Home / Tennis: Hitting with Power – A Few Common Misconceptions

Tennis: Hitting with Power – A Few Common Misconceptions

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There is a rather commonplace misconception that many tennis "power players" are particularly strong, or have greater muscular strength in relation to other, less powerful players. For the most part, this is not correct. Rather, power players (a "type" that has become prevalent on both the WTA and ATP Tours) have been taught technique that allows them to generate a lot a lot of power, specifically off the ground.

For example, players such as the Williams sisters demonstrate stroke production designed to produce – but there is little physical strength required in the production of their shots. Their swings are so long and fast that a young child hitting with those swings, and using the same extended trunk rotation, will generate far more power than an adult using 1980s-style stroke production. This can be seen at any tennis club, in which you will find children aged 10 to 15 (coached using the same stroke production techniques) hitting the ball a lot harder than adults who are both taller and physically stronger – but who use stroke production techniques from the 1970s or 1980s. The same adults may also be using using more powerful, "oversize" racquets, to help generate power on their strokes.

I was coached using the same stroke production techniques of modern power players – I was even asked to study the Williams sisters' early racquet preparation and long, aggressive, swings, particularly on the follow-through.  Unlike older club players, I have never experienced any pain in my shoulder, arms, elbow etc.  However, I generate far more pace than most club players, despite a comparatively slight build and only moderate muscular development.

Arguably, one player that does use a degree of physical strength to "muscle" the ball is Maria Sharapova. Sharapova's forehand has been the subject of frequent analysis and discussion among players and coaches as it is technically "incorrect". Sharapova pivots from her elbow and uses a lot of her forearm, shoulder and upper right torso – instead of the momentum created from the backswing of the racquet – to generate pace on that wing.

Indeed, it is highly likely that Sharapova's technique on her forehand has led directly to the right pectoralis muscle strain that she has suffered since Los Angeles 2005. In contrast to her backhand, which is a technically good stroke, and her serve, which is technically excellent, featuring a dynamic, fluid action, Sharapova's forehand is not a fluid stroke, featuring unwieldy, awkward preparation and a highly inconsistent follow-through: the racquet face can finish over her head, her shoulder and upper left arm, according to the individual shot.

"If you look at her technique, she's not that perfect, especially her forehand," Elena Dementieva (Indian Wells, 17th March 2006)

"It's got a lot of elbow in it…. and it's technically an unsound kind of shot," Annabel Croft, former player and presenter (Eurosport Sunday 28th May 2006)

"Technically…. you certainly wouldn't teach that technique but… yeah…  she's found a way of getting it in and hitting it hard… i mean, it's almost like a lasso, some of the forehands…. sometimes she finishes above her head, sometimes she finishes over her forehand [sic], you sometimes wonder how, how she gets the power…. but… er… obviously she throws her her whole body into it, and seems to make it." Arvind Palmer, tennis player Eurosport Sunday 28th May 2006)

Justine Henin-Hardenne also seeks to directly attack – and overpower – Sharapova's forehand whenever they play (see discussion below).

Venus Williams' forehand has been the subject of analysis in the past – but the technical problems in her forehand relate more to an exaggeratedly long backswing and a varying point of contact, rather than any use the use of the arm/shoulder or torso in the production of the stroke (i.e. the racquet swing performs most of the work for Venus, in marked contrast to Sharapova's arm/elbow-led forehand). The varying point of contact on Venus's forehand could have induced excessive pronation (see: Pronation ) on the wrist, resulting in the several wrist injuries (sprains etc.) Venus has sustained during her professional career. However, the majority of Venus William's injuries have occurred in the knees specifically, left patella injuries), leg (thigh/calf) muscles, the abdomen and the stomach.

When observing power players, something to watch out for is trunk and shoulder rotation. In her matches circa 2000-2002 Serena Williams frequently rotated at least 240 – 270 degrees through her groundstrokes. For example, her back often faced face the sideline of the ad court on the preparation for backswing of her forehand; after the  follow-through her back could be turned almost toward (sometimes facing) the  net/opposing baseline, her racquet lying across her back/shoulders.

