Classic vs. Modern Forehand Techniques Compared

Mar 26

Ever wonder what the real difference is between the classic forehand and the modern forehand technique in tennis?

If we compare just small details from both types of forehands – such as the grip, how flat and with how much topspin we hit, how we drop the racket into the acceleration phase, and so on – we may lose sight of the actual cause of these differences.

classic vs modern tennis forehand

The reality is that while the classic forehand is played flatter, usually with a neutral stance and a more open racket face, that doesn’t make it classic.

All top pros currently using their modern forehand technique also can hit the ball flat in a neutral stance, with perhaps a slightly different wrist position.

And yet, all these little details are not the actual difference between the classic and modern forehand.

So, what is it?

The ‘One-Unit’ vs. the Segmented Forehand

A good example of a classic forehand is John McEnroe, whom you can still see playing these days on the senior tour.

If you watch him carefully, you’ll see that John hits his forehand as one unit, meaning there are almost no moving parts in his arm as he keeps all the joints very firm, including the wrist.

The only moving joint is his shoulder — and even that is not moving much.

Thus, the main characteristic of a classic forehand is that it is a more rigid and firm stroke, executed more as one moving unit.

classic forehand technique

The arm works as one unit in the classic forehand technique together with the body.

The joints in the arm are firm and do not allow movement of the forearm (elbow) or hand (wrist).

The modern forehand, on the other hand, is segmented.

That means players who use it allow more freedom of movement in their joints, so their arm works in segments – you can see movement between the upper arm and the forearm through the elbow joint, as well as movement between the forearm and the hand through the wrist joint.

Note the “segments” of Roger Federer’s arm during the forehand stroke

In addition, the modern forehand technique also often separates the work of the lower body and upper body because an open stance is used.

modern forehand technique

The modern forehand is based on coordinating segments of the body and arm.

When you prepare for the forehand in the open stance, you can turn your shoulders more than your hips, so you are “separating” them and thus creating a coiling (torque) effect in your core.

That coiling means you are stretching the muscles in your body, allowing you to snap them back quickly, thereby creating a lot of rotational force that helps you accelerate the arm and racket.

Using the arm and the body in segments allows us to create a “kinetic chain” which generates a lot of power based on the biomechanics of the human body.

The next separation that the pros use is between the torso and arm, so the stretch they create is through the upper chest muscles and shoulder.

Novak Djokovic forehand technique

Can you tell that there’s a stretch in the front part of the shoulder muscle at this moment of Djokovic’s forehand?

By relaxing the shoulder and arm, and rotating the torso forward quickly, the arm lags and creates tension in the shoulder, which again then allows the player to use that stored elastic energy by pulling the arm forward and accelerating it very quickly.

The most extreme examples of this effect can be seen in javelin and discus athletes.

The third point of segmentation and tension that the pros create is between the forearm and the hand, through the wrist joint.

forehand racket lag

All currently playing pros create racket lag through forearm / hand “separation”

By relaxing the wrist through most of the forehand stroke, the player creates a racket lag, which stretches the forearm muscles, again allowing the player to use that built-up elastic energy upon execution.

How to Apply Modern Forehand Principles to Your Forehand Stroke

The modern forehand technique creates more power by creating different tension points in the torso and arm, and that stored elastic energy is released by rotating the upper body forward and pulling the arm forward, accelerating the racket head through forearm tension.

Because there are many more moving parts in the modern forehand compared with the classic forehand, this makes it much more complex for our brain to coordinate and time all these body parts to bring the racket head to the small, moving, bouncy ball exactly at the right moment and exactly at the right distance.

The more we allow movement of the body and arm segments through our joints, the more complex the strokes become and the higher the chances of losing control and missing the shot.

The pros can do it because they’ve been practicing that for many years under professional guidance, and in time, they have learned to control that immense power that the modern forehand technique generates through the segmentation and the stretching, storing, and releasing of the elastic energy.

The classic forehand, however, is much simpler, but also not as powerful considering the effort required.

