The “C” swing path on the forehand does exist, but I’m not a fan of its current mainstream classification as a first principle of the forehand, because it isn’t one. The shape and manner of the “C”’s execution changes a lot from shot to shot, because, similar to other derivative aspects of the swing (like the volitional movement of the arm or the follow-through) the specific “C” motion used on a particular shot is dynamically chosen, often subconsciously.
The “C” shape itself is not a biomechanical underpinning of the swing. It’s just created by coincidence in order to serve other, more fundamental goals. On the forehand, the two primary goals are to create up-and-through contact, and to do so by accelerating the racket by rotating the strong muscles of the hips and abdomen. The resulting various “C” like swings are merely a way to naturally accomplish those goals.
I see two issues in coach-player communication, which are common across tennis coaching, that manifest when the “C” swing is coached.
It’s Actually a Warped “C”
The first issue is that a player interprets what the coach tells them to do as being part of the “backswing,” even though it isn’t. With the “C,” some players do not realize that much of the downward part of the C actually occurs during the forward swing. This part is quite abbreviated in its depth; while it happens, the racket is primarily moving forward, not down.
This misunderstanding almost can’t even be called a misunderstanding, because the student is trying their best to create a “C” like they’ve been told. As they try to create the “C,” they’re unaware that the actual swing isn’t exactly a “C,” but rather a modified, warped version of that shape. It’s closer to something like the Nike whoosh, not symmetrical in top and bottom at all.
It’s Not Just a Hand Motion
Second, a player doesn’t always realize which muscles drive a motion their coach is telling them to emulate. With the “C,” this misunderstanding results in a player moving their hand around directly, primarily using the arm and chest, rather than moving it using the muscles of the core.
While the “C” motion does exist (roughly speaking), the “C” is not a motion created primarily by moving the hand around with the arm and chest muscles.
- The initial backward motion of the hand is entirely due to the core rotating away from the target.
- The remaining backward motion is elbow extension; it is not due to pulling the hand back behind the chest.
- The hand is then lowered, and this lowering involves the legs and torso, not merely bringing the arm closer to the body.
- Any remaining downward action takes place during the forward swing, and it’s mostly a passive effect of not resisting gravity. The hand isn’t actively pushed down by the player.
The Underhand Pendulum Swing
Beginners, especially young children, who are taught the “C” as a first principle, often start driving the ball with the wrong force generator. They pull the racket back high, then use gravity to let it fall down and forward like a pendulum. It hits the bottom of the pendulum motion, then bounces back up and hits through the ball.
These beginners initially coached on the “C” end up with a purely arm driven swing, during which they remain sideways, never unwinding their hips and abs. This robs them of the most efficient, effective engine available to them on the forehand, and develops in them a proprioceptive misunderstanding of how racket head speed is generated.
This gravity pendulum effect is a very small effect when it comes to generating force in the modern forehand. Nearly all the force is generated from forward leg drive and hip and abdominal rotation, not the gravitational pendulum.
Therefore, despite the fact that a modified “C” swing path does exist, coaching to that effect doesn’t appear to drive the typical beginner’s natural sense of proprioception to the right place. When they try to orient their body to “perform a C,” they end up accidentally teaching themselves that the forehand is a gravity driven pendulum, rather than a forward twisting motion.
The “C” Can Prevent Jerkiness
Before we move onto what I believe to be a superior way to understand the forehand, I’d like to give the “C” shape some credit. The most comfortable way to allow the racket to flick out to the ball, and then up and through it, is in fact to allow gravity to pull the hand down slightly as it begins to move. The “C” definitely implies that such a downward motion exists.
Without allowing the racket to initially travel down during the forward swing, the motion is far less comfortable, especially on the elbow. If you fully stop the hand after preparation, and then you jerk it only up and forwards from there, actively preventing gravity from pulling it down, the core’s rotational energy won’t be transferred to the arm/racket/hand system as losslessly. The hand absorbs the core’s rotational energy most efficiently when allowed to follow its natural shallow down-then-back-up pattern.
The Two Part Forehand Paradigm
I like to think of the forehand swing as two steps, rather than one:
- Forward swing
The preparation phase ends with the player preparing their hand for the forward explosion. This typically involves lowering it to a height from which it can easily flick up and through the ball. As the “C” correctly asserts, the most comfortable way to fling your hand forward typically involves the hand being allowed to move down first. As a player practices, they’ll gain an (often subconsciously) understanding of to what degree that downward motion happens on each shot, and they’ll learn to lower their hand appropriately during preparation to account for that.
