (% of max speed) where I ask players to use a nice relaxed swing at each speed, and simply dial up or down how hard they explode into the ball. The arm and wrist do the same relaxed flick no matter what, but the core changes its intensity.
October 9, 2021
Thanks for the reply/feedback on the videos and the tight wrist.
The 20/40/60/80/100/drill is very effective at helping players learn using the core to accelerate the arm/racket system. It’s counterintuitive because logically it makes more sense to increase arm intensity to accelerate the racket vs using the bigger muscles of the body. So developing training exercises that create awareness and kinesthetic feel are needed to make it a habit and ingrain it as a stroking blueprint to achieve competency.