Both Venus and Serena have particularly long swings on their groundtrsokes, and thus created greater momentum toward the ball than most players. To put it simply, the racquet is travelling a greater distance toward the ball, and will accelerate far more quickly (and violently) through the shot, assuming a fast swing speed. More torque, leading to angular acceleration, to use an analogy from physics.

Assuming good to excellent timing (essential for long swings), a reasonable athlete will generate a high level of power with such swings, especially combined with explosive trunk and shoulder rotation. Serena Williams exhibited brilliant modern [for the time] technique on her groundstrokes, according to tennis coach and ESPN (US) commentator Oscar Wegner (described as "the father of modern tennis"). Wegner has cited the Williams sisters in his tennis manuals, such as  Play Better Tennis in Two Hours: How to Master and RE-Master) the Fundamentals and Play Like the Pros (published in 2005). Martina Hingis, in a three-part coaching guide produced exclusively for  Ace tennis Magazine (UK, 2005) cited Serena Williams as player demonstrating 'excellent, beautiful' technique on the fundamental strokes.

Serena Williams would have generated a lot of power even if she were not physically strong. However, there is a negative by-product of longer wings, combined with explosive shoulder/trunk rotation: they can lead to serious and recurrent injuries, particularly if the
athlete is not properly trained. Trainers on both the ATP and WTA tours cite injuries to the abdomen, shoulder, ribs, groin – and related muscle groups as the most frequently treated in the modern game. These injuries are a direct result of the greater physical strain placed upon the body by the modern game.

At present, there seems to be a move away from longer(er) swings and extended rotation, producing a more compact – but still explosive swing. Examples of this in the modern game include Nadia Petrova and Svetlana Kuznetsova, both very powerful players. Kuznetsova doesn't achieve anything like the kind of trunk rotation (as described above) on her groundstrokes. Kuznetsova uses some angular momentum to transfer weight into her forehand – but, more significantly, she uses the muscles in her forearm to accelerate the racquet sharply through the shot at the point of contact. This can lead to injuries in the wrist, forearm, elbow etc. – as the forearm is repeatedly absorbing a lot of the energy from the incoming ball. You see this very frequently in 'club' players, who play with 'tennis elbow' supports/strapping etc. – though far less frequently among professional tennis players.

For a player with long(er) swings [such as Serena Williams, Justine Henin-Hardenne, Venus Williams, Kim Clijsters, Amelie Mauresmo [i]and[/i] extended trunk rotation [Serena Williams, in particular – but also Venus Williams and Kim Clijsters all demonstrate dynamic' trunk/shoulder rotation] timing is the critical factor. If their timing is 'off', a lot can go wrong; generally the shots will be of poor quality, the ball being taken too 'early' or too 'late'. This has been Serena Williams’ problem in recent years (since 2004), her fitness has clearly declined.

However, (poor) timing is something that has affected both Justine Henin-Hardenne and Kim Clijsters during this current season. Their racquet preparation is (generally) as it was before, and they still exhibit extended, explosive trunk rotation.  However, the timing of the racquet face contacting the ball has frequently been poor, compared to previous seasons, hence a general lack of control on elaborate stroke production.  Justine's timing, in particular, has fluctuated wildly from excellent to rather poor, sometime from one match to another.

Nadia Petrova, possibly the best exponent of the popular 'windscreen wiper' technique (see discussion at Tenniswarehouse ) in the women's game today, is less susceptible to problems with timing the ball etc. as her swings are more compact, so less can go wrong. Martina Hingis has famously compact, moderate-length swings but she doesn't accelerate through the ball as quickly as a player like Petrova. However, Hingis exhibits remarkable control,  which is fundamental to her game style. Hingis' more compact swings allow her to take the ball particularly early – far earlier than many of her opponents (much like Agassi) – and, effectively, rob them of the time required to set up for their groundstrokes. This is particularly effective on fast-playing indoor courts, where the bounce is consistent, and reduced/moderate swing length is a positive advantage in terms of making solid contact with the ball. Hingis also seems to be transferring a little more weight into her shots, specifically on the backhand wing.