What I recommend you do, and what I personally do, is apply some elements of the modern forehand technique to your existing forehand so that you’ll still maintain good control of your shots while finding ways to hit with more power and less effort.

a) Create coiling by playing open-stance forehands

The first thing you can do is practice hitting some forehands in the open stance and really experience what it means to create a coiling effect in your upper body.

This short clip from the Effortless Forehand video course shows you how you can compare what it feels like to play in open stance vs. playing in neutral stance, helping you become more aware of the coiling effect, which is what allows you to store and release elastic energy.

Keep in mind that open-stance forehands are not that accurate, and that if you’re not physically in good shape or have some nagging injuries in your legs, hips, or shoulders, it may cause you even more discomfort.

Your goal is simply to learn to play the open-stance forehand correctly – together, of course, with the neutral stance — then simply look for comfort and stable positioning when you play, so that the stances will happen naturally and automatically, without you needing to think about them.

b) Using the power of the wrist lag

One of the parts of the forehand stroke that I correct the most often with adult recreational tennis players is the wrist lag – or more accurately, lack of it.

Most players hold their rackets too tightly and squeeze them even tighter as they are about to swing forward.

By doing that, they prevent their wrists from reaching a stable, laid-back position, while at the same time storing energy in the forearm, as it then fully stretches.

forehand wrist lag comparison

Tight grip prevents the wrist from fully laying back for the player on the left

So, head over to the forehand wrist-lag article and familiarize yourself with the concepts of stable wrist position and wrist lag. This way, you can correct that part of the forehand stroke if it’s still not right.

tennis forehand correction for the wrist

Players can quickly improve their wrist lag by using video analysis on the court and some feel based drills

I don’t recommend that you try to create a stretch between the body and the arm through the shoulder muscle because that tends to create a very inconsistent stroke when you don’t have enough practice.

It’s better to just imagine that your body and the arm move together as one unit while you rotate forward.

What if You Currently Use Classic Forehand Technique?

If you’re playing with a classic forehand style, in which there isn’t much segmentation and not many moving parts, I suggest you simply look to relax and release all that tension/firmness that you’re used to holding while you’re hitting your forehand.

Simply allow more movement through your joints – “relax your joints,” if there’s such an expression!

Try to rally nicely with your partner or with a ball machine, and look for more comfort and more moving parts of the arm.

The segmentation then will naturally start to happen, the tension in the arm will build up, the stored elastic energy will be released, and you will feel it as effortless power.

Of course, you will lose some control at first, but don’t let that scare you. You need to give your brain some time to learn to coordinate more moving body/arm parts, and that comes with repetition/practice.

Therefore, you must be in a non-competitive situation — either just rallying, using a ball machine, or hitting against the wall. Go through the trial-and-error process for a while until you realize that you can get good control of the ball, even when you’re not so tight.

Also, don’t think that a classic forehand, even with a continental grip, is a bad thing because I and most other tennis coaches play it quite well and use it often when we must hit nice and controlled shots to someone at the net.

classic forehand with continental grip

I often times play a very simple classic forehand with a continental grip when rallying with the player at the net

A simple, classic forehand allows me to play very accurately in terms of height and direction, and it allows me to play the balls flat, which helps the player at the net judge the ball better and not have to deal with the dip of the ball that a topspin forehand creates.

Secondly, having the ability to play a more stable and firm forehand also helps you when returning serves, as the incoming ball already brings a lot of energy, so you simply need to guide it back with a simple, firm stroke.

Hopefully, this clarifies the classic vs. modern forehand technique question, but if you still have questions or thoughts on this, just fire away in the comments section below.

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(28) comments

Greg lowe March 26, 2017

Hi Tomaz,
As a 46 year old classic taught straight back forehand person, I love this segment.

One item I am working on which didn’t get mentioned was the back swing. I was always taught to take the raquet straight back and am in the process of developing the loop back swing to help generate more top spin.

When I take it back with the loop, I do hit with far more spin , and therefore, can confidently really go after the shot.

However, I am struggling with creating the muscle memory of the new technique.

1) generally, how long does it take to create the new natural memory ? 2) it seems difficult to create the loop when the ball is coming fast or low (although I see Djokovic has a loop on all of his shots which can be seen in slow mk option videos)

Love to hear thoughts

    Tomaz March 26, 2017

    Thanks, Greg.

