Why Your Strokes Lack Power And How To Correct That

Nov 05

There’s a very common mistake that happens basically on all tennis strokes that robs you of the maximum power you can produce. It also prevents you from hitting a clean ball and therefore prevents you from having very consistent strokes.

This mistake is orienting towards the target too early.

This involves:

  • turning towards the intended target too early,
  • turning too much with our head and body,
  • and swinging too early at the target.

The reason this mistake is so common is that, at first glance, it makes sense. It’s the most intuitive way of sending the ball towards the target.

If, for example, we throw a ball with the hand, we will orient towards the target quite early since we are looking at it. We also swing our arm towards the target as if to guide the ball towards it.

The same goes if, for example, we bowl the ball on the ground.

We then unconsciously apply this same approach to hitting a tennis ball. However, in tennis, this causes us to mishit the ball and actually lose power and control at the same time.

The Problem Of Orienting Too Early Towards The Target

As we initially line up to hit the ball (on all tennis strokes), our brain calculates the swing path of the racquet so that it will very likely meet the ball in its sweet spot.

What happens when we suddenly orient towards the target just before we hit the ball is that we break down this calculation as our body orientation has changed and we pulled our eyes off the ball.

Our brain is now scrambling to recalculate the adjustment of the swing path in the split second it has left before contact, and it usually fails to do so, especially since we aren’t tracking the ball any more.

Therefore, we mishit the ball and typically hit it close to the tip of the racquet.

tennis stroke mishit

We cannot hit a clean ball when we pull away from the contact point too early

Since the ball doesn’t bounce off the sweet spot, it doesn’t receive good power from the racquet. It’s also not being spun cleanly, and we feel that.

We feel the lack of power and usually try to compensate for that by muscling the next ball, contracting our muscles in the process and pulling the racquet even more away from the ball ‒ and therefore starting a spiral of reinforcing the same mistake over and over.

The Proper Way To Hit A Tennis Ball

So, how is hitting a tennis ball different from throwing the ball towards a target or bowling the ball towards a target?

Because we need to hit a fast-moving tennis ball with a moving racquet while we may be moving, the laws of hitting a tennis ball cleanly are different than what we’re used to.

In order to hit a clean stroke in the sweet spot as often as possible, we need to:

  • face the ball at the moment of contact with our eyes and our body (hips, chest),
  • initially swing towards the ball and NOT towards the target, and
  • initially transfer weight into the ball (at contact) and not towards the target.

This rule applies to all strokes (forehand, two-handed backhand, both volleys, serve, overhead) except the one-handed backhand (drive and slice).

We typically hit the ball on the side and in front of us at a roughly 45-degree angle.

Therefore, we need to orient our body at that angle and also swing towards the ball initially at that angle.

Take a look at the fundamentals of the groundstrokes of one of the best ball strikers of all times: Andre Agassi. Pause the videos at each moment of contact and look at Agassi’s hips, chest and head orientation. He is warming up therefore he uses the fundamentals of tennis stroke technique. You can also check this video of Novak Djokovic (opens in a new window) warming up and you’ll see the same principle. Of course, when he plays a match, he will push the limits of what’s possible…

In case of the one-handed backhand, we still face the ball with our eyes and face and we still swing outwards towards it, but our body is more sideways at contact and remains sideways longer through contact.

How To Correct Early Orientation ‒ One Drill For All Strokes

The best way to correct a mistake in tennis is almost always to exaggerate and actually over-correct.

If you are moving too early away from the ball, you now need to move for too long a time in the direction of the ball (at contact point, of course).

Since the ball is typically at a roughly 45-degree angle, you need to keep moving in that direction for one more step after you hit the ball.

correction drill for clean hits

Keep moving one step more in the direction of the ball at contact point

Make sure you rotate your body on the forehand and two-handed backhand, but don’t rotate it when hitting a backhand slice or a volley.

correction drill for volley

Keep moving on the direction of the ball at contact even when you hit the ball in the opposite direction

On the serve and overhead, don’t rotate initially just to get the idea and then eventually add body rotation after you’ve completed the follow-through.

When you keep going through the ball for one more step, you will very likely start to feel that you’re hitting the ball very cleanly (make sure you’re well-balanced!) and therefore with much more effortless power.