Though small (slightly less than 5 ft 6"), a player like Justine Henin-Hardenne hardly suffers from a deficit in power – if anything, she needs to develop more control to properly manage the power she does generate. Though she might not quite possess the weight of shot ball after ball, shot after shot of the most powerful players in the game – arguably, Serena Williams and Mary Pierce – Henin-Hardenne gets a very heavy strike on the ball and, at her best, is a highly dominating and attacking player. Henin-Hardenne comes equipped with a huge forehand (recorded at over 90 MPH at Wimbledon 2005; +12/15 MPH faster than Lindsay or Sharapova's fastest-recorded forehand winners) and a very powerful backhand. Her weight of shot, combined with a highly aggressive directional change on her groundstrokes allows her to immediately dictate rallies.  She also > achieves a relatively high number of service winners/aces, even on clay. Justine typically averages between 104 – 116 on her 1st serve; last year she hit one four fastest serves recorded on WTA Tour last year, at 124 MPH. 

Many people still express surprise that a "small" player such as Henin-Hardenne is able to compete with larger (apparently) stronger players – but Lindsay Davenport has repeatedly made the point (since 2001) that she considers Justine to be one of he most powerful players on the Tour, Justine's height and slight build being an an irrelevance to her weight of shot and her ability to hit an extraordinary number of winners.

March 21, 2004

J. HENIN-HARDENNE/L. Davenport 6-1, 6-4
Q. She's good.


Q. What's your mindset against a player with so many weapons about knowing when to come to net, when it's worth the gamble?

LINDSAY DAVENPORT: Yeah, I don't know. I'll let you know when I figure that out (laughter). You know, I went for a few shots today. Could be the heat. Could be the pressure my opponent was putting on me. Could be lots of reasons. She does a fantastic job now of really controlling points with her forehand, running around, kind of neutralising the opponent, hitting it to either corner. The other thing that impressed me was her second serves were coming in I thought pretty hot, in the high 80s to mid 90s. It's very hard to get a hit off a second serve when they're coming in. Yes, I got a couple double-faults, but for the most part I wasn't able to get the first hit on those because they were coming in a little harder
than I expected.

Q. Has her forehand gotten so solid to the point where you feel like you need to play backhand cross-court that much?

LINDSAY DAVENPORT: Much more solid than in years past. I mean, she has the ability when she gets pulled wide to hit it pretty hard, and cross-court gives the ball a jump quite a bit, so I'm really far off court. She can hit it up the line. I would say it's her bigger weapon now. I don't know what she says. But today I feel like she really controlled the match with that side of her court.

Q. Is her run, dominance, all the more impressive because of her size?

LINDSAY DAVENPORT: Yeah, I mean, I don't know what it's like to play at that size, so it's hard for me to say. But she generates just as much pace as the bigger girls, I would say.
 Q. You served pretty well today, especially the last game. She's gotten very aggressive also on the second serve returns now.

LINDSAY DAVENPORT: Yeah. I mean, I felt like even on my first serves, if I didn't hit them great, she was really going after them, especially her forehand. Her second serve, just putting all sorts of pressure on me, going for shots, stepping in on her backhand. It was tough. I mean, I had good first serves. I mean, she was very aggressive and really took it to me today. I really felt like I was on my heels and guessing a lot of the match.

Henin-Hardenne has repeatedly demonstrated over the last three years that she can go toe-to toe with any power player (we may have to exclude Venus and Serena Williams, as she has not played Venus (January 2003) and Serena (June 2003) for three years, before she rose to the top of the sport) in a straightforward hitting contest.  Moreover, Henin-Hardenne is able to outhit these players.