    As for how long it takes, to create muscle memory, the one number I have heard quite a few times mentioned among tennis coaches is minimum 2000 repetitions and maximum 20.000 repetitions.

    Of course not in one day, but over time.

    It depends on many factors like whether you do it every day or not, whether you can repeat the same movement many times in a row or does it happen only here and there, etc.

    I suggest you do about 3-5 minutes of shadow swings twice a day for about two weeks.

    Combine that with repetitions on the court where for at least 10 minutes you can play in very easy conditions (ball machine, balls being fed to you or a very nice slow rally) and you are able to repeat those correct new movements.

    If you cannot practice in easy conditions then the learning of the new movement will be very slow and may not ever take place.

    As for a fast ball, pros can loop still because they perceive the ball way faster and earlier as us mortals and therefore have more time to do the loop.

    If you’re receiving a fast ball you shouldn’t be thinking about a loop at all but only about meeting it well in front.

    If the loop has not automated in easy conditions then don’t expect it to be there in difficult conditions.

    Once you master it in easy conditions and it’s part of your muscle memory then it may just happen even on a fast ball.

      Greg March 27, 2017


Ged March 26, 2017

Hi Tomaz,
Wow, another important lesson.

This is a key to big time power in ground strokes and serve, the seperation and stretch you talk about.

I am a physical therapist. When we were studying muscles, we learned that a muscle contracts more powerfully from a stretched position.

One thing I may add that may help: A muscle has to be relaxed to be stretched, and the joint were the muscle is attached, (say wrist) has to be at the end range or laid back to be loaded or stretched.

I have discovered this separation, lag that you spoke about in the lesson, and it is key to how the pros like Dominick Thiem get their power.

I don’t see it taught as clearly as you have in this video.

I think it will help developing players find more powerful strokes.

Thank you, Ged Valaitis

    Tomaz March 26, 2017

    Thanks for sharing your expertise, Ged.

    It’s always great to hear explanation from another point of view that helps the readers understand these principles better.

    Keep in touch and keep sharing your ideas, much appreciated!

      Ged March 27, 2017

      Thanks Tomaz,
      I had a great 90 minute practice with a friend realy fine tuning my modern forehand, finding good consistency because I have learned to keep the wrist laid back through the hitting zone longer. This forces me to make contact more out front, and keeps the racquet face on target longer.

      When I was ready to return serve in doubles match the other day, I thought, I’m going to hit this return with a whippy modern forehand that worked so well in practice, – I did not even make the return because the ball came faster than expected!
      So I learned to adjust, and be selective when I go for my big forehand…

        Ged March 28, 2017

        Modern vs classic, or in-between?
        ATP pros like Rafa, Jack Sock and Francis Tiago have this violent wrist lag, that most teaching pros would not recomend copying.
        They are “country strong” and have greenish good timeing.
        Even Fernando Verdasco has great powerfull modern forehand, 100 mph, but he has strugled with consistency over his career.

        My family is from Lithuania where they know very little about technique. It is a shame that Ernest Gulbis will never reach his potential from neigboring Latvia, because no one was able to teach him a proper forehand in his youth.

          Ged March 28, 2017

          …Just a follow up comment, and correction. It was Francis Tiafo, I mentioned along with Sock and Rafa, said they have freekish good timing…

          Tomaz, I mentioned how the Baltics and other former Soviet countries aren’t teaching good technique.

          You mentioned Eastern Europe as teaching more good technique.

          I think that mostly holds true with former Czechoslovakia and Yugoslavian countries.

          Perhaps because of Ivan Lendl, Martina, and Novak.

          Now pros like you are teaching other pros in your countries, and you will continue to have great players.

Tien Dao March 26, 2017

Great video once again. As someone in his mid 50’s I find it fascinating and amusing that almost everything we were taught not to do in the 1970’s is what we must do now.

I do not know of another sport where the technical dogma has changed so radically in this time frame. For me it, the modern forehand is about accelerating through contact whereas the classic forehand had its maximum racquet head velocity at contact.