After preparation and before the forward swing exists a waiting period. The waiting period is critical to success in the absence of rhythm. To be able to consistently time balls of various speeds and spins effectively, forehand preparation should be completed as early as possible once the oncoming ball’s trajectory is discovered. This early preparation allows for maximum improvisational freedom with respect to the forward swing itself, because the body has a large window during which it’s fully ready to swing, and the swing can be initiated at any point in that window.
This waiting period can be implemented as a completely static position, but it’s more effective to slow down or speed up the lowering the hand phase in order to time the incoming ball. When preparation is done very early, the hand should be very slowly lowered into position, and similarly, when preparation is done very late, the hand should be quickly thrown down into position and then immediately yanked forward by the core’s rotation from there.
Instead of Thinking About a “C”…
For the top half of the C, just think about regular forehand preparation. Turn away from the ball, and once you do, lower your hand into position. Lower your hand quickly, if you’re pressed for time, or slowly, while you wait for the ball, if you’ve prepared very early.
For the bottom half of the C, don’t think about the racket path at all. Visualize the kind of contact you want to make with the ball, relax your hand and arm, and then drive the hand/arm/racket system forward by twisting your core.
Find an arm path that’s comfortable for you, for which you can feel the efficient transfer of force from your explosive turn into your racket. Allowing your hand to dip somewhat and then bounce back up will feel most fluid, but you’ll need to find the exact manner in which you do so via experimentation. If you force your hand down and back up, the swing won’t work.
Try to figure out what your hand wants to do as you drive it forward with your hips and abs. If something hurts, don’t do it, and if feels good, keep doing it.
The “C” shape is merely a rough visual explanation of what the hand happens to do during the swing, rather than something the hand tries to do. As the hips and abs drive the hand forward, the hand is allowed to fall down a bit before flying back up through contact.
The primary goal of the forward swing is not to create that lower “C” path. The goal is to create explosive up-and-through contact with the ball. Allowing the racket to fall and then spring back up is often the best way to transfer the force from the core’s rotation into that up-and-through contact, but, again, that down-then-back-up motion occurs in service to the rest of the stroke, rather than constitutes its engine itself.
October 2, 2021
Many people no doubt (including me) get confused when they see Delpo, Fernandez (older folks) and Zverev to name a few, as well as many WTA (most) take what appears to be a arm independent lifting action to a high early preparation and continuously swing back down and up into contact (as per an earlier post from Cyril). The way Federer does his prep is not common, especially among female players.
The Federer timing seems very challenging. Keen to hear your thoughts 💭
October 2, 2021
Yeah so let’s clarify this a little.
As I mentioned in the book, you can perform your forehand unit turn with the racket anywhere from chest to head height. If you do it at head height, you will be volitionally lifting your arms up to head height during the turn.
As for arm-volitional backswing – yes, Juan Martin has a very pronounced loop in the back, and some of that is arm volitional, although a good amount of it is still just elbow extension and lowering the hand into place. Either way, you’ll still see that he’s synced up that volitional arm movement with his hip and ab drive. At the moment the loop comes to the bottom and the forward drive begins, his hips and abs are unwinding to drive the racket forward.
Juan Martin uses his extra power to hit winners from farther behind the baseline than others, but you’ll notice that when he is under time pressure, like on a serve return, even Juan Martin uses a loop which is very abbreviated, despite looping more on other shots. And that’s really the whole point: the loop isn’t a first principle, it’s a derivative motion that can enhance certain swings under certain conditions, but it’s never necessary.
Many players have some degree of volitional arm backswing, and if it creeps in naturally and doesn’t effect timing, it isn’t a problem, but, again, it isn’t a first principle, and I don’t want students doing it because they don’t understand how to power the swing with their core.
Federer’s swing actually has less moving parts than most, because all of his backswing is turning his chest away, rather than turning is chest away and pulling his arm back. That’s why he can take the ball so early, so consistently – the swing is anatomically simple.
There’s actually another player who has taken the Federer core rotation style to the next level – Andrey Rublev. Players like Zverev or Juan Martin must abbreviate their loops if they want to stand in and crush winners at the baseline, otherwise the biomechanics of the swing simply won’t allow them to time the ball cleanly enough.
