About a year ago, I bought a camcorder. I wasn't planning to make video of my kids since I don't have kids. I wasn't planning to make a movie, though the idea is certainly appealing. I wanted to record my tennis strokes.
Video isn't exactly new to tennis. Back in the 1970s, Vic Braden used to take high-speed videos of tennis players. He famously advocated that players use a very low toss for their serves much like Roscoe Tanner, the best server of his day. This was routinely ignored, especially in Europe, where the opposite occurred: extremely high ball tosses. Braden probably popularized the notion of wrist pronation vs. wrist snap, and that has been far more influential than the low ball toss.
But Braden had an expensive tennis facility and an expert making those videos, so it meant the average player couldn't look at his own strokes. You needed two things: low-cost camcorders and video software to slow down the action. Without being able to slow down your stroke, it's hard to notice where problems occur. While I don't have the benefit of high-speed high-def cameras, I don't really need them.
I use a mini-DV camera which is good enough (though not HD), and I use IMovie '09 to slow down the video. That is also good enough for me.
I first started modifying my forehand in probably October of 2007. At the time, I chose to model Novak Djokovic. I don't even recall why Djokovic, other than he was a rising star and that he was pretty funny. You have to understand that Djokovic had a huge breakout year in 2007. He literally came from nowhere and jumped to number 3. While people were distracted by epic Nadal-Federer finals, few noticed that, by Wimbledon, Djokovic had made his second consecutive semifinals, essentially matching Federer and Nadal, and made his first US Open final that same year.
The one problem with Djokovic's forehand, at least, at the time I decided to stop using his forehand as a model, was the following. Pause the above video. Notice that Novak's racquet face points behind him to the back "fence" (a wall, in pro events). He then lowers the racquet face down so it points down the the ground behind him (pause at 0:13), then turns the racquet face to the right tilted somewhat downwards (pause at 0:14), before pulling the racquet to contact.
To me, that seemed like a lot of excess motion, and I wanted a simpler model.
So I went to the forehand everyone said was the best, at least at the end of 2007 or the beginning of 2008, and that was Roger Federer.
At the beginning of this video, Roger's racquet face points to his right. Contrast that with Djokovic, who brings the racquet behind him. In fact, this pointing to the right was something I had a hard time doing because my body awareness wasn't so good. By body awareness, I mean I would point my arm in one direction, but think it was pointing in some other direction. So I would probably think I was pointing to my right, and was actually pointing behind me.
How could I make such a huge mistake? One reason was simple. I wasn't looking. I was focusing on the ball, so when I stuck my racquet behind me, I didn't really know where it was. I could have asked someone, but it never occurred to me that my mental model of where my arm was and reality diverged so much.
Video really helped me see this.
Now, it turns out, Federer also has some motions that add some complexity to his forehand.
Pause at 0:04, and you see his racquet face pointed face down, and the tip of his racquet head pointed to his right. If you were take an overhead view, lined up so the baseline is "west-east" and Roger is hitting "south", then his racquet face initially points west, the moves north, and indeed a little north-east.
By the time it's pointing north-east, (pause at 0:08), the racquet face points right and slightly down. This is the common racquet orientation for pretty much every modern player, and occurs when they are about to accelerate the racquet head to contact. Up to that point, players do all sorts of things. I would say, at least for the better players I see on public courts, that the Djokovic model seems the most popular. Why? I don't know.
I discovered, after watching videos of myself, that I kept my racquet face down a lot, that is, almost the entire swing to contact. I only open the face right when I hit it, but otherwise, it stays closed.
There were several reasons, but one huge reason was because I feed the ball too close to my body. Feeding yourself the ball means to drop the ball and hit it. Most people drop it near their right foot, and that it simply too close to the body. It should be tossed maybe 3 feet to your right. You want your arm to be out far to the right so it gets more of a full extension.
The other reason was the way I oriented my wrist. It's taken maybe 10 months to begin to train myself not to close my racquet face and to know which orientation my wrist should be at.
Ultimately, that became the reason I abandoned the Federer forehand. Federer closes his racquet face, then points it to the right. Since I couldn't tell whether I was closing my racquet face or not (despite thinking I was pointing it to the right, often numerous times), I felt trying to imitate Federer that closely was going to confuse me.
At that point, I looked to a different model, which was probably the end of 2008, maybe around October or November. I had been trying the Federer forehand since probably March, or before I even started to video myself in May of 2008.
2008 turned out to be a big year for several players: Gilles Simon was ranked around 20 and moved to around 6 or 7 (but has slipped some since a big move to the top 10), Juan Martin del Potro's ascendancy has been more impressive, getting into the top 10 as well, and finally Andy Murray who started the year around 6, and moved up to a solid number 4, threatening to go to 3.
If you were to ask the experts looking at Murray's game what his best stroke was, well, they'd probably not point to his forehand. Indeed, his backhand is considered his stronger side. Still, that's just a relative comparison. That is, it treats his forehand and backhand separately. If you were to rank the top forehands, Murray's would be behind Federer, Djokovic, Verdasco, Gonzalez, probably Blake. It depends on what you think is important in a forehand. If you were to rank backhands, Murray might be 3 behind Nadal and Djokovic. Even so, most pros, have better forehands than backhands. One might argue this is true even for a player with as impressive a one-handed backhand as Richard Gasquet. Few people rip winners regularly from their backhands.