To do this we need to look at the wrist as a hinge and the stroke as a whipping motion.

What has not changed and what is the bane of many tennis players is late preparation, as much as sitting back on your skiis is the killer of downhill technique.

IMHO, it is most instructive for students to time the bottom of their swing preparation (C loop) to the time the ball hits the ground.

This automatically gives you the most time to apply technique. Do not imitate the pros who have the racquet head back but high when the ball hits the ground.

    Tomaz March 26, 2017

    Thanks for sharing, Tien.

    What I would like to add that using the wrist as a hinge and whipping it happens even at my level only perhaps in 10% of the forehands I hit.

    I cannot release the wrist and use it like a hinge if I am receiving a high ball, fast ball, I am on the run, I am moving backwards and so on.

    In all these situations controlling the stroke is much more important than creating maximum power with a whip release.

    So the danger of the dogmatic thinking is that you think every stroke you hit has to have that new element.

    Nothing can be further from the truth.

    In most situations even on a pro level the players have a stable and fully laid back wrist at contact and it has not released yet.

    The release of the wrist you see happens way after the ball is gone.

    I have shown this video before but here it is again to show this point – there is no wrist release and a whipping action in the majority of the strokes you see.

      Tien Dao March 26, 2017

      Hi Tomaz,

      Thank you for this clarification and of course you are correct that we must adjust our strokes to the different balls we get from the other side.

      You have lots of videos describing beautifully essentially two types of forehand strokes, one more defensive with wrist firm and one more agressive with wrist relaxed and how to accomplish these strokes.

      If you hit with a relaxed wrist no matter what your preparation was beforehand you will inevitably release the wrist at impact. I would not recommend releasing before impact either which is slapping the ball a la Berdych sometimes which gives the maximum racquet head speed but at greatly increased risk of error.

      IMHO, the lag and wrist release is the key for improvement after acquiring basic technique because it can generate increased racquet head speed. Increased racquet head speed potential does not necessarily mean you must use it to whack the living daylights out of the ball (which you could do to hit a winner) and risk unforced errors. Rather, its most useful application for the club player is defensive. It means you do not need to start your acceleration as far back; you can approach the fast incoming ball more slowly which makes timing much easier and then at the last appropriate moment use your legs, hips and shoulders to segmentally whip the arm, wrist and racquet through contact as far in front of you as possible. You can get the same final ball speed (maybe more spin if you want) and have better timing and hence better control than a classic forehand which does not have this last moment acceleration potential.

      This technique is as much a defensive adaptation to counter the faster balls that this technique creates itself when used it to hit a winner when you have enough time.

      I know it works on relative neophytes too as my wife uses it successfully all the time and she has played only 3 years.

Athena Cajas March 26, 2017

Hello Tomaz,

As usual, a great, precise explanation.

So glad that you have this so I can share with my students both young and old.

Sicerely, Athena Cajas

    Tomaz March 26, 2017

    Glad that it helps!

luiz March 26, 2017

Hi Tomaz, can it be used in the backhand? (two hand…)
Thanks, Luiz

    Tomaz March 26, 2017

    Hi Luiz,

    You mean the segmented arm technique?

    Yes, but less than on the forehand side because the arms are “locking” each other in a way and there’s less movement possible.

      luiz March 26, 2017

      Ok, I see.
      So, for the two hand backhand it is the ‘one-unit’ movement more suited. Is it right?
      Thanks again,

        Tomaz March 26, 2017

        Yes, it’s more one unit but it’s the wrists that must always be relaxed enough to lag behind and be able to accelerate forward and add power and spin.

        You will have no power at all with tight wrists.

          luiz March 26, 2017

          thank you so much

Donald March 26, 2017

Thanks Tomaz,

I have been playing tennis for close to 68 years. I am going try your suggestion. What grip should I use? Do I have to change my eastern grip?

    Tomaz March 26, 2017

    Hi Donald,

    There’s no need to change a grip. You can play a modern forehand even with a continental grip.

    Again, from my point of view modern forehand means that it’s segmented, that means that the arm is more flexible and its segments are moving because the joints are not stiff.