Indeed, if you watch Henin-Hardenne play Svetlana Kuznetsova, they adopt an identical game style: both looking to outhit the other with "very confrontational groundstroke exchanges" (the BBC). However, at both Berlin (clay) and Sydney (hardcourt) most of the shorter points finishing in outright winners, were played and won by Justine. Another germane example of this is the 2006 Dubai final, played against Maria Sharapova on outdoor hardcourt. In the beginning of the match, when Henin-Hardenne and Sharapova both hit into the corners, providing angles for both players to create their winners (i.e. hitting down-the-line off a crosscourt forehand/backhand; hitting crosscourt off a down-the-line forehand/backhand etc.), the match was highly competitive, with both players holding serve.

However, when Henin-Hardenne began hitting into the centre of the court, beginning a straightforward hitting contest (typically going forehand to forehand), the match turned decidedly in her favour. Sharapova's forehand broke down under the pressure of Henin-Hardenne's forehand – the difference in weight of shot repeatedly telling on that wing, allowing Henin-Hardenne to milk this play for easy points.

Indeed, in each of their last four matches, Sharapova's forehand has repeatedly broken down when placed under direct attack – though her backhand has normally held up under pressure.  The difference in weight of shot and directional change is further demonstrated in forehand winners: Henin-Hardenne hits significantly more forehand winners, sometimes twice as many, as Sharapova. The difference in weight of shot was first revealed on clay at Berlin last year, and then on hardcourt, twice this year.

Henin-Hardenne is an aggressive player who strikes a heavy ball and, more critically, seeks to aggressively change direction on the ball. Consequently, Justine's matches frequently tend to be very winner-heavy – probably more than any other active player in the top 20, aside from Venus Williams – typically averaging 20 – 40 winners in a two-set match and 25 -50 winners in a three-set match.  Examples include:

23 winners to Amelie Mauresmo's 7, Berlin semi final 2006, 58 minutes

28 winners to Lindsay Davenport's 19, Australian Open quarter final, 2006

22 winners to Maria Sharapova's 17, Australian Open semi final, 2006

14 winners to Svetlana Kuznetosva's approx. 4, first set, Sydney semi final, 2006

44 winners [to 48 unforced errors] to Eleni Daniilidou's 23 winners, 1st round Wimbledon 2005, three-set [u]loss[/u]

16 winners to Nadia Petrova's 7, French Open semi final, 2005

25 winners to Maria Sharapova's 13, Berlin Open quarter final, 2005

28 winners to Elena Dementieva's 21, Charleston Final, 2005

19 winners to Maria Sharapova's 19, Miami quarter final, 2005 – (only head-to head loss)

29 winners to Alicia Molik's 24, Miami 4th round, 2005

25 winners to Amelie Mauresmo's 9, Olympics Final 2004, 78 minutes

18 winners to Mary Pierce's 16, Olympics quarter final, 2004, 70 minutes

29 winners to Lindsay Davenport's 18, Indian Wells Final, 2004, 82 minutes

30 winners to Kim Clijster's 12, Australian Open Final, 2004

41 winners to Amelie Mauresmo's 38, Tour Championships semi final 2003, three set loss

23 winners to Jennifer Capriati's 13, Tour Championships round robin match, 2003, 59 minutes

37 winners to Jennifer Capriati's 28, US Open semi final, 2003 

Win or lose it's extremely rare for Justine to finish with fewer winners than her opponent; normally, she finishes with significantly more. Justine's game – the success and effectiveness of it – depends very much on how many winners she is able hit during the course of a match.  Other players of this type include Venus Williams, Mary Pierce, Serena Williams and Lindsay Davenport.  These players all possess a heavy 'weight of shot' and the ability to immediately change direction on the ball; this allows them to play more offensively than their opponents, and immediately dictate the play, and points.  Players who have less weight of shot (Anastasia Myskina, Martina Hingis) and/or players who do not aggressively change direction on the ball  (Maria Sharapova, Myskina, Patty Schnyder, Elena Dementieva), relative to the more offensive players, tend to record fewer winners than more (most) attacking players. 

Other players, such as Kim Clijsters and Nadia Petrova (and Jennifer Capriati, earlier in this decade), who hit a relatively 'heavy' ball, tend to rally more centrally (up and down) into the court, and 'work the point' a little more on many points, rather than immediately changing direction, compared to most attacking players.