This is probably the best slow motion video of Andy Murray's forehand, despite the rather low quality of the video itself. It's about the only one that is shown from Andy's right, which you almost never see. Most videos are taken from the front, which is fine, but not to illustrate what I want to show.
In particular, since this video is from Andy's right, then when his racquet face points right, then it points to the camera. Pay attention to the entire swing path.
Starting at 0:12 to 0:17, the racquet face points right (i.e. to the camera, i.e., to you, the viewer) which is pretty much the start of his motion to just the instant before contact where he then, out of necessity (like every pro), points the racquet face to the ball.
Nowhere in that stroke does Murray point his racquet face down, which, if you recall from the earlier on, was my problem. I would close my face until just before impact.
Despite knowing this, it took a long time to understand several things. First, I had a tendency to point the racquet face behind me, a la Djokovic. I also had a huge looping motion behind me. I noticed most pros don't loop that big. They have a much milder motion that, in particular, doesn't get behind them.
I should say most male pros. Women pros, by and large, do get their racquet behind them, and hit it like some folks hit a one-handed backhand. There's only one male pro I know of that hits like that, which is Frenchman, Jeremy Chardy.
Watch at 2:16 (it's sad how bad Youtube video quality is--you can't watch tennis at all unless it's at least high quality, which is why it's nice that Youtube finally allowed better quality video to be uploaded). Chardy takes his racquet so that it is behind him (racquet face points to back fence), but unlike Djokovic, who has the racquet tip pointed up, Chardy's racquet tip points to the left. Most women pros (Safina, Sharapova, Ivanovic, etc) do this, but most male pros don't.
Think of your chest as a large infinite plane, much like the ones they teach in you in geometry. A plane divides 3-space into "half", which can be loosely termed as the half-space in front of you, and the half-space behind you. Now imagine your chest points to the right fence, thus you are sideways, relative to the net. This is the position you'd be in setting up for a righty forehand.
Most male pros keep their racquet head in the front half. Women pros, on the other hand, let the racquet head get behind them. This is so they can get a longer swing path. It mimics a one-handed backhand where the racquet face also gets behind you, but applies the same idea to the forehand. Men, perhaps needing less time to hit because they are physically stronger, don't do this.
In particular, if you watch the wrist and arm, it tends to go roughly straight back and drop and then the whole body rotates counter-clockwise. This would be much easier to illustrate if I had a video, but I don't.
To illustrate, imagine you are doing jumping jacks. Focus on your right arm. Jumping jacks have you swing your right arm at the plane of your torso. Basically, your racquet goes from being in front of you as you prepare to hit, to being maybe 45 degress pointing up in a jumping jack motion, to dropping your arm so it is maybe waist height (this is the part of the jumping jack motion where the arm descends down).
Notice the arm stays in that plane. My tendency was to pull my arm behind this plane and make my wrist move behind this plane in a loop motion.
OK, I'm being highly technical here. Clearly, women hit something like that, so why don't I?
Several reasons. One is silly. I'm a guy, I want to hit like other guy pros. Two, male pros have shorter strokes and so I think that's important so I don't get caught too late. Male pros already set up much quicker than I do, so they can afford to have longish stroke paths. Women pros are also quicker than me.
Three, I want to make my body do what my mind is telling it to do. And that's really the biggest reason. The change I'm making may not improve my forehand much, but the process by which I get there will help me think about how I do things, how I get my body to make a certain motion. I didn't expect it to take me a year to master. It's still a work in progress, but I am slowly getting closer to what I want to do.
One key is that I can shadow-stroke the way I want to hit. Shadow-stroking is where you hit the ball without the ball. You would think that motion is enough. If I can shadow stroke, I can hit the ball that same way.
When I shadow-stroke, there's no ball. I don't react to a ball, so I can focus entirely on the swing. But once there's a ball, I have to react so I can hit the ball, and then muscle memory kicks in to try to adjust the swing to hit the ball, and that's where my problems come in. You just have to swing over and over to train the body not to do what it's been doing for a long time.
Now, a year is a pretty long time to obsess over hitting a forehand, especially since the motion isn't coming to me that quickly. But I enjoy the process of getting there. If it came easily, I would have missed too many other things, in particular, a better awareness of what my body is doing. That's been a weirdly valuable lesson.
Weird, only because it's not that critical for me to know what my body is doing when it hits a tennis ball, but valuable because I realize what I thought I was doing and what I do are different things, and that's an interesting lesson, that might apply to less physical activities.
Right now, the motion is kinda there, but I still take my racquet back too much, so I am trying to reduce that motion. If I were to have done this motion 6 months ago, I would have told you I am not even pointing my racquet behind me, but it's off to my right. I would have been wrong. That goes to show you how off my perception was.
So I still need to practice. I'm hoping, fingers crossed, that a month more and I'll have it close to where I want it, but then I've been trying this for many months already, so if it's longer, I won't be surprised.
corrections - - Chick Corea (note the spelling) was a member of Miles Davis' band. - Graham Chapman, the only Graham in the group, is the only deceased mem...
1 month ago