    That creates kinetic chain. How you hold the racket doesn’t matter much.

    Roger Federer holds an eastern forehand grip and he is the perfect example of a modern forehand technique.

      Arturo March 27, 2017


      I have been thinking about your forehand articles for a few days.

      I was watching Tiafoe and Sock vs. Federer.  I know that Sock is known for his extreme lag on the forehand.  But I also Tiafoe doing it.  It is as if the racket faces the back fence at the end of the lag.

      I could not find any slow motion footage of Tiafoe so I couldn’t quite catch it.

      We all know that Federer is so smooth and he definitely has a lag but somehow I don’t see it.

      I then looked a Wawrinka, Djokovic, Dimitrov, Thiem, and even Coric (who actually shows some excess movement on his forehand).

      I know people have written about pointing the racket forward and increasing the lag.

      But this seems to be Tiafoe, Sock and Kirgyios way of doing things.

      To me it seems the top European players have not adopted this extreme lag.

      All this motion makes wonder at which point it is too much and the forehand breaks down.

      It reminds me of an article back some time about Russian Tennis and its focus on fundamentals.  Or even Landsdorp’s extreme view of fundamentals.

      Is that what is happening here?

      Or am I just cherry picking the funky players from the Anglo world and comparing them to those from continental Europe who again I cherry picked?

      In other words, are training centers in Europe doing a better job of teaching simpler strokes?

        Tomaz March 27, 2017

        Good question, Arturo.

        I can’t say for sure but I would say that European coaches are a bit more technical and don’t allow the player to become too free with their strokes.

        I think we do understand the freedom of individual style which you can see in all Spanish or French players as everyone has their own style and yet they all stay within certain parameters of biomechanics.

        Perhaps European players are also not so obsessed with power (which is what extreme lag gives you) because they are brought up on clay courts where tactics and ball placement comes first and it’s what wins matches.

        Hard courts reward power more and so the players are tempted more to look for that huge power as early as possible.

        That’s my best guess…

Stephan March 27, 2017

Greetings all,

I myself am playing for 40 years (Dorsch racquet, back in Bulgaria) and am trying to look modern in my swings.

How about the elbow? How far it should be from the body?

Why Kyrgios has it so far apart? Does this help or is it his nature?

Thank you all

    Tomaz March 27, 2017

    Hi Stephan,

    It depends at which part of the stroke but if around contact point then the elbow should be around one hand’s length away from the body.

    I don’t see Kyrgios having an elbow really far as he hits with his elbow slightly bent which typically means the elbow is closer to the body.

    Roger Federer on the other hand has his elbow quite far from the body and that’s because he hits with a more straight arm.

    Both types of forehands work, it’s usually just how the player feels their body and arm, it’s more of a personal preference.

Marcelo March 27, 2017

Another nice explanation about tennis strokes, full of clear examples. Thanks Tomaz !!!

Vasile March 30, 2017

Hi Tomaz,

Thank you for explaining not only how, but also why!

I want to share my experience with the modern forehand with your readers. I am 65 and I play for just for fun, rarely competing.

In spite of being aware of the risks related to the transition to a more complex stroke, I accepted the challenge. I am glad I did, since my forehand is now much more powerful an reliable.

I think this happened mainly because, in order to execute the modern forehand you must relax your arm, to obtain the lag.

With the relaxed arm, I feel I am able to concentrate more on finding the sweet spot of the frame and controlling the trajectory. I can generate spin more easily, with a shorter swing.

Wishing huge success to everybody with the modern forehand and not only with it!

    Tomaz March 30, 2017

    Thanks for sharing, Vasile!

    Yes, simply relaxing the arm more and allowing more movement in the elbow and wrist joints makes the forehand more “modern”.

Rotor Ron April 1, 2017

Tomas…each time I listen to you videos my best results are learn t through visualizing…I listen and visualize 30 minutes on my desire improvements based on your world class teaching videos before my 60 hour training per month here in Pattaya Thailand. Visualize a baseball throw with no racket and throwing ball side arm at wall and using left hand and shoulder in timing on picking up ball after the first bounce from wall… is this throwing more inline when learning the Modern Ground Stroke?

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