Like Federer, Andrey also only moves his arm back by rotating his entire upper body, and the result is that he only needs a quick, compact forward explosion (the way I describe the optimal forehand in the book) in order to execute his swing.
Obviously, the extreme (Federer, Rublev) version isn’t the only way to teach a forehand, but again, that’s how I do it. If some volitional arm swing evolves naturally, that’s not a problem if it doesn’t effect timing too much, but I really believe that the Rublev/Federer style is both simpler and better. It’s also why there’s so much discussion of success in the absence of rhythm and waiting in the book. Both Federer and Rublev are willing to almost completely pause in order to time an incoming ball – mentally separating the forward explosion from preparation, a necessity for consistent offense.
As for the WTA thing… let’s discuss this again after Leylah gets to #1 in the world 😉
October 3, 2021
Thanks for the clarification Johnny. The challenging part is learning to power the swing with the core and letting go of the notion that the arm is a power source. Any tips on how to shadow swing to feel the correct sequencing? I’ll be in touch via email.
October 3, 2021
Same thing I commented here: swing something heavy, like a medicine ball or a metal ball hopper. Even just take a 5-10 lb plate or dumbbell and swing it like a forehand. That’ll force you to engage the proper muscles, because it will be physically impossible to accelerate the heavy object using an army swing.
October 3, 2021
Here’s some Rublev “analysis” 🤔
October 3, 2021
Right, so both of these are classic examples of what I’d consider coaching noise. It’s not “inaccurate,” per se, but it’s also probably not very helpful. There’s a small chance that something in one of those two videos would make the stroke click for someone, but I doubt that’s likely. It’s not really an analysis from first principles, but rather just a reading off of various joint angles and such.
October 3, 2021
Exactly, it’s descriptive “observation” vs a biomechanical explanation of cause and affect …. which is what most YouTube videos are.
October 4, 2021
Just an FYI re the importance of shoulder biomechanics and health in tennis strokes. Shoulder problems can seriously hinder player development and performance if not managed properly and coaches need to help assess players become more aware including warm up routines and cool downs. Even with rec players, especially adults who are sitting all day and those over 50.
THIS IS AN EXCERPT FROM TENNIS ANATOMY BY PAUL ROETERT & MARK S. KOVACS
Importance of shoulder movement to tennis:
“Groundstrokes require predominantly horizontal actions at the shoulder, using a combination of abduction and external rotation for the forehand backswing and backhand follow-through and a combination of abduction and internal rotation for the forehand forward swing and backhand backswing.”
Many players struggling with improving technique may be facing not a learning challenge but a physical challenge. They’re unable to execute optimum technique because of shoulder limitations. Tennis players are especially vulnerable.
Many if not most coaches would likely not be fully aware, if at all about these key movements in coaching strokes. Maybe you can do an article on this around building awareness.
If I’m not mistaken, based on info in the article just rotating the shoulders in the preparation phase won’t externally rotate the shoulder, the question is, would have to be done volitionally at some point. Just like throwing and serving, external shoulder rotation doesn’t just happen on its own, which explains why so many people struggle with having a good throwing action.
And that likely leads to a discussion at some point on the WTA forehand. ☺️
October 8, 2021
With respect to the external shoulder rotation – yeah we’ve had a similar discussion before. I don’t coach volitional external shoulder rotation in the backswing. I prefer players to instead turn their upper body, place their racket back, and then allow external shoulder rotation to happen as a natural lagging of the hand-arm-racket apparatus. Inertia keeps the racket at rest while the body yanks it forward, leading to some external shoulder rotation, and then as you whip it through the resulting internal shoulder rotation is also mostly non-volitional. It feels a lot more like “guiding” the force into shoulder rotation than forcibly rotating your shoulder.
As for the health of the shoulder, yeah that’s tough. It’s under a lot of force all the time, and even small technical issues are magnified when trying to be explosive. Also, the longer you have good technique, the longer the shoulder has had to naturally adapt to that technique, so starting a new sport with an injured or weak shoulder is difficult. Maybe I’ll address it at more length in the future. For right now, most of my work is aimed at relatively healthy individuals who have simply never been taught how to properly power their swings, in order to be able to hit hard while retaining fault tolerance.
January 29, 2022
In the excerpt from Tennis Anatomy, “…a combination of abduction and internal rotation for the forehand forward swing and backhand backswing.”, it should read, “… a combination of ADduction and internal rotation for the forehand forward swing and backhand backswing.”
January 30, 2022
Ignore my post about adduction.