Once you feel that, you can start shortening the movement in the direction of the ball since right now you’re losing position on the court and you have a longer way to go to reach your ideal recovery point.

correct two-handed backhand stroke

Shorten your move into the ball once you feel how it helps you hit a cleaner ball

Now you know what feel you’re looking for and can try to find it when your movement into the ball is not that exaggerated.

With repeated practice, you will find the right ratio of transferring weight into the ball while at the same time staying balanced and not losing court position.

I have repeated these drills with Thea for several sessions to really make sure that she gets the idea, that she feels how much cleaner and more powerful her strokes are and that she finds good balance even when she moves more into the ball now than she did before.

How To Hit A Clean Shot In Tennis

In summary, hitting a clean shot in tennis requires us to change our usual approach to sending the ball away from us.

In tennis, we don’t look at the target, and we don’t face the target.

We need to remember where the target is, and that’s really not so difficult, since 80% of the time we’re in a ball exchange, we are facing the other side of the court and we’re constantly receiving visual information about the court and our position in it.

Also, we don’t aim for small targets in tennis like in darts, so we really don’t have to be super accurate.

It’s much more important that we pay full attention to the ball since it’s moving fairly fast and is being affected by gravity, spins and possibly wind and is therefore changing its path through the air all the time.

And hitting this small, fast-moving object with the fairly small sweet spot of a fast-moving racquet while we may be moving at the same time is actually very demanding.

The second reason for facing the ball at contact is that this position gives us the most power and control at the same time.

roger federer serve at contact

Is Roger Federer facing the court or the ball at contact? Note that he is serving to the deuce side. (Image credit: tennishead.net)

Therefore, in tennis, we need to:

  • face the ball at contact with our eyes and body (except the one-handed backhand),
  • swing towards the ball initially, and
  • transfer weight towards the ball initially.

But rather than keeping this theory in mind, I suggest you try the “going through the ball” drill that you saw Thea do for all strokes and see if you actually hit the ball more cleanly with more effortless power.

Once you do, you’ll know what feel to look for when you stop exaggerating the move and move back closer to a more compact tennis stroke that still includes the elements of energy transfer into the ball.

What About The Pros?

If you now watch some slow motion footage of the pros as they’re hitting a tennis ball, you may see that they don’t always follow this rule.

What I suggest you do is watch the pros in warm-up first where they will face the ball with their body much more than in extreme situations on the court.

The pros are stretching the laws of bio-mechanics as much as they can to gain that extra advantage in terms of power or extreme spin.

So, before you make rash decisions about what the foundation of a tennis stroke looks like and whether we face the ball or the target with our body at contact, I invite you to really study the strokes in all situations and also take into account the different grips and different ways pros want to hit the ball (like Nadal’s extreme topspin forehand).

If you see a professional motor-biker lean completely into a turn at high speed, you wouldn’t really want to imitate that, would you? 😉

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(34) comments

Hui November 5, 2015

Thanks , so if I understand this correctly, it’s timing that determines the direction of ball instead of orienting body towards the direction? If I am at baseline T position and want to hit the ball to my left ( I am a righty), should I hit the ball a bit early and still straight through the ball. This early hitting will naturally creates the angle that delivers the job?

Reply
    Tomaz November 6, 2015

    Hi Hui,

    The body is generally oriented already differently as we hit down the line or cross court, but it’s not yet facing the target.

    But typically players orient too quickly towards the target as they are swinging towards the ball therefore they mishit it slightly.

    We are talking of a very small difference between correct and incorrect stroke, perhaps a few hundreths of a second – and yet this small difference in time creates a much bigger difference in the power of the shot.

    So if you’re in the middle of the court on the baseline, swing first towards the ball even though it’s on your right and then imagine hitting it left more with the angle of the racquet at the first split second.

    Yes, that happens much easier if you hit it more in front than if you were hitting a down the line.

    Then allow the momentum of your swing to eventually rotate you towards the target and you can of course extend your arm towards the target too.

    But again, this happens so fast at around the contact point that I really don’t like to explain it mechanically because your conscious mind won’t be fast enough to command body parts that quickly at the exact right time. 😉

    That’s why we use drills like the one you saw above and we talk about feels. That is where the subconscious mind can work out the little details since it’s thousands of times faster than the conscious mind.

    Our conscious mind constantly wants to make sure that we understand the concept but that’s not the final answer. You will really understand the concept when you try the drills repeatedly and feel their effects on how cleanly you hit the ball.

