The image above is Frances Tiafoe’s follow-through after a serve return.
Looks terrible right?
The shot must have been a shank, or if it did hit the strings, must have produced some sort of weak floater that his opponent slapped away shortly thereafter.
Actually, no. This was a down-the-line return winner, and if that’s surprising to you, you need to change your conception of how ball-striking works in tennis. Once you do, your own ball-striking will drastically improve.
Intention Through Contact
The most important concept when it comes to ball-striking is how you’re trying to strike the ball.
Not how you want to swing.
Not where you want the ball to go.
How you’re going to strike it. You need to have an intention through contact, an interaction you’re trying to create between your racket and the ball.
This intention allows you to aim, and it allows you to produce velocity, all without missing. This isn’t to say the early part of the swing is irrelevant – it matters greatly, and you should definitely use it to accelerate the racket, but it is subordinate to the contact phase of the swing. Leg drive and trunk rotation are phenomenal, and they’re necessary for a world class stroke, but they must set up your final drive through contact. Early acceleration means nothing if it can’t later be directed into your ball-strike.
This intention is a heavily visual task. You’re not executing a habituated swing, you are sending the racket through what you’re looking at. This is why, when you’re practicing, you have to be careful about grinding the same shot 10, 20, 50, 100 times in a row. As long as you have intention on each one, you’re fine, but once you start to auto-pilot, you’re no longer practicing a skill that’s going to help you in matches.
You can strike the ball in different ways. If you strike the back of the ball, it’ll go straight. Strike slightly off to the right, and the ball will fly left. Strike slightly off to the left, and the ball will fly right. Aiming is about striking. If I want to hit the ball left, I’m visualizing the strike I want to create on the right side of the ball as I stare at it while producing my swing.
So, so, often, rec players shank their first offensive shot of the rally. A primary reason for this – they don’t aim properly. They get a short ball and they think “ooh, I’m going to go down-the-line.” This thought shifts their focus off of their tracking and onto their target, resulting in a miss.
The proper orientation is I’m going to strike the ball like this (and that’s going to produce my down-the-line approach shot). Now, the player’s focus is still on tracking and striking the ball, and they’ll succeed.
Intention through contact also teaches you to recruit the final links in your kinetic chain. On the forehand, the final driving force is the chest driving the racket away from the body, kind of similar to a bench press. Many, many players are missing this link.
They have great leg drive, and a great twist. They might even have a nice strong core, and a nice loose wrist, and yet still, for some reason, velocity is lacking. The missing link is this final drive – their final intention through contact.
Strike through the ball, back-to-front, at the moment of contact. This will cue you to engage your hitting side chest muscles, giving you significant extra pop.
Partial Kinetic Chain Shots
The strike is the most important part of the tennis shot. Not the preparation. not the twist forward. And certainly not the follow-through.
Mastery of the ball-strike itself is what will cause you to succeed out of novel situations. Sometimes, you won’t have time for the rest of the kinetic chain. A serve return is a great example of this. You can routinely hit return winners using a very short swing, a swing which is really just the ball-strike, and nothing more.
When striking is your top priority, these returns come naturally. In contrast, if your focus is in the wrong place – on turning sideways, or on your follow-through, or on some other non-essential part of the motion – it’ll be very difficult for you to return fast serves effectively.
This brings us back to Frances Tiafoe’s return winner. Why doesn’t he finish over his shoulder? Because the shot didn’t demand it. He wasn’t thinking about his follow-through at all.
- Tracked the ball as his opponent served it.
- Knew exactly where it was, and how it was moving, as it came up off the ground.
- Struck through it towards his down-the-line target.
And that’s all he did. The rest was just tangential.
So why does his follow-through look weird?
Who knows, really? Maybe his feet weren’t quite where he wanted them. Maybe his racket preparation was slightly off. Perhaps the ball just kicked out wider than he was expecting, and he didn’t have time to get over there. In the end, none of that mattered.
He produced a clean, accurate strike, and connected with the ball on the dead center of his string bed. Instead of trying to replicate some sort of memorized, habituated swing path or follow-through, he:
- saw the ball,
- imagined his strike,
- and then executed.
The result was a break of serve.
February 5, 2023
As a tennis mental coach, the concept of what to focus on during the point is something I’ve spent many hours researching and practicing myself. For some players I’ve worked with (including an ATP top 100 player), having a conscious target in the mind’s eye works very well and is also something golf mental coaches often advise. However, it’s never worked well for me as I feel it pulls me out of the present moment. Focusing on the ball strike (rather than simply watching the ball) is something I haven’t read about or tried a great deal. But, like nearly all your posts, it makes sense! Tried it yesterday in a hitting session and really enjoyed it. Have you had success with players making the ball strike their main focus for a match?
February 9, 2023
I’ve had success both with focus on a target, and with focus on the ball strike. In my more recreational adult classes, sometimes I do a drill where they have to rally cross-court and attempt to knock down a 4 ball pyramid that’s in the middle of their cross-court target. All of the sudden, their miss-rate decreases significantly. This is because the focus on the target forces them to have intention through contact, so their striking improves.
Personally, I prefer ball strike (as a player, and as a coach), because it’s close to what you control, and helps keep your visual focus on the ball as you swing. That said, if target is working for a player, that’s perfect, I would never change that.
Ball-strike focus has been most helpful:
1. For players who have visual breakdowns on offense. I’m working with an 11 year old girl right now who routinely hits clean from the baseline, but will attack a short ball and just whiff it. She very clearly has a target in mind – even when she whiffs I can tell exactly where she was aiming – and ball strike focus brings her miss rate way down.
2. Players who, when pulled out wide to the forehand (or backhand, but more common on the forehand), can’t hit the ball back cross-court, because they shank it on the outside of the frame. They have the target in their mind, but they’re not getting their body far enough into the forehand corner to actually create the strike on the right side of the ball to hit it back cross-court. Visualizing and executing the strike itself usually solves this.
3. It allows players to improvise. Many of my students who are close to able to compete at tournament level in their age group, but aren’t quite there, are missing improvisation on imperfect preparation. Focusing on the ball strike and the interaction of their racket and the ball helps them improvise. They can swing fast out of a whole different array of balances, and successfully hit a whole different host of contact points with decent velocity.
All this said, you should certainly have a target in your mind where you want the ball to land – that helps you self correct when you hit or miss it – but if a student is having mishit issues, when it’s clear what their intention is, it’s almost certainly due to lack of focus on the strike itself.