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Whip The Ball For Better Topspins

When trying to develop monster topspin shots off your ground strokes, it is important to visualize a whip. A whip is thicker at the handle and tapers down towards the tip. When snapped, it can create speeds surpassing the sound barrier (cracking sound). Your body is similar to a whip in design: your trunk/torso is generally thicker and moves slower. However, your shoulder, biceps and forearms are considerably smaller and, therefore, move faster.

Once you start uncoiling into a shot - particularly the forehand - the momentum generated travels through your arm towards the racket. Here is where things get interesting: although your arm moves in one direction following its natural path, the wrist often snaps (or, some say, forearm rotates) in order to generate topspin (a deviation from the normal angular momentum of the arm). This "snap" is a slight (for some, not so slight) brushing of the ball which creates the spin. However, to do so, the wrist must deviate somewhat from the natural path of the arm (obviously, it still remains attached to it) while holding on to an object (racket) about half its weight (human hand weighs between 22 and 30 ounces). 

The issue that we're dealing with is control of the racket. In order to have a good topspin it is important to have a strong grip (although not choking the racket) as well as a strong forearm in order to commence the topspin motion. Remember that momentum = Mass times Velocity. In this regard, although the hand (tip of the whip) weighs less than your body, it's also moving faster thereby creating momentum in a certain direction. To "break away" from its natural path, a greater "force" is necessary (i.e., forearm and hand strength). Tennis players, like baseball players, have understood the importance of hand and forearm strength for decades. Some have squeezed broken tennis balls as a way to cross-train; others have lugged around forearm builders such as clamps and pulleys.

One of the best way to develop forearm-grip strength for tennis is to practice a lot of drop-feeds where you are isolating this portion of your body. Try to LIFT the ball 6 feet over the net by BRUSHING the ball (rather than scooping it). Once you get the concept, you can transition to slightly more sophisticated workouts such as hitting against rapid-fire balls on the ball machine (minimum of 300) or hitting 1000 volleys in a row against the backboard. The key is to "feel the burn" in your forearm and develop grip and forearm strength. This concept is particularly important for female players. Unlike guys, girls tend to not be gym rats and they don't often play sports which require arm strength (e.g., baseball or football). Therefore, although girls generate a great deal of force with their torsos, shoulders and arms, they tend to fall just short of mastering the topspin due to their relatively low forearm strength. As a result, a lot of female player tend to have flatter shots and a lot of teaching pros perpetuate this mistake by teaching the shots that they see on TV rather than addressing the physical issue. 

Nevertheless, things are starting to change and some players have broken away from the general mentality. Take, for example, Samantha Stosur. When she first started on tour, she was a very good player but her shots lacked the "bite" necessary to penetrate the court. Take a look at the size and definition of the arm, particularly the forearm (note: size is only one indicator of strength but it's not exclusive).

Now take a look at the picture on the right taken in 2011. Forget about the racket finish - we are only using this picture to point out the definition of the arm, specifically the forearm. If you watch Samantha play now, you will notice that she plays similar to a male tennis players: not just powerful shots (Venus and Serena have been doing that for years), but shots with heavy topspin. 

Given the pace of the game, these shots would not be possible without forearm and grip strength. Therefore, rather than making excuses as to why you're not hitting decent topspin, take the initiative and start improving yourself physically and then see how it goes from there. With modern technology (lighter rackets; more powerful strings; awesome gym equipment), there's absolutely no reason why you should not be able to generate monster topspin groundstrokes.

Of course, don't forget about the other components of the shot (e.g. footwork, balance, torso, preparation, etc.) and to practice, practice, practice. Before you attempt to tear phone books and crush rocks (and destroy fluidity and range of motion in the process), know that this is only a small piece of the puzzle (Stosur's as well as yours). However, when encountering obstacles in the development of these shots, keep in mind the strength ratio between your body/arm and forearm/wrist. 