    Reply
william Strain November 6, 2015

i teach what you are demonstrating. Im glad we are on the same page. this site is great thanks.

Reply
    Tomaz November 6, 2015

    Thanks, William, stay in touch.

    Reply
Richard Mills November 6, 2015

Tomaz,

Great lesson, reminds me a bit of swinging a golf club, better players learn to swing out at the ball, whereas beginners almost universally will cut across the ball creating a slice, instead of a down and through the shot of the former…. one sees the up and out shot, very much what you describe as the error, poor contact and directional consistency being the result.

Also all the Winters you have spent in the Orient yourself, have help you with your own orientation as an instructor too. lol

Thanks,

Richard

Reply
    Tomaz November 6, 2015

    I don’t play golf, Richard, but I’ve read about the same outward swing in golf, yes.

    The laws of biomechanics and physics apply everywhere where we swing at the ball.

    Reply
      Robert November 24, 2015

      Yes, this is absolutely the case. A PhD in kinesiology in the USA who is a high performance coach in baseball teaches hitters to point the humerus of their back arm at the ball (not where they imagine hitting it). This strikes me as analogous to the tennis racket butt cap pointing toward the contact point not the target before it releases. In both cases the orientation of the stroke is to the ball. And top performers on both sports keep their head not just eyes steady on the contact point to maintain their posture, position, and balance throughout. Absolutely the same principles.
      Thanks, Tomaz!

      Reply
John November 6, 2015

Excellent video, very helpful. Thank you. I am beginning to realise the need to keep an eye on the ball until the point of contact, keep my head still and this shows me also the need not to move up too quickly after the shot. I have a tendency to look up too soon to see where the ball is going and this demonstrates the need to move in the direction of the oncoming ball and not away towards the target. This probably explains why I am returning a lot of balls back, particularly on the forehand side (I have a one handed backhand) that are slightly mishit on the outer edge of the racket and even partly on the frame.

Reply
    Tomaz November 6, 2015

    It’s very likely that you’re mishiting the ball for that same reason explained in the article above, John.

    Try “going into the ball” drill and see if you feel a cleaner shot then.

    Reply
Jonathan Fausett November 6, 2015

Really great stuff as usual Tomaz. I simply love your effotless power theme. It is a game changer. I have always wanted to apply this stuff and the way you explain it is like no other. As I am sure you know, somewhat understanding it and doing it in competition is very difficult but I am going to continue to try. Federer to me is the inimitable example of your theme, Tomic a less gifted version. As you told me one time when I asked you about Tomic, you said he was almost too relaxed. A very unusual tennis issue.

Reply
    Tomaz November 6, 2015

    Hey Jonathan,

    To do this in competition it must be automatic. Hence the 4 hour per day training sessions of pros for 10 years which is the time needed to automate all the technical and tactical details of tennis.

    Reply
JonC November 6, 2015

Enlightening as usual. I bet I do this in my 1hbh all the time. It might also explain why it breaks down in a match – I’m hyper focuses on getting it in so my orientation moves to the target and away from the ball.

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Peter November 6, 2015

Thank you, Tomaz! Great article as usual – still I have one question. You write: “Therefore, in tennis, we need to: face the ball at contact with our eyes and body (except the one-handed backhand)”. Ok, I do understand – one-handed backhand NOT with the body, but what about the eyes!?

Reply
    Tomaz November 6, 2015

    Yes, of course with the eyes, Peter. Head and eyes are always facing the ball.

    Reply
steve November 6, 2015

what do you think of my idea it is not about hitting the ball but getting the ball to hit the racket contact point, developing concentration in this skill, that our conscious mind can handle, is the foundation for the rest of the game to work. Put the racket in the right spot your intention for the ball, target to hit will happen lets call it instinct or subconscious mind ,that has the ability to organisation the firing up the neural pathways so your body will perform the strokes.

Reply
    Tomaz November 6, 2015

    Hi Steve,

    The idea is right that’s why young kids need to develop good catching skills. That teaches them to focus on the catch or “contact” and not projecting the ball away yet.

    The real question is then how will you convey and teach that to the average player… Most players wouldn’t really know what you mean.

