The biggest myth in tennis is: “If you perform tennis technique correctly, the ball will go over (well).”
This idea then leads to the next one: “If you missed a shot, you did something technically wrong, and your goal is to find out what you did wrong and correct it. If you correct that technical mistake, the ball will go in next time.”
Let’s take a look at Roger Federer’s open stance forehand in both practice and match play in order to start busting that myth…
As you saw, the technique is not really how you move your hips, shoulders, and elbows but rather the path of the racquet through the ball.
“Correct” tennis technique is nothing more than trying to hit the ball with the racquet in a certain way (with a certain intention) and at the same time allowing your body to adjust in the most comfortable and efficient way to each particular situation.
Here’s how Rafael Nadal explains this (taken from Rafa’s autobiography (2011)):
“You might think that after the millions and millions of balls I’ve hit, I’d have the basic shots of tennis sown up, that reliably hitting a true, smooth, clean shot every time would be a piece of cake.
But it isn’t. Not just because every day you wake up feeling differently, but because every shot is different; every single one.
From the moment the ball is in motion, it comes at you at an infinitesimal number of angles and speeds; with more topspin, or backspin, or flatter, or higher.
The differences might be minute, microscopic, but so are the variations your body makes–shoulders, elbow, wrists, hips, ankles, knees–in every shot.
And there are so many other factors–the weather, the surface, the rival. No ball arrives the same as another; no shot is identical.
So every time you line up to hit a shot, you have to make a split-second judgment as to the trajectory and speed of the ball and then make a split-second decision as to how, how hard, and where you must try to hit the shot back.
And you have to do that over and over, often fifty times in a game, fifteen times in twenty seconds, in continual bursts more than two, three, four hours, and all the time you’re running hard and your nerves are taut; it’s when your coordination is right and the tempo is smooth that the good sensations come, that you are better able to manage the biological and mental feat of striking the ball cleanly in the middle of the racket and aiming it true…
Tennis is, more than most sports, a sport of the mind; it is the player who has those good sensations on the most days, who manages to isolate himself best from his fears and from the ups and downs in morale a match inevitably brings, who ends up [winning].”
(I bolded certain phrases for emphasis.)
Roger Federer’s technique has been dissected and analyzed to the smallest detail, and coaches and players from around the world have been looking to copy every element of his strokes, but what they fail to see is that the perfect tennis technique is simply a consequence of masterful motor skills (reaction, coordination, balance, etc.) and ball judgment skills that have developed through many, many years of training behind closed doors in ways that most tennis coaches have no idea about.
Here’s a rare video that shows you only a glimpse of what Federer worked on for many years in his youth:
Ask yourself how many training sessions like this he and other top pros did in their youth and what kinds of skills they have actually been developing.
Could these skills be the key to great tennis strokes rather than the exactly perfect follow-through above your shoulder?
In order to have the proper understanding of this article, we need to define the terms “tennis form” and “tennis technique” as I believe most tennis players and coaches think about form when they talk about technique.
(The following are my own definitions of “form” and “technique.”)
A tennis form is an idealized series of movements that complete the whole stroke – from start to finish.
This ideal form happens ONLY when two conditions are met:
1. The incoming ball is approaching at ideal height, speed, spin, and distance so that the player is able to move his body in a very comfortable way. In other words, the body moves biomechanically optimally.
2. The outgoing ball hit by the player is hit fairly low above the net, with the average amount of topspin and with moderate speed.
Form is what you so far believe is correct tennis technique, and it is what you see being taught on every tennis instructional website, DVD, and book.
You are led to believe that in order to hit the ball well you need to move your body parts (hips, shoulders, arms, hands, etc.) in the exact same way that the pros do – and do that on every single shot.
Again, what you’re being taught is tennis form (the idealized stroke mechanics) – which is correct only for a small percentage of situations in tennis.
So, the main difference between tennis form and tennis technique is that the form is always the same, while the technique adapts to the situation!
The tennis form doesn’t take into account the type of incoming ball:
The form doesn’t take into account the type of outgoing ball – meaning the ball the player wants to play:
The form also doesn’t take into account the conditions the player is in:
Andy Murray’s forehand technique has to adapt to the situation he is in – namely moving backward and sideways.
The form also doesn’t take into account outside conditions, such as wind and court surface – and yet both affect the ball trajectory before and after the bounce.
As you can see, the tennis form is a rigid and very simplified way of presenting a tennis stroke. It does not adjust to the situation although every ball is different and every situation is different.
This is what Rafael Nadal is trying to explain in his description of what it takes to hit the ball well.
That’s why it’s hugely detrimental to your game if you’re obsessed with perfect tennis form and if you do not understand how tennis is a game where one needs to adjust in infinite possible ways to the type of incoming ball, the type of ball you want to send away, your position while hitting the ball, and many other conditions.
