Learning how to hit your forehands and backhands with topspin is the foundation of advanced tennis. However, this advice can easily be misunderstood and cause a lot of mishits and short balls.
That’s because you’re still trying to apply topspin to the ball in the same way you were taught at the beginning. At a more advanced level, your technique for applying topspin has to change because of the faster tempo.
You now need to upgrade your understanding of how to apply spin to your shots so that you can hit them cleanly with good power and still enough topspin for highly consistent shots.
When you first learned to hit topspin forehand (and backhand), you realized that, in order to apply topspin to the ball, you need to move the racket vertically up and brush the ball on the back side.
The friction between the strings and the ball makes the ball rotate. In turn, that spin makes the ball dip towards the end of its flight, therefore allowing you to hit with good power and still keep the ball inside the baseline.
Because you were still learning the topspin, you had to use your arm, forearm and possibly your wrist to move the racket in an upward direction, which imparted topspin on the ball.
Your coach was feeding you very slow and nice balls right into your strike zone as you were learning this new idea of adding spin to your forehands and backhands.
After some repetitions, you realized that you were able to apply topspin to the ball by DOING a certain movement with your arm, forearm and wrist.
And you have been doing that ever since…
But once you started to play with higher-level opponents who played much faster, you found yourself struggling to hit a clean ball in the sweet spot while trying to apply topspin to it.
You were still trying to DO topspin by engaging your arm, forearm and wrist and moving the racket very steeply up to brush the ball on the back side while it was flying very fast towards you.
Because the ball is going in one direction and the racket is going almost perpendicular to that direction, it’s then very difficult to time the exact moment of when the ball and the racket’s sweet spot meet.
That’s why there are so many mishits and balls hit off the sweet spot, which then results in a very slow and short ball that can easily be attacked.
You are confused now on what to do since everyone has been telling you to hit with more topspin.
How is it that you now hit a lot of poor shots even though you are trying your best to hit with a lot of spin?
The solution is that you must learn to make spin just happen rather than doing it.
If you look at a forehand (or backhand) swing path from the side, you can see that it has two distinct stages.
When we swing our arm naturally by the side of our body, then it will travel more horizontally when it’s closer to the body and then transition to a more vertical swing as it goes away from the body.
The arm is attached at the shoulder to the body, and it acts like a pendulum so it just swings around its anchor point, the shoulder.
That tells us that, if we hit the ball closer to the body, we will hit the ball flatter since the racket will be moving more horizontally. Conversely, if we hit the ball more in front, we will hit with more topspin since the racket is going more vertically.
This is the key mental image you need to use when hitting your groundstrokes.
That’s because this tells you immediately that you don’t have to DO topspin so much but you can make it happen by hitting the ball more in front.
The swing path alone will make the ball spin since the racket is traveling upwards by itself because of the inertia and because the arm naturally swings in a circular way.
Therefore, we can make the spin happen by simply swinging and letting the racket hit the ball while it’s bouncing up and is a little more in front of you.
If you are then receiving a fast, incoming ball, you should try to find the right part of the swing path that is a bit more horizontal.
Doing so will make it easier to hit the ball in the sweet spot while maintaining the upward movement that will make the spin just “happen” on the ball.
This is how Urban and I play when we rally with each other at a higher tempo.
We don’t really “DO” the topspin by engaging our forearms and wrists, but we use a more shallow swing path towards the ball and the topspin just happens.
Sure, this is not extreme topspin, but the ball spins fast enough that we can control it quite well and play very consistently.
I wrote this article because I see most adult recreational players try to DO the things they’ve learned when they are hitting the ball.
They learned how to hit a topspin by moving the racket vertically up on the back side of the ball and brushing it, so that’s what they do.
However, they forgot that the initial exercise was an exaggeration that helped them understand and feel how to apply topspin to the ball.
Now they play at a faster pace, yet they still DO all their topspin movements the way they learned them.
They don’t know they should try to apply LESS topspin on faster incoming balls and simply make spin happen by swinging the racket naturally and hitting the ball a bit more in front.
I prefer to teach topspin in the beginning with the compress & roll exercise that doesn’t create a mental image of a vertical “brush up” on the ball even at the beginning and yet the players are able to quickly apply topspin to the ball.
And a good way to correct the “vertical brush up” mental image that causes problems at higher speeds is the rolling topspin drill that again guides the player towards a more shallow swing path through the ball.
In summary, we can apply extreme topspin to the ball only when we receive a slow ball. Only then can we still hit the sweet spot regularly even despite swinging up very steeply in relation to the incoming ball.
And when we receive faster incoming balls, we should swing at a more shallow swing path and let the spin happen.
We can, of course, add a bit of upward movement by engaging our forearm and wrist, but that should be the next stage after we get a good feel for allowing the to spin happen simply through the swing path and contact point.
As you saw in the video above, Urban and I don’t swing at very steep swing paths and we don’t really engage our forearms and wrists when we rally at a higher tempo.
We look for that ideal contact point in our swing where the racket is already moving upwards by itself, and we therefore make the spin happen without much effort.
Give this concept of “making spin happen” a try, and share your thoughts in the comments below. Thanks!