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.
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.
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.
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.
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:
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Therefore, in tennis, we need to:
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.
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? 😉