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.
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?
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.