Thursday, October 11, 2012

A Roadmap to a Hall-of-Fame Forehand - Part 7: FHT-3 - The Past Lives On (But Only Barely)

At the end of our last post we mentioned that we have “uncovered” evidence of a “third” FHT type or “FHT-3”, for short...

However, as we drilled deeper down into our “discovery”, we began to realize that FHT-3 does not represent an “innovation” in stroke mechanics. It’s been in long use by many of the top players in the history of the sport - through the 1980s.

FHT-3 was arguably the dominant Transition type until the late 1980s when the top players began to understand that maximizing topspin production was the only practical way to keep pace (pun intended!) with the ever-increasing speed of play at the top levels of the sport. So, it seems that FHT-3 slowly gave way to the other two transition types (in combination with the use of more “western” grips – especially the so-called “semi-western” and “extreme semi-western” grips that dominate the sport we see today - we'll discuss the relationship between grips and FHT types in a future post) as players sought more topspin to control the increasing stroke speeds that were necessary to compete at a world-class level.

Bottom line is that as players sought more “extreme” topspin production, they found that these higher spin rates could be achieved using the movements that are characterized by FHT-2 and FHT-1 and FHT-3 gradually fell “out of use” or simply “out of fashion”. Either way, FHT-3 is therefore rarely seen in today’s players.

FHT-3 is the “old school” transition type that was common to the great players of the past who generated topspin using “classical methods” (summarized in the diagram below) where “just enough” elbow pronation was employed to close the racquet face—about 30 degrees closed—to compensate for the intrinsic supination of the racquet arm during the forward swing that otherwise creates an open—rather than vertical or closed—racquet face at impact.

This “racquet path geometry” creates a perpendicular racquet face at impact, which combined with a 30 to 60-degree upward swing path leads to “moderate” topspin production (ca. 1,200 to 1,800 RPM) that characterizes the topspin forehands used by past greats.

Now, let’s show you what FHT-3 looks like as used by these three (3) retired, but relatively “modern” Hall-of-Fame players:

First, a Hall-of-Famer who won “only” 14 Majors…

A second Hall-of-Famer who won “only” 11 Majors…

And, finally, a third Hall-of-Famer who “only” won 8 Majors.

All three Hall-of-Famers shown above use FHT-3 in their “base” forehand mechanics and use only moderate elbow pronation at FFM which results in a racquet face position that is nearly perfectly perpendicular at impact –i.e.  little or no forward tilt, again unlike Federer, Nadal, Djokovic and other players today.

Does this necessarily mean that they weren’t capable of generating the 3,000+ RPMs of topspin that we see in today’s game?

Absolutely not, they were perfectly capable of generating “modern” spin levels using their respective topspin mechanics. And we could easily argue or demonstrate that the topspin forehand mechanics we see in Federer, Nadal, Djokovic, et al. today are very likely the direct descendants of Bjorn Borg’s topspin forehand mechanics when he was dominating the sport in the late 1970s… Or Rod Laver’s topspin forehand mechanics when he was “The Man”, but that’s a whole another discussion we’ll save for later.

In fact, we were only able to identify two of today’s current top players (Top 20 or higher ranked) who use FHT-3: Juan Martin Del Potro and Richard Gasquet.  Currently, every other ATP Top 20 singles player uses FHT-2 to execute their topspin forehand—which is not surprising to you if you’ve been following this blog, correct?

Now, let’s take a more detailed look at how Del Potro and Gasquet execute Transition and ultimately achieve FHT-3 at the crucial FFM – “First Forward Move”—stage of their forehand mechanics.
@ 30 frames (~140 milliseconds) before FFM

@ 20 frames (~95 milliseconds) before FFM

@ 10 frames (~48 milliseconds) before FFM

What’s important to notice here is that both players move their entire racquet arm downward during Transition without changing/altering any of the positioning of their entire racquet arm from the upper arm down to their hand and wrist. The racquet arm seemingly moves as a single unit.
Later, let’s compare these movements to those used by a FHT-1 player in their forehand Transition.


At FFM, Del Potro and Gasquet pronate their elbows just enough to close their racquet fact about 30 degrees - and this "moderate" Elbow Pronation enables them to compensate/counteract the opening of the racquet face that results from the "natural" supination of the entire racquet arm during the forward swing. The extent of Elbow Pronation in FHT-3 players is significantly less than used by FHT-2 players (i.e. Federer and Nadal today; Lendl in the recent past).

