One of the beautiful things about learning a fundamentally sound, fault tolerant forehand, is that the speed of said forehand can be easily dialed up or down, without fundamentally changing the swing. The grip should be loose, and the shoulder allowed to freely rotate at all speeds, and then, in order to swing harder, the player simply drives forward with their legs harder, and twists with their hips and abs harder.
That’s all there is to it.
I like to put my students through a drill I call 20/40/60/80/100. It’s a drop feed forehand drill where we start at 20% of their maximum speed, and once they make 5 in a row, we move onto the next speed. The goal is to explore their percentages at each speed, in order to figure out their proper match speed.
Slowing down your swing allows you to be less precise and still get the ball in. The slower you hit, the more fault tolerant the stroke. At 100% speed, unless your string angle is perfect, you’ll probably hit the net, or hit it long, whereas at 20% speed, even if your string angle is off by 20-30o, you might still hit the ball in.
It’s the same thing with being early/late. At 100% speed, if you’re late, you’re always sailing the ball wide, whereas at 40%, you can be pretty late and still have it sneak inside the court.
For most players, their match speed is somewhere between 50-80% of their maximum speed. It can also be different from shot to shot; some students, especially kids, might be able to play their forehand at 60%, but really need to play their backhand at closer to 40%.
Do NOT slow down your swing by tightening up. That’s the opposite of what we’re trying to achieve – you’ll go backwards in your development as a player. While you will still get the same fault tolerance benefit from a tight slow swing that you get from a loose slow swing, you’ll be practicing the wrong mechanics as you play matches, so your long term stroke development will suffer.
Instead, simply dial down the explosiveness of your hip and trunk rotation.
Height Over the Net
I teach my students to aim 3-4.5 feet (1-1.5m) over the net on forehands struck from behind the baseline, and allow them to go a little lower over the net on the two-handed backhand (it’s a flatter shot in general). This allows them to miss low and still get the ball over, a necessity for succeeding in matches.
Your desired string angle does change depending on how high over the net you’re aiming, and how hard you’re hitting. This is something most players do subconsciously – it just feels like “aiming” high or low over the net.
It can be a little difficult to change your speed in real time, without warming up again, because you might need a different string angle, and it could take a few strokes for your brain to adjust.
The harder you’re hitting, and the more topspin you’re using, the more closed your strings should be, and vice versa.
So What’s My Match Speed?
In singles tennis, offensive and neutral shots that you make less than 80% of the time are basically useless. Your match speed is the speed at which you can execute your shots at a rate of 4/5 or higher. (Defensive shots with a <80% success rate can be attempted, because you have so much less equity in the point when you’re attempting them.)
When I teach this, I actually verbalize it as 9/10, because people tend to believe that their percentages are higher than actually are.
For most players, their appropriate match speed is around 60%. For a very technically sound stroke, it might be closer to 80%. Your attempted height over the net and your target on the other side of the court also need to be adjusted to meet this 80% threshold: aim high enough over the net and far enough inside the line that you don’t miss more than 1/5 shots.
What if That’s Not Aggressive Enough to Win?
Then you’re probably going to lose, plain and simple. You have two options:
1. Play More Aggressively
Let’s say your 80% shots are getting you blasted off the court. You can dial it up past your usual match speed, accepting more misses, in order to keep the points neutral.
Here’s the problem, though. If you dial it up to a speed where you’re only making ¾, or worse, 2/3 forehands in the court, then neutral really isn’t good enough. If the player who was blasting you off the court just makes 5 balls in a row, they’re practically guaranteed to win the point.
This hyper-aggressive style is often referred to as “red-lining” by tennis commentators. Many have attempted this against players like Djokovic and Nadal, whose defense is so good that it feels like the only way to win is to go for shots you really shouldn’t. Occasionally, it works. If you’re feeling really, really on that day, you just might be able to execute at 5-10% higher level than you typically can.
Usually, though, you just miss your way into a quick blowout loss.
2. Hope Their Level Drops
This strategy is under-rated. Every tennis player is human, and every tennis player goes through ebbs and flows over the course of a match. Even if you go out there, play at your usual match speed, and simply never give up until the end, you might find yourself in a tight match at some point.
But there’s more to your opponent’s level than just their own game. Have you exhausted all of your strategic options? Do you have drop shots in your arsenal? Slices? Moon balls? Serve and volley? Moon ball and volley?
Before you start red-lining and praying your hyper-aggressive shots catch the line, make sure to attempt a few different strategies that you can actually execute at a reasonable percentage. At the recreational level especially, many players who can blast you off the court if you’re using one strategy have significant weaknesses against others.
Experiment, and you might not have to red-line at all.
Match Speed Accuracy Wins and Loses Matches
If I took two players whose match speeds should be 60%, and forced one player to play at 80% instead, the match wouldn’t be close. The player at 80% would miss so many shots that the small advantage they gained from hitting harder would be completely overpowered by the increased miss rate.
Here’s the dangerous thing though. Let’s say the 80% player didn’t know his match speed was supposed to be 60%. He might say things like:
“I just had an off day.”
“I should have won.”
“I just made so many errors.”
And, in a way, these are true. Except that the fix is most certainly not just to hope things go better next time. The fix is to find the appropriate speed at which to play. The speed at which you can slightly mistime the ball, or miss your string angle by a few degrees, and have the ball still go in.
No one’s perfect. If you only win when you play perfectly, guess what: You lose.