Martina Hingis lacks a heavy weight of shot but is an excellent shotmaker, with intuitive feels for the ball, much like the terribly underrated Guillermo Coria in the men's game. In contrast to contemporaries who possess greater weight of shot, a counter puncher like Martina has to work the point, gradually opening up the angles of the court, in order to play offensively – either hitting a winner, or forcing an error to win the point.  This means the points will be typically be two or three strokes longer, as a player of this type requires greater time to manipulate and 'craft'  the points.

Counter-punching shotmakers like Hingis characteristically hit fewer (sometimes far fewer) winners than more attacking players with a heavier weight of shot (e.g. Venus Williams, Mary Pierce etc.) but they will also hit rather fewer unforcederrors, the winner/unforced errors ratio normally being 'positively' balanced.  This kind of playing style is often more 'attractive' to many (especially older) fans and writers who like to see a point unfold gradually.

Both styles of play clearly have their place in the modern game. However, employing a counter-punching style such as Hingis' against the more aggressive and consistent 'power players' requires excellent anticipation, timing and reflexes both to diffuse and re-direct power, so that the player is not overwhelmed by their opponent's greater
weight of shot. Luckily, Hingis has these abilities and is able to fend off many players with a heavier weight of shot, as demonstrated at semi-final Rome (defeated Venus Williams 0-6 6-3 6-3) and at R16 Indian Wells (defeated Lindsay Davenport 6-3 1-6 6-2).

The most intriguing match-ups feature players with differing styles and though there is marked trend toward offensive baseline play in both the women's and men's game, these match-ups can still frequently be seen on both Tours.

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  • Aaron

    Hello, nice article. I’d like to ask what grip does martina hingis and serena williams as well as lindsay davenport and roger federer use for their forehands? Thanks!

  • christopher

    Hi Aaron,
    I wrote the article, which has been subsequently rewritten. 🙂
    email me at: crourkework [at] yahoo.co.uk
    and i’ll explain the grips of pros
    that you mentioned.


  • Aaron

    Thanks Christopher I will wmail you thanks! Just read this post again because it was linked from a post in WTAWORLD about Martina that I had to answer 🙂 Can’t believe I already wrote a comment here before haha.

  • None

    Nice article. One critique however, many coaches no longer consider finishing over the shoulder of the arm you’re swinging with on the forehand to be technically incorrect anymore (ala Sharapova or Nadal). There was a good instructional article in a Tennis Weekly or Tennis Magazine focusing on this, essentially explaining how the stroke is in many ways more biomechanically sound, naturally generates more spin and is easier/simpler to hit.

  • Nice article. One critique however, many coaches no longer consider finishing over the shoulder of the arm you’re swinging with on the forehand to be technically incorrect anymore (ala Sharapova or Nadal). There was a good instructional article in a Tennis Weekly or Tennis Magazine focusing on this, essentially explaining how the stroke is in many ways more biomechanically sound, naturally generates more spin and is easier/simpler to hit.

  • Paka

    There is no such thing as an “incorrect” followthrough, unless one is trying to change the natural path of the swing after ball contact. So-called “inconsistent” followthrough is due to the path of the swing taking different arcs. It’s very old-style to thing that the finish has to always look a certain way. That can only happen if the swing is also consistent. Trying to force the body into the same preparation position for every stroke would be the only way to accomplish this – a rarely achievable feat at any level!

  • Wow, a heck of an article. Too bad, though. Sharapova may no longer regain her former statue.

  • Zubair

    Nice article, and still very relevant even though we now have a newer generation of players. In my opinion, the women’s game 5 years ago was well ahead of its time.
    Pity there was little discussion about the power in men’s tennis though.

  • c001k1D!

    thx heeps 4 dis it rlly hlped mi in my pe asingment n i cpyed it excatly n i goot a b+ fuk yerr!!!!!!!!!11!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!1

  • STM

    That’s nice, but what are you going to do for your English assignment???

    Call me old fashioned, but I’d reckon they might work out you’ve been cheating.