    You would need to devise some drills / exercises that would give them the “aha” moment…

    Reply
      steve November 6, 2015

      One thing I do is get the average player to use a racket with a net no strings only good for catching ball, that I was happy to see on that video you have of Federer using it in his early days, feed balls the player does a lot of catching then get them to use their normal racket and use their imagination that they have the net racket. For a short period they have the ” aha ” moment nice sweet contact but the price is to dump a old habit for a new one that is when the ego kicks in non happy with changes. You are right kids or anybody that is a blank page you work on catching they wont miss a ball to save their life.

      Reply
Charlie November 6, 2015

Hi, it’s Charlie from London… Nice lesson; question: how about , every time we hit the ball we just think of a clock face; so to go cross court ; you step in and HIT 3 O’clock … The down the line is more like 6 o’clock, and backhand cross court is 9 o’clock. This gives you a visual reference point , keeps your head down and still( hopefully) and the face of racquet strings directs the ball where you want. Then for serves: if you want a slice ; Hit 3 o’clock and the ball will travel Right to Left ie. Slice .. So trying to keep things Simple, let the eye/ brain focus on a point on the ball!! Any comments? Keep up your great work, cheers, Charlie

Reply
    Tomaz November 7, 2015

    Hey Charlie,

    Clock face could work, you have to try it too see if it works for you.

    The only issue I see is that 3 o’clock and 6 o’clock are very distinctly different and seem quite “far” one from another, whereas hitting a down the line or cross court shot is actually quite a small difference in where we hit the ball.

    But it might be a good place to start if one is having problems with lifting the head up too early or orienting towards the target too early.

    Reply
      Charlie November 7, 2015

      Hi, I think we all agree that at the end of the day one has to keep hitting thousands and thousands of balls and let our body / brain figure out the minute adjustments that are needed. It’s probably just theoretical knowledge, THE SKILL comes in from repetition and then just trusting!! Isn’t tennis such a wonderful game; it’s so Simple but it ain’t Easy!! Have fun, cheers, Charlie/ from rainy London

      Reply
Malcolm November 7, 2015

Neat video.
Old school is to apply force to the tennis ball in the intended direction. New school is to apply force at 45 degrees in three dimensions.
The key position is the direction of the hips compared to the line of the incoming ball at the time of contact. Previously, we had a conversation(/agreement to disagree) about hitting the ball where it is comfortable (which is maybe exactly on the 45 degree line).
Sadly, there may be no exception for the direction of force on the one-handed backhand. The problem here may be that many people try to use an old school closed stance on one-handed backhands, compared to new school semi-open stances for most groundstrokes.
Directional control feels dead simple, and just takes a minor adjustment at the wrist near contact.
Keep working hard on what is a joy of a website.

Reply
luiz November 7, 2015

very useful, thanks.

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Ildar November 12, 2015

Hi, Tomaz. Amazing video as always. Transfering weight into the ball looks very natural when you play crosscourt, but it feels like I won’t have enough space to hit down the line or inside out while transfering the weight into the ball (like the direction of weight transfer will be the same as the direction of the shot, or at least there won’t be as much difference between two directions, as on the crosscourt shot). So can you tell: will there be any difference beetwen direction of weight transfer depending on the direction of the shot, and what about lack (less amount) of space for racket, and lack of (less) difference beetwen direction of weight transfer and direction of shot, on down the line shots, and espessially on inside out shots.

Reply
    Tomaz November 12, 2015

    Hi Ildar,

    We always transfer weight / energy into the ball. In fact it’s easier when the direction of the shot is more in line with the direction of the energy transfer.

    There is no problem of getting too close to the ball, you should adjust unconsciously as you feel hitting the sweet spot or not.

    As for inside out, take a look at some forehands from Federer from start until around 0:13 and you’ll see how he “jerks” his body always in the direction of the ball and the shot.

    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=o_CuXqNBr2c

    Reply
Tunde November 15, 2015

Tomaz, This is excellent, but I believe its more on footwork issue. The drag of back foot or pinning it down till almost the end of the stroke will support clean it. Rotating and bringing it out quickly before the stroke finish result in lack of power and mis-hiting. For me this is why the natural stance for one backhand drive clearly support clean hit.

Reply
John C December 12, 2015

Always enjoy your posts Tomaz and this is yet another good one. A statement of the obvious – ‘track and hit the ball’ – and rely on feel to get direction and spin.