The perfect tennis form – which you may have defined as technique until now – works ONLY for one type of incoming ball and one type of outgoing ball. It fails to work when it needs to adapt – which in reality is in every shot in tennis.
Why learn tennis form if technique needs to adapt most of the time?
The main purpose of learning the proper tennis form of all strokes is to:
1. Learn to control the ball.
If you put two tennis beginners on court who have never taken any lessons and have no theoretical idea on how to control the ball, then most likely they cannot exchange 4 balls in a row, let alone have fun rallying with each other.
Tennis is an extremely demanding sport and very deceiving when you look at two players who can play well – it looks fairly simple. The reality, as you probably know, is much more complex.
Therefore, the player needs to learn how to move his body – learn the form – in order to control the ball and be able to play.
(Note: There are millions of tennis players around the world who have not taken any tennis lessons ever and can play tennis really well. That’s because they understand the basic principles of how to control the ball, and they have excellent ball judgment skills, hand-eye coordination, body coordination, feel for the ball, and good footwork.
Most of these played another sport where balls are involved (soccer, basketball, volleyball, etc.) for many years and have developed good motor skills that are then transferred to the game of tennis.)
There are 5 ball controls in tennis – direction, depth, height, spin, and speed. By learning proper form, we will discover that this helps us control the ball better.
The problem arises when you believe that form determines the ball’s flight rather than that your intention on how you want to hit the ball (trajectory).
2. Learn to hit the ball biomechanically optimally (the goal is to develop the most controlled force with the least amount of effort).
Again, learning proper form only guides you toward more efficient biomechanics, but unless you develop good motor skills, then you won’t feel the forces and energies inside your body that generate force.
That’s why tennis players spend years developing such motor skills. The only way to actually bring the theoretical tennis form to life and become efficient is to feel your body and feel how you generate controlled force.
Once the player learns basic tennis form, they realize that they can play better.
Unfortunately, because the difference between form and technique (and how adjustments need to happen) is not explained well by coaches (or they don’t know it) and because the player is bombarded only with information about “correct tennis technique”, “modern forehand technique”, etc., the player who is learning tennis starts to believe that the cause of mistakes is incorrect technique and aims to perform the series of movements correctly very consciously every time the ball is coming toward him REGARDLESS of the situation he is in and the type of ball that he is receiving.
Therefore, he is not paying attention to the most important elements of tennis that enable us to play well:
That is how we play tennis – we read the incoming ball, we move toward it, we program the type of shot we want to play (intention), and we look to time the energy release from the whole body into the incoming ball.
But because tennis players falsely believe that their supposedly incorrect mechanical movement is the cause of the mistake, they focus on mechanics rather than judging the ball, playing with feel, and having a clear intention of the shot they want to play.
Their focus on mechanics is then the cause of error!
This is revealed in two ways:
1. Because they focus on mechanics as soon as the ball starts to fly toward them, they don’t read the ball, they don’t position properly, they don’t time it, and they don’t have a clear intention of how they want to play it.
Therefore, they are usually late on the ball, are not positioned properly (meaning often off-balance), and are unable to hit the ball in a coordinated way with the whole body working in harmony. Instead, they just hit it with the usually very tense arm.
2. Because they focus on perfect mechanics, they force rigid tennis form and do not allow the adjustment of the stroke needed for a particular situation.
Even using correct mechanics does not generate effortless power into the ball because the player is not executing the mechanics in the optimal tempo and is not timing the stroke well. In other words, the racquet path may be correct, but it’s not performed with the proper dynamics.
The real difficulty of tennis is actually in judging the ball flight and timing your movements so that you release the force into the ball at the exact right moment while at the same time coordinate the movements of the whole body. It is also in having good enough coordination and dynamic balance that allow the body to make necessary adjustments in a very short time.
These skills are much harder to develop than copying someone’s movements – which is what tennis form is.
But because an average club level player doesn’t have all these skills developed at a high enough level, they misjudge the ball flight, they don’t position properly to the ball, they are not well-balanced when they hit it, and they are unable to track and see the ball clearly before they hit it – and THOSE ARE the most common reasons that a club player misses a shot.
Tennis technique is the least of their problems. Surely you’ve seen many club players with poor technique and excellent playing skills.
And surely you now understand that incorrect tennis form (technique) is not the main reason for missing the shot.
The next biggest misconception when it comes to tennis technique can be seen when the player misses and is aware that he did something “technically wrong”. Perhaps he:
He then realizes that the “technique” was not correct and is trying to correct it on the next shot – but the “incorrect technique” was nothing other than his mind and body looking for a solution in a situation where something else was wrong.
What was wrong was:
And in case your timing, ball judgment, movement, and tactics are sound, then it’s very likely that your opponent forced you into a situation where you had to adjust and improvise in order to hit a good shot – exactly as Roger Federer showed us in the video above.
These are the causes of the situation in which the player found himself, and the »incorrect technique« is simply a consequence of being too close or too far from the ball, not timing the ball well, and so on.
But unfortunately, the words “timing in tennis, rhythm, ball judgment, have a clear intention of the trajectory, etc.” are topics you almost never read about on tennis instructional websites, see on DVDs, or read in books. As such, you don’t even know that they exist and that they are the main causes of errors in tennis.
The timing, ball judgment, and other terms mentioned above are also not tangible and are not immediately obvious.
Mechanically moving the arm IS tangible and is something that simple logic can comprehend, which is why everyone clings only to improving their tennis through mechanical corrections of their movements.
I’ve been teaching tennis for over 20 years and have done a massive amount of teaching club players – and their #1 reason for missing the shot is certainly not incorrect tennis technique (except total beginners).
What is correct tennis technique then?
If technique is not form – and by now you agree with me that a perfect form does not correct mistakes – then what should you be looking for?
If we look at a top pro like Federer in the above video when he is hitting a ball in different situations, then what are the commonalities?
You see by now that his stroke does NOT conform to a rigid form but rather adapts to the situation.
“Of course, pros try to move themselves in such a position that they are able to play their most grooved shots as many times as possible. Especially in women’s tennis where the incoming balls are very similar, the technique of hitting them is also very similar. But that is because the player positions himself or herself in an ideal position, has almost perfect timing and rhythm, and is able to hit the ball at roughly the same distance and height most of the time.”
I am sure you agree that top players don’t think about doing a unit turn, bending their knees, dropping the racquet under the ball, brushing up on the ball, and finishing over their shoulder. 😉
So, what is in the mind of a pro player when they hit a tennis ball?
What should be in the mind is nothing more than the trajectory (direction, speed, depth, height over net) and the type and amount of rotation they want to apply to the ball.
The exact three elements needed to play tennis that you have already seen.
In order to achieve these elements, the player must strike the ball with the racquet head in a certain way – meaning the racquet head must be moving forward and upward when it comes to a typical baseline shot.
That is correct technique for a typical forehand or backhand rally shot with topspin – it is the technique of how the racquet hits the ball and not the “technique” of moving body parts in a certain way consciously.
Body parts like hips, shoulders, upper arm, forearm, and wrist all simply conform and adjust in order to accommodate what we want to do with the racquet HEAD to the ball – or even more precise, what we want to do with the strings to the ball.
With the strings, we want to project the ball forward and at the same time hit it with topspin, slice, or flat. (Meaning very low amount of rotation.)
And here is where being loose, relaxed, and playing with feel comes in. The more relaxed you are, the easier your body will conform to the current situation.
So, what you see as tennis technique and you analyze in minute detail is simply a CONSEQUENCE of the player’s intention of simply trying to hit the ball in a certain way.
Hitting the ball in a certain way is the cause of tennis technique – NOT the other way around!
While the common belief is that moving body parts in a certain way (technique) causes the ball to fly in the desired trajectory, it is actually exactly the opposite.
It is our intention of how we want the ball to fly that causes our body to adjust and perform series of movements in order to facilitate that task.
Where this misunderstanding comes from will be explained in a future article…
In order to improve your “technique” of strokes – meaning if you want them to be efficient and also look better – you actually need to do something counterintuitive: you need to STOP trying to move body parts in a certain way (unless you are a beginner) in order to match the perfect technique image you have in your mind (most of you have been doing that too much already), and you need to START thinking of the racquet path through the ball and how to feel the most comfortable doing that.
You need to look for the most efficient way of generating force in each specific situation and imagine only the racquet path through the ball while having a very clear intention of the ball’s trajectory.
You need to know ALL elements of the trajectory based on the target you want to hit (BEFORE the ball bounces on your side!):
With this clear intention, try to time the energy release through your whole body (if the ball is easy) so that you strike the ball in your ideal contact zone and focus completely on the interaction of the strings and the ball.
Eventually you need to stop thinking about the racquet path too and all that should be in your mind is the trajectory of the ball you want to achieve and how the ball rotates exactly along the horizontal axis.
Instead of looking at the “technique” of Tomas Berdych, realize that all that is in his mind is the rhythm and timing he wants to get into before the contact and the trajectory in which he wants to play the ball.
Repeat this process hundreds of times in a single lesson without any pressure of winning points or beating your opponent while you’re looking for comfort and good ball control.
In time, your “technique” – namely how your body parts move – will adjust in the most natural way so that you’ll be able to hit smoothly and with effortless power.