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The Heavy Ball
Physics of Tennis
Notes on the Tour
How far apart are the hands of elite players, and for how long?
How far should your hands be apart when you are playing a point in tennis? There is more than a good chance you have never asked that question.
Video analysis shows that the best players in the world keep their hands close together throughout the stroke production process: moving to the ball, striking the ball, and recovering for the next shot. In fact, excluding serves and overheads, world class players keep the hands shoulder width apart or less around 90% of the time.
I know this from the research study we conducted of 6 world elite players: Roger Federer, Rafael Nadal, Andy Murray, Novak Djokovic, Justin Henin and Serena Williams. The study analyzed 3 complete sets for each player. The goal was to quantify the amount of time the players spent with their hands shoulder width apart or less. To insure impartiality, each set was analyzed three times, by three different researchers.
Like the men, top women’s players keep their hands close together almost 90% of the time.
I anticipated the percentage of time players had their hands close together would be quite high, but to my surprise the percentage was actually higher than I expected. The averages for the six players studied showed that the hands were shoulder width or less about 90% of the time, with the men scoring justly slightly higher than the women. You can see the results in the chart below.
Since high level players follow this simple, basic concept, I believe it should be included as one of the tehcnical essentials of the game. Because of its simplicity, I feel keeping the hands close together should be prioritized and stressed for all levels of players. But has not been my experience in observing tennis below the world class level.
Player Percent of Total Time Hands
Shoulder Width or Less
Roger Federer 93%
Rafael Nadal 92%
Novak Djokovic 92%
Andy Murray 91%
Serena Williams 89%
Justine Henin 88%
Soon after I finished playing college tennis I became the hitting partner for 2 WTA touring professionals. Later I landed my first teaching position at a private tennis club in Chicago. I was suddenly exposed to all levels of players, and saw for the first time people playing tennis in ways I had never seen in my playing career, or in coaching at the world class level.
Most club players play primarily with only the dominant arm.
I was stunned my first 3 or 4 days at the club. The shocking realization was that most players were swinging primarily with their dominant arm and hand. But at the same time I was intrigued, I wanted to know why. Previously, the lowest level player I had worked with was a national ranked junior, and as a result I had just assumed everyone used their hands in the same way.
After the first 3 months of teaching at the club, I was completely exhausted, because I was spending 3 to 4 hours a day telling the members, even those not taking lessons, about this issue.
Shortly thereafter, I was reprimanded for borrowing the large aerobic rubber bands from the fitness center. Why? I was using them to tie my students hands together to keep them in front of the body during the preparation.
To me the overuse of the dominant arm in club tennis helps explain why every pro shop sells a variety of arm bands and supports, and why so many lower level players have tennis elbow. Meanwhile, world class players, who can hit 100mph forehands, rarely do.
By my definition, pro players are actually the most compact.
So now a few years down the road in coaching, the conclusion is clear. There is a dividing line in the sand. Players at lower levels execute the strokes primarily using the dominant hand and arm. Players at and or above the 4.5 level use the non-dominant hand and arm in all the strokes. World class players use the non-dominant arm most of all, and in my view, are actually the most technically compact players at any level.
When we talk about players keeping their hands close together, we are not talking about some revolutionary, high tech way to hit the ball. The concept is simple. We are talking about keeping your hands out in front of you as the motion start, and keeping them that way through the completion of the first part of the preparation.
To do this you need an understanding what is happening with the non-dominant hand/arm. On the forehand, beginners and intermediates isolate the non-dominant arm by separating the hands too early. They end up taking the racket back with their non-dominant hand either down at their side, or pointing directly ahead of them.
Compare that to the pro players from our study. From the ready position there is no immediate “take back” of the racket. Instead they make a unit turn. Essentially they turn their entire upper body clockwise until the line of the shoulders has rotated 30 or 45 degrees. Now notice the hands. They are still in front of the torso. At this point the hands haven’t moved on their own. (This observation is also consistent with John Yandell’s analysis on the forehand. Click Here.)
Top players complete the unit turn with the hands together and in front.
Only when players reach this position--with the body partially turned and the hands in front--is the non-dominant hand finally released. It now goes across the body. At the same time the dominant arm moves back about a foot or foot and a half. During live play it may appear high performance players take large swings, but in this critical stage of the stroke they are much more compact and efficient than beginners and intermediates.
As the swing progresses we can see that during the later part of the backswing the distance between the hands can exceed shoulder, sometimes substantially. But watch what happens as the forward swing begins. The hands move in tandem across the body with the non-dominant arm tucking on the left side of the body, again with a limited distance between the hands. This is one of the signatures of a compact, world class stroke, but compare that to so many club players whose left arm flails far to the left side in the forward swing.
Monster Memory: two customized wrist bands connected with a tensioned cable.
So there is the theory. But the problem is putting it into practice. In my teaching career I have preached the point tirelessly, but often found that the sermon alone was not enough to help many players establish the proper distances and usage of the hands.
Players may know the theory but how to develop the actual feeling of keeping their hands in proper relation? My quest to answer that question led to the development of an original, patented training aid I call Monster Memory. (Click Here). Monster Memory is the culmination of my original somewhat primitive efforts to tie my students hands together with aerobic tubing.