Notice the considerable difference in the extent of Elbow Pronation (causing the clear difference in the orientation of their respective racquet faces – about 30 degrees closed for Del Potro versus nearly 90 degrees closed for Djokovic) shown here?

And, at the same time, FHT-3 players (left) still demonstrate Elbow Pronation – however “small" its actual extent – at FFM versus Elbow Supination (right) that’s used by FHT-1 players (right).

(Now, looking even more closely at the above image should trigger another question… If the elbow is supinated causing the racquet hand palm to face upward toward the sky, how is a closed racquet face—with the racquet face pointed toward the ground (the opposite direction)—achieved? This key question will be the subject of a future post.)

Next, let’s compare the movements that (top) players use to achieve FHT-3 at the end of Transition to those movements used to achieve FHT-1 or FHT-2 in more detail.

FHT-3 and FHT-1 Compared

First, let’s compare the movements (and positions) that are typically used by FHT-3 and FHT-1 players in their transition from the backswing to the forward swing.
@ 30 frames (~140 milliseconds) before FFM
@ 20 frames (~95 milliseconds) before FFM

@ 10 frames (~48 milliseconds) before FFM


What’s also both interesting and important to point out here is the stark difference in the movements Del Potro and Sharapova use in Transition respectively to create their racquet arm positions at FFM.
If you look closely at the 4-still sequence of each player’s Transition to FFM, Del Potro consistently maintains the position of the various joints of his racquet arm as he moves toward FFM.  

In stark contrast, Sharapova’s racquet arm undergoes considerable changes in terms of positioning of the various joints of her racquet arm, especially her hitting elbow.

Sharapova actively supinates her forearm - Elbow Supination - to achieve FHT-1 at FFM.

In stark contrast to her, when you look closely at Del Potro’s racquet hand and forearm, notice that in the 4 stills that his racquet hand and forearm stay in the same positions in Transition (slightly pronated) and they stay in this orientation because his racquet arm moves—“falls”—in a nearly straight line downward until he reaches FFM.


Compared to Del Potro's racquet forearm in the same 4-still sequence, notice that Sharapova's racquet forearm changes its orientation noticeably. Take particular notice of how the base knuckles of her racquet hand - the knuckles at the base of her fingers/top of the palm - rotate downwards toward the court such that they point at the ground.
This downward rotation of those knuckles simultaneously causes her palm to open skywards. The active Elbow Supination that Sharapova uses during Transition to FFM ultimately results in the palm of her racquet hand pointing upwards at FFM - the precise anatomical position that defines FHT-1.
FHT-2 and FHT-3 Compared

Next, let’s compare the movements (and positions) that are typically used by FHT-3 and FHT-2 players in their transition from the backswing to the forward swing.

@ 30 frames (~140 milliseconds) before FFM

@ 20 frames (~95 milliseconds) before FFM

@ 10 frames (~48 milliseconds) before FFM


In contrast to the Transition movements typically executed by FHT-1 Players like Sharapova, the movements used by most FHT-2 players during Transition are often very similar to those used by FHT-3 players during Transition (although, remember there aren’t that many FHT-3 players in the first place these days).

First, notice the very consistent positioning of the racquet arm “anatomy” during Transition that's achieved using the “falling” movement both players use to get to FFM. This type of movement maintains the optimal "racquet arm structure" used by both players (upper arm abducted and elbow pronated) as well as helps keep the racquet (face) moving in a very consistent position throughout Transition.
Second, notice how the base knuckles of Federer's racquet hand always face up toward the sky throughout his forehand Transition - which is achieved by the Elbow Pronation that Federer maintains throughout Transition. This Elbow Pronation enables Federer (and other FHT-2) to consistently achieve the diametrically-opposite racquet hand position - where the base knuckles are pointed downward towards the ground - that's used by FHT-1 players like Sharapova at FFM.

The top players who use FHT-3 like Del Potro today (and like Sampras and Agassi in the recent past) also maintain a consistent, but less extreme, more "moderate" Elbow Pronation through their forehand Transition such that the base knuckles of their racquet hands face behind them.

Therefore, FHT-3 players also enjoy the same biomechanical benefits as FHT-2 players as both groups avoid the early activation of the stretch-shorten cycles of the rotator cuff of the racquet arm (we discussed this benefit or "advantage" of having the possible stretch-shorten cycles of the racquet arm activated optimally in our last post).  and can therefore maximize force production - i.e. power potential - of those critical muscles used to sling the racquet arm forwards to impact.

Knuckling Down (or Is It Up?) - A Simple Method for Identifying and Modