What is the ideal tennis forehand for senior players?
Most tennis players of any age will tell you that their forehand is their favorite shot. It just feels natural to hit the ball with the palm of your hand facing the direction in which you want the ball to travel.
In modern tennis, the best players hit their forehands with a lot of racket-head speed, and can impart considerable pace and topspin. In seniors, there are still players who can hit their forehand fairly hard, but most cannot develop anything like the same level of racket speed as the pros.
There are plenty of slow-motion videos online showing how the likes of Nadal hit the ball, but in this article I will consider the different requirements of older players and how these can influence the most appropriate grip and technique. So what are the best options when considering the ideal tennis forehand for senior players?
The way you grip the racket is absolutely fundamental to how you hit the ball. Before we discuss the grip in detail, we need to find a clear way to explain the differences between various grip types.
A racket handle has an octagonal (8-sided) profile, so the easiest way to describe a grip is to explain how these sides, or ‘bevels’ as they are known, sit in your hand. The bevels are illustrated and labelled in the diagram below.
The numbering of the bevels differs for right and left-handers, as they hit the ball with opposite sides of the racket. Most players will hold the racket reasonably firmly in their dominant hand, with the thumb and index-finger making a ‘V‘.
The index finger will be in a kind of ‘trigger’ position, with the rest of the fingers staying close together as they wrap around the handle.
Types of Forehand Grip
The best way to describe the differences between grips is to look at the position of the heel of the hand (the base of your hand, opposite your thumb) and the ‘index knuckle’, below your index finger. If you hold the racket in an orthodox way, these two parts of your hand will rest on the same bevel. They will sit on a different bevel depending on how much, if any, topspin the grip is designed to impart.
This is the traditional way of holding the racket which was widely used in the days of serve and volley tennis and primarily grass courts. The index knuckle and heel of the hand rest on bevel 2 for a continental grip. It is rare to see this grip used for a forehand today, but there may be some players in older age groups who continue to use it because it is what they were taught. The continental grip remains the most popular choice for the serve and both forehand and backhand volleys.
If you rotate the racket in your hand slightly, so that your heel and index knuckle are resting on bevel 3, this is an eastern grip. Pete Sampras played with this type of grip, and Roger Federer is close to doing the same, although he may in fact hold it somewhere between bevels 3 and 4.
The eastern grip was first popularised by the legendary Swede, Bjorn Borg. He was a pioneer, in that he would win matches, even in the era of wooden rackets, from the baseline using heavy topspin. Borg moved the racket steeply upwards when hitting his forehand, in order to create the desired spin.
These days, top-level players who choose to use the Eastern grip do so because they want to hit aggressive shots with only moderate topspin. It is effective for attacking forehands, and can easily and quickly be changed to the continental grip if you move to the net to volley.
On the negative side, the Eastern grip is not the easiest to use when attempting to deal with high balls, and makes it more difficult than some other grips to control the ball.
The semi-western grip is the one most commonly taught to young players today. The heel and index-knuckle rest on bevel 4, and the grip is sometimes alternatively taught by asking players to lay their racket on the ground and pick it up, which tends to place the hand in a similar position.
This grip is widely used throughout the professional and amateur game, and is the choice of Serena Williams and Novak Djokovic. The semi-western grip allows you to put substantial topspin on the ball, and enables you to hit powerful shots, although it is important to ensure that the ball is contacted in front of you. It can work well for higher-bouncing balls.
Its main disadvantages are that it is a little more difficult than with other grips to play low balls, and it requires a fairly significant grip change if you need to hit a volley.
The western grip is the most extreme grip in common use, with the index knuckle and heel being placed somewhere close to bevel 5. This means that the racket is basically 180 degrees from its position when you use the continental grip. The western grip is ideal for imparting spin, and is particularly useful on high-bouncing courts. Leading British player Kyle Edmund is a prominent exponent of this grip. Although the Western grip is ideal for imparting heavy topspin, it does make it difficult to deal with low balls, and a significant and potentially time-consuming grip alteration is required if you wish to hit a volley.
Stroke Mechanics of Different Forehand Grips for Seniors
Not only are there many different methods of gripping your racket, but there are several different ways of swinging the racket which will produce very different outcomes.
Traditionally, the swing was created by drawing the arm back with a modest body rotation, moving through along a relatively flat path. The key points were that the arm tended to move as a single unit, with little bend or wrist movement, and there would be little attempt to impart spin. This ‘classical’ technique would often be combined with a continental grip.
While no modern player would use this method, in senior tennis there are still a number of players in the older age groups using this kind of approach. If you come into this category, there is no need to panic and enact a vast technical change, simply because other players are using more modern methods.
This style of forehand can be good for accuracy and lends itself to solid returns of serve, as well as permitting easy transitions to the net. As a development, you may find it beneficial to relax your arm a little more than you were probably taught, as this can result in more ‘easy’ power, which is always useful in the upper age categories.
Contemporary Topspin Forehands
Modern forehands will most commonly be played using a semi-western grip, and will often generate a significant amount of topspin. There is much more freedom of movement than in the classical technique, with the arm being far more relaxed. A combination of swing, body turn and leg drive can create considerable racket-head speed and topspin.
The question is, if you are a senior player who was not taught to hit a forehand this way, should you change? As you move up the age categories, your ability to generate high levels of racket-head speed will diminish, and the effectiveness of this type of shot will also reduce.
What you really need is a simple version, with less rotation and leg-drive, perhaps using an eastern grip to enable you to create power without such high racket head speed. The ideal will probably be a shorter, simpler version of Federer’s forehand.
Heavily Topspun Forehands
Some players are probably now entering the seniors who learned to play forehands with a western grip. The will be able to retain this in the younger age brackets, but it may well be best to move gradually closer to an eastern grip as they get older, as a western grip without a high racket-head speed is not very helpful.
The sliced forehand is also worth mentioning, as it can offer a useful variation against players who prefer topspin, especially on faster surfaces. It is simple to execute, requires only modest racket-head speed and can easily be converted into a drop-shot or lob, with disguise. It can be played with a continental grip, allowing you to be immediately ready to volley without a grip change. If you can hit topspins as well, the variation can be very difficult for opponents to deal with.
The final type of forehand to consider is the two-hander. Monica Seles was a great exponent of this, and, although it is rarely seen, there are a few good senior players who like to use it.
The technique is simple, very much like a two-handed backhand, and it can produce power, accuracy and excellent control. Both hands will normally hold the racket in an eastern grip.
The drawback of the shot is that it limits your reach, and in the upper age categories, with players slowing down, reach is critical. If, however, you play mainly doubles, the angles you can produce with this technique make it emphatically worth considering.
Best Advice on Tennis Forehand for Senior Players
Senior tennis players will always follow the professional game to some degree in terms of technique, as players come through who were taught using the latest methods. Nonetheless, seniors cannot match the athleticism and power of the leading players, so they do need to adopt simple and efficient techniques which are likely to prove effective against their peers.
The best advice is probably to build on what you have, simplifying your approach to maximise efficiency, and keeping it smooth and relaxed. Use the tips in this article to either develop your own technique or have an informed discussion with your coach.
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