Saturday, May 10, 2008

The Power Revolution in Tennis - Part 3 (Behind the scenes of the Federer Forehand)

The last post in this series – The Power Revolution in Tennis – Part 2 (Defining the New Topspin) – I focused on the two main fundamentals of the “New Topspin” that’s employed by the stars of the sport today on the signature shot of power tennis – the power forehand. The first of these “modern fundamentals” is the closure of the racket face during all the phases of the stroke, and the second is the shallower overall swing path that enables today’s players to create a flatter, more penetrating shot trajectory without affecting their ability to generate sufficient topspin to maximize control over their shots.

No one player has leveraged these two crucial elements of the modern topspin forehand more than the 12-time Grand Slam singles champion who goes by the name of Roger Federer.

In this post, let’s take what’s perhaps a bit of a sideways journey into learning more about the story behind the development of what’s essentially the state of the art in tennis forehands these days, the Federer forehand.

The “greatness” of the Roger Federer forehand is nothing particularly novel from a technical standpoint. IMHO, the Federer forehand is not a “novel synthesis” of “classical and modern technical elements” as some want to interpret it (see Tennis Magazine – US, May 2008).

Arguably, every player’s stroke technique is essentially a synthesis of certain specific ideas, philosophies and movements. Did Roger come up with his personal synthesis on his own?

Not really. You’ve got to give credit where credit is due. Roger had help. (To find out who helped him develop his signature forehand, read on!)

Federer’s forehand represents a integration of technical elements from 3 particular former Grand Slam champions (who themselves won a total of 27 Grand Slam singles championships) to create the forehand he’s employed only since mid-2001, around the time he bounced one of his tennis idols, Pete Sampras from Wimbledon in a compelling 5-set clash at Wimbledon.

Before I reveal the “ancestral lineage” of the Federer forehand, it is interesting to note that it took Roger almost 3 years (maybe longer) to develop and employ the forehand the fans have come to revere and his peers have come to fear, envy and revile. If you have ever seen footage of Federer before 2001, you would have seen a very different forehand entirely. Roger’s forehand when he broke through at the Grand Slam level in the juniors (1998) and in his first 3 years as a pro (1998-2000) resembled the old Sampras forehand more than the one that’s driven him to 12 Grand Slam titles in a little over 5 calendar years.

Search for a YouTube video of a 1998 indoor match between Federer and Andre Agassi played in Roger’s hometown Basel Indoors, and you’d see a fast, but much flatter, and unpredictable forehand that Federer would execute by fanning the racket face open in the backswing and then closed as he accelerated to contact (a la Sampras in his early days on tour). When he “timed” the closure of the racket face correctly, the result was devastating. However, the reality was that for every sweet stroke that blasted past Andre, Roger would mistime the closing of the racket face 3 or 4 times and create shanks that handed Andre a ton of free points over the course of a two set defeat.

Basically, credit is due to Peter Lundgren, Roger’s original “sherpa” on the pro tour for helping him learn the skills to transition his classic, “Samprasian” flat forehand into the “SlamMaker” version of the past 5 years. What Lundgren was able to accomplish between 1996 and 2003 was to add the necessary modern refinements to Federer’s original Sampras-Becker-style forehand technique to increase the overall safety and consistency of his stroke.

Once Federer mastered the fundamentals of the modern Swedish topspin forehand, the rest, as they say, is history.

For you technical afficiandos, if you look carefully, and have a very good visual memory – Roger’s forehand today bears more than a close resemblance to the forehand stroke used by Mats Wilander during his salad days where he won 7 Grand Slam singles in a 6.5 year period between 1982 and 1988. Federer makes bigger movements than Wilander did – i.e. Roger makes a much larger rotation of his upper body and has much greater extension of his racket arm through the contact zone than Mats, but the general swing shape and underlying “philosophy” (maximum topspin to maximize safety and consistency) is essentially the same.

Until Federer mastered the principles of the Swedish-flavored, modern heavy topspin forehand: closed face at all points of the swing, combined with the powerful forearm rotation through the contact zone (the so-called “wiper”), his forehand was more of a liability than the “SlamMaker” we know today. Roger has always had the racket speed that few players in any generation possess, what he lacked until say, the end of 2001 to early 2002 was the ability to harness and control his natural racket explosiveness using the only practical means to harness and control that kind of power: the application of massive amounts of topspin… As well as express his natural “creativity” for varying his strokes by being able to more reliably control his ability to generate (top-)spin for every stroke.

From a technical standpoint, the “SlamMaker” has evolved from the techniques he originally adopted from his early tennis idols, Boris Becker (6 Slams) and Pete Sampras (14 Slams), combined with the Swedish refinements (based on the Wilander forehand which helped him win 7 Slams) set into place by Peter Lundgren. Do I have any knowledge of exactly when Lundgren began the work that eventually led to the emergence of the SlamMaker? No, I really don’t…

All I really know is that without the topspin maximization techniques brought by Lundgren, it’s pretty clear that the history and landscape of pro tennis over the past 5 years would be starkly different. Without the emergence of the SlamMaker, Lleyton Hewitt probably would have won close to 10 Slams himself by now and we’d be talking about the Hewitt-Nadal rivalry or era.

The only technical element that might represent a true “innovation” by Roger is his tendency to “break” the so-called “double-bend” or “double-confusion” (as my friend coined it) structure that the US teaching pro establishment has come to espouse as a so-called “modern stroke fundamental”.

The true function of this movement - breaking the “double bend” structure of his upper arm and forearm through the contact zone -is to enable Roger to fully release the stored energy – in the form of higher racket speed – he originally created by arranging his arms the way he does in his backswing.

If Federer were to retain the “double bend” structure through the contact zone, and then execute the “wiper” finish, he wouldn’t be able to use the natural acceleration and energy that results from allowing the forearm to accelerate and extend forward.

Effectively, the Federer forehand is a modified sidearm throwing movement that resembles that movement that’s used by a major league infielder when attempting to throw out a speedy runner on a ground ball. In order to get any kind of velocity on that sidearm throw across the diamond, the infielder must “break” the arm angles he created initially after picking up the grounder, and create the same arm “extension” as he releases the ball from his hand.

That “extension” of the arm at the release point of a throw or through the contact zone of a tennis forehand is critical for maximizing velocity (and spin, if you have the “closed face at all points of the stroke” part already down cold). Did Roger consciously "invent" this movement? I personally kinda doubt that. As far as I can tell, Roger's not the first to employ this type of movement as a part of his forehand. If you look closely at tennis techniques in the history of the sport, there have been other top players who used the same move (i.e. remember Jimmy Arias?).

So, what does that tell you about all those tennis players who are/were trained to maintain or “hold on” to the double-bend structure? What it tells me is that there are a lot of players out there who have the potential to really improve their forehands. What does that say about the coaches and pros who “trained” these players in the revered “double bend” technique?

Hey, draw your own conclusion about that…


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