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Reader Comments (11)

Great article, to me - Stosur looks like she is juicing intermittently, unlikely for a female to have such a build, look at her massive latisimmus, etc. Im not buying it - she is indeed working out more then the rest, but I bet a few "vitmins" are added every now and then. Unless, of course she is outright lifting weights all day and eating like a horse - but then no time to play tennis. Doesn't make sense to me. Suspicious

December 2, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterTweener

No idea. She is definitely working hard (college friend worked with her for a long time and knows her commitment). Thank you. It's important to note that a lot of female players avoid lifting weights like the plague because they don't want to lose their feminine qualities. Of course, their game 'suffers' as a result...they play with relatively flat strokes because they simply cannot generate the snap at the speed at which they are swinging. Then there are those who are willing to kick it up a notch for their craft.

December 2, 2011 | Registered CommenterCAtennis

Good article. Women do need to work on forearm strength. When I get college freshman girls come on my team, they don't have backhand volleys because they don't have the muscle to stick that volley.

December 2, 2011 | Unregistered Commenterchad

Yes. Due to their proclivity for two handed backhands, their forearms are not as developed. Men are naturally stronger so it's somewhat less of an issue, but some guys also need a lot of help developing their strength in order to have more solid (less swing) BH volleys.

December 2, 2011 | Registered CommenterCAtennis

I always thought the grip itslef on the racquet was supposed to be relatively loose - like holding a live bird - strong enough to prevent the bird from escaping but not tight enough to actually kill the bird. No?

December 3, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterTweener

True but not for every shot...depends on the ball. As it says above "tight but don't choke it". Physically stronger players can afford to be looser because they have the ability to squeeze at last second if they have to. Physically weak players tend to oversqueeze (thereby firming up the wrist) in order to compensate. In other words, it's better to be strong and relaxed rather than weak and stiff. Your thoughts?

December 3, 2011 | Registered CommenterCAtennis

makes sense, maybe alot of really high level player can be "relaxed" and "loose" because they have the physical strength to afford to do that and still make a powerful shot and control the racquet. Me, personally, if Im holding too loose on the grip, the racquet will shift in my hand a very tiny bit if the ball is not struck in the sweet spot of the racquet. That forces me to tighten up a bit, which is bad. Maybe Ill start lifting weights? - if it wasnt so damn boring

December 3, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterTweener

The key is to find a range where you have a tight grip and a loose wrist. There's nothing wrong with having a tight grip as long as it doesn't impede the range of motion of the wrist. Most people do not spend enough time playing tennis so this happy medium doesn't exist in their world. Thus, it needs to be brought out through some form of training or cross-training. Have you tried cross-fit?

December 3, 2011 | Registered CommenterCAtennis

I think you need to be able to be flexible and do it all, there is no right way but works for you. From my experience, when hitting a heavy reverse fh like Stosur in the pic- I tend grip the racquet fairly tight to get the depth and length on the ball. Also, in general, when i am hitting heavy high, i am pretty loose. But when im trying to drive the ball lower and skidding, i grab it tighter so my hand doesnt wobble and i van manhandle the ball deep. Just trial and error, proof is in the pudding. No need to be too dogmatic, do what works for you and get really good at that. The grass can always be greener on the other side.

December 3, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterWest Nott

This explains why Stosur is one of the few WTA players with a really good kick serve. I have plenty of X-mo cam slow mo footage of her on the practice courts at Indian Wells and she just looks like she has outstanding athleticism and technique. In no way does she look bulky or overmuscled to me, she's just a player who's taken years to develop and move beyond doubles and have a go at high level singles. The photos prove it - she was too weak early on and remedied that through intensive training and just by hitting thousands of balls. She looks like a tennis player, nothing more. She's someone to be admired, not suspected of nefariousness unless there was positive proof.

December 5, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterKarl Rosenstock

strange for a female to be able to develop that much muscle mass as seen in the photos above (especially if she was not muscular at a prior point in her life), I assume these photos were not photoshopped? Ive seen her in real life as well, very well developed large muscles compared to the other girls. Still, strange to be able to get the muscles to this particular level of the photos above. Impossible to get proof you ask for. Still very suspicious to me. I hope its just 8 hours of weight lifting per day - but you need time for
"tear and repair" of the muscles to get ot this particular level - when does she have that time for that process while on tour? This is not some gym rat that does nothing all day but lift and eat, she also has to compete in tennis at pro level.

December 5, 2011 | Unregistered Commentertweener

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