An automatic, physical template for compact preparation.
Basically Monster Memory is a custom made set of wrist bands linked by a tension cord. The purpose is to give you a certain amount of resistance when the hands start to separate. I feel Monster Memory gives just the right amount of tension to help you develop the feeling of keeping them together, but still relaxed.
This connection between the hands creates a kind of automatic physical template for a compact motion. If you have struggled with your preparation, Monster Memory can help you make the changes you need to use your hands more like the best players.
It’s important to note that the tension is not sufficient to keep you from actually swinging and playing. You can swing fully and hit all your shots. You can even serve and play entire practice matches. Monster Memory is flexible and flows along with your game. Most people end up forgetting they are even wearing it. And when they take it off, the sensation of the hands moving together is continued, particularly if players happen to wear wrist bands.
You can see in the animation how the device helps players feel the correct position of the hands as the turn starts. At the same time it allows the hands to separate at the right time. Then in the followthrough it continues to give players the feeling of staying compact with the left arm relatively close in to the body.
The tendency to use only the dominant arm is worst on the forehand volley.
The problem with the arms on the forehand volley is the same as on the forehand groundstroke, only usually worse. The temptation is overwhelming to just take the racket back with the hand and arm. Because it happens faster at the net, there is often little or no unit turn and players make an even wider separation of the hands and arms.
The result is too large a backswing, which creates problems with the timing and the contact point. Typically players who separate the hands in this fashion are late to the contact and don’t meet the ball in the right spot in front of the edge of the body.
Because the problem of separating the hands early is so common on the forehand volley, some successful teaching pros have gone so far as to put handcuffs on students to force them to feel the unit turn. Monster Memory accomplishes this, but unlike handcuffs, is flexible enough to allow the student to execute the entire motion.
The non-dominant arm is a critical part of the preparation on the one-hander.
Compared to the two-handed backhand or the forehand, the role of the hands on the one-hander is somewhat different. But the basic idea stays the same. The hands stay together in front of the torso as the motion starts and the player completes the unit turn.
But w ith the one-hand backhand both hands stay on the racket longer than on the forehand. Whereas on the forehand the hands separate after the unit turn, on the one-handed backhand, you keep both hands on the racket until the start of the forward swing. Again the hands are close together, less than shoulder width.
Again, the role of the non-dominant hand is critical in helping start the turn motion. Monster Memory helps players feel how this arm works in making solid, unitary preparation.
As many Tennisplayer writers, such as Scott Murphy have pointed out, (Click Here), during the positive or forward swing, the opposite arm moves backwards in the opposite direction, creating the most distance between the hands in any of the strokes. This lasts for a few fractions of a second, but then the hands are back together in the recovery movements.
On the two hander, Monster Memory facilitates a compact unit turn.
Obviously on the two handed backhand, the hands don’t separate and remain on the racket through the entire motion.
Still some players will try to prepare by “getting the racket back” and end up moving the hands and arms first. Typically they never end up getting fully turned.
So if you are a two-hander, you still need keep your hands in front, and then start your stroke with the turn of the upper body. Similar to the forehand both hands stay on the racket through this part of the motion. The difference is obviously with the two-hander the hands never separate, but the start is very similar.
The use of the opposite arm is also critical setting up the backhand volley.
As with the backhand groundstrokes, the opposite arm is crucial in starting the turning motion on the backhand volley. This feeling of the hands working together is really facilitated by the Monster Memory, so that everything—hands, shoulders, racket turn together. As the forward swing starts, the relatively light tension in the device is no problem when the hands move in opposite directions, with the back arm moving backwards.
A Note on Process
In my opinion, club players need to focus much less on winning, and understand there is a big difference between wanting to win, and doing what it takes to win.
The sport of tennis is much more technical and mechanical than the average player realizes. Often players believe that the way to get better is to simply play more and to play against better players. The result may be marginal improvement, but often players with technical problems actually get worse. In reality most club players need to focus on the process of improving their technique to have a chance to improve their level.
This is the difference with high performance players. They know that wanting to win in and of itself means nothing. The players who are successful at all levels are not focusing on winning per se, they are focusing on the factors that directly affect winning.
The required changes are often relatively simple, as this article shows. Hopefully it's clear presentation of how the hands work together on all the groundstrokes and volleys. Some players can do it with traditional instruction, but I have found that sometimes the direct, tactile input a player gets from a device like Monster Memory can make the difference.
David Stanisic is an independent teaching pro in Sonoma County, California. He played varsity tennis at Sonoma State University, and then went on to become a tour hitting partner for WTA professional players such former world top 20 player Mary Lou Daniels. He began his teaching career at the Mid-Town Tennis club in Chicago where he conceived the original concept for Monster Memory.
Monster Memory teaches players the feeling of keeping their hands together through a tension cord connecting two custom wrist bands. Using Monster Memory in training, players learn to develop compact swings and reduce overhitting. Monster Memory creates a physical template for every swing that can help players raise their game to the next level.
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