Here’s a simple way to understand the basics of balance in tennis. Shots can be played in:
- Positive balance – your weight ends in front of where it started.
- Neutral balance – your weight ends at the same depth it started.
- Negative balance – your weight ends behind where it started.
In a perfect world, we’d play every shot in positive balance. Positive balance lets us recruit the most leg muscle while powering our shot, by driving our weight into the court. Positive balance is the lynch pin of offensive tennis, and even in neutral tennis, we want to utilize it as much as we can. Because our weight is moving forward when playing a shot with positive balance, we must start early and contact the ball well in front of us.
Neutral and negative balance are compromises we make when receiving high quality shots. Many shots are hit too hard, or too far away from us, to consistently transfer our weight forward into our reply, so we don’t try, in order not to miss. We’re also often forced to hit at a contact point closer to the body than we’d like, which can make the extra drive from positive balance very difficult to synchronize with the rest of the swing.
Elite players use all three of positive, negative, and neutral balance, because different situations on court require different balance. In fact, the examples of Roger Federer you’ll see throughout this article are all from one, single point.
We’re using Roger Federer as our model for this article because he might be the best tennis player in history at recruiting positive balance to his advantage (though Carlos Alcaraz is now giving him a run for his money). Case in point: the image below. Roger is attacking a ball which is well past the service line utilizing positive balance. Many players simply don’t possess the skill to do this, and much wait for a far shorter ball before attacking.
Notice how the loading stage is almost a strictly single-foot stance – around 80% of his weight is on his right, loading foot, with only 20% on the left. After the preparation phase, the hitting leg explosively straightens to initiate the forward swing, rotating the hips towards the target, and driving the body forward into the court.
Positive balance allows offensive shots to be played with control. Because of Roger’s weight shift, he’s able to use a conservative upper body swing, while still producing a hard, penetrating shot. Were he to play this shot in neutral balance instead, he’d need a much more aggressive upper body twist to generate the same level of velocity.
High level opponents will do everything they can to prevent you from playing in positive balance. One of the common ways they do this is by hitting the ball away from you. Positive balance requires loading the back leg and pressing into the court. If you’re sprinting to the side as you prepare, this is going to be quite difficult.
Neutral balance is the best choice when playing shots on the move. Here, we see Roger moving right for a forehand, and playing the shot with neutral balance. The loading phase looks almost identical to the shot played with positive balance, and just like with positive balance, the back leg extends to initiate the forward swing, unwinding the hips.
The critical difference in neutral balance is that the leg does not drive the body forward. Instead, on this shot, Roger’s weight ends in the same place it started.
Neutral balance is a compromise. We’d love to drive our weight forward on every shot, but sometimes we just don’t have the time. If you try to play a shot in positive balance, when it should really be played in neutral balance, you’re likely to make an error. Your decision really comes down to the ball you’re seeing in front of you, and your experience in similar situations. Here, given the speed of the incoming ball, and Roger’s movement to the right, he elects for neutral balance, and executes his reply with ease.
The beautiful thing about modern racket technology is that strong, athletic tennis players can rip the ball without missing from any position on the court. In order to do this, you need to master negative balance.
Sometimes, the ball gets on top of you. The better your opponent, the more likely this is to happen. When it happens, negative balance allows you to still drive off the ground to power your swing.
In positive balance, we need a contact point well out in front in order to use ground force, because we’re driving forward. When we don’t have that contact point, the correct compromise isn’t to forgo leg drive – your legs contain the strongest muscles in your body; you want to use them. The correct compromise is to allow your body to fall backwards, such that you can still explode and twist into your shot.
Two critical insights underpin negative balance. First: it’s okay. Actually, in many situations, it’s optimal to fall away from the ball. The correct orientation towards ball striking is goal oriented. You see the ball in front of you, and you want to strike it a certain way. If spinning around and flying backwards is the best way to do that, go for it.
Second: the back foot still goes forward. Look at the image of Roger above. Even though the body, as a whole, has fallen backwards, his load foot has flown forwards. If both feet go backwards, you aren’t going to be able to hit the ball. By spinning backwards, your hitting side travels forwards, even as your weight travels backwards. Rotation is the engine that powers a shot played in negative balance.
Balance is a Continuum
We break balance down into positive, neutral, and negative, to make it easy to communicate, but in truth, balance is a continuum – there aren’t only three, distinct options. You can drive forward in many different ways when playing in positive balance, and you can fall backward to various different degrees when playing in negative balance. Similarly, exact neutral balance is actually quite rare; almost every shot will have either a small positive or small negative component to it.
Since you can’t practice everything, when you practice, I recommend practicing positive, neutral, and negative balance. They are effective checkpoints that ensure you will become comfortable with all different kinds of balance you’ll need. When you’re actually on court, you’ll play shots across the entire balance spectrum.
Lean towards positive whenever you can. If you’re playing a neutral ball, try to get just a tiny drive forward from your back leg, and your shot quality will drastically improve. If you’re stuck in negative balance, again, the less negative it is, the more effective it’s going to be.
No matter which balance you use on a given shot, feel the ground through your foot, the same way you feel the ball on your strings. Become aware of your balance on court, so that your athletic brain can begin integrating it into your game. Strokes start from the ground. The more accurately you can interact with the ground, the better you’re going to be.