We always hear and remind ourselves to ‘watch the ball’ but we often think we are and don’t realize that we are pulling away right at the point of contact – either to recover or because we’re trying to direct the ball by reorienting our bodies towards the target – when all we need to do is ‘slightly’ reorient the angle of the racket a bit.

BTW – I 100% agree with the notion that the ‘feeling’ of easy power comes by making a ‘clean’ hit in or near the sweet spot. However – so often – if we’re not getting a lot of power on our shots our subconscious mind tells us to ‘swing harder’ rather than focusing on making clean contact with the ball in the sweet spot – which is most easily achieved by focusing on the ball and not where or even how we are hitting it. Once we are making ‘clean’ contact – it’s very easy to make the subtle adjustments to achieve direction and spin.

Again – really love your reminders about getting better by ‘keeping it simple’.

Reply
    Tomaz December 13, 2015

    You’re right saying that when we’re not getting good power that we automatically look to “swing harder” which leads us in the wrong direction.

    Yes, “swing nicer” and look to hit clean is the right approach to effortless power.

    Reply
Bengt February 15, 2016

This is fantastic advice. It sounds so basic to “swing at the ball and not to the target” but I have been doing it wrong all along. When I manage to swing at the ball I get a much cleaner and faster shot. However, I struggle doing it, especially when playing matches. I need to get the correct swing thought into my head.

One thing I have problems with is how the forehand swing should be “shaped”. On other sites I have seen the recommendation to align the racket in a straight line with the ball so that the swing is “straight forward”. But this often causes me to only use my arm and not the rotation of my body. When looking at your serve tips you emphasize that the serve swing should be more circular than straight. I agree with this and it helps me to get higher racket speed at impact. Should I apply the same thought to the forehand? I’m experimenting with thinking “circular” instead of “straight” when hitting a forehand and I have a feeling that it helps me but I’m a bit afraid that I’m getting it wrong.

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    Tomaz February 16, 2016

    Hi Bengt,

    Whether the forehand is shaped more linearly or with a curve it will happen in a split second. It sounds to me you’re taking things too literally and trying too hard to perform the stroke “correctly”.

    These suggestions are more mental images you should have while you’re hitting the ball and not really what you should much deliberately with your arms since it happens too fast. And yes, then you’ll be stiff and do it only with your arm.

    How the forehand is shaped eventually depends on what you want to do with the ball.

    Play the ball, Bengt and don’t tell your body what to do all the time.

    If you spin the ball and hit it with a certain trajectory then your arm will do what it has to be done.

    Reply
      Bengt February 16, 2016

      Yeah, I know I’m a bit over-analytical which causes problems for me sometimes. I will try to think more about “what” I want to achieve (like what spin and trajectory) and less about “how” to do that. Perhaps my body will solve it for me without me having to give detailed orders to it.

      It’s the same situation in golf. I want to think about from where I want to hit my next shot and not about wrist angles, lag, forward lean and so forth. But it’s hard to get the actual mechanics “automatic” – at least when you’re 50+. My 13-year old son doesn’t analyze – he just smacks the ball…

      Reply
Penny Maag February 20, 2016

I think of this differently-the ball is my target and I am moving toward it, but my target is a specific point on the ball; the point on the ball that will drive it to the desired area of the court.

I think this is just a different way of looking at the problem.

Reply
    Tomaz February 20, 2016

    Thanks for sharing, always good to get a different opinion as it may “click” for someone better than my own explanation.

    Reply
Zac April 29, 2016

Hi Tomaz,

I just tried this idea out on the court today and it was a huge help. For a long time I’ve had trouble going cross court with my forehand. Hitting the forehand inside out to the ad side of the court feels much easier. Going cross court I’ve had the feeling that my body is in the wrong place and that I can’t get the force moving in the right direction. I think the problem was exactly what you’re talking about in this post: I was imagining the force of my body going cross court instead of going into the ball. Now it makes sense to me that the inside out felt more natural, because on that shot the weight is going in the same direction as the ball.

I think what you describe here is very similar to what you describe in an earlier post on the slice serve. You have to get used to the feeling of your raquet and body weight moving in one direction while the ball moves in another–that is, in the direction that the strings are pointing.

Anyway, thanks for yet another great post!

Reply
    Tomaz April 29, 2016

    Hey Zac,

    Glad to hear that this worked for you.

    Yes, correct tennis strokes don’t always make most sense at first glance because things happen very fast. But once you feel these key points, you can get to a new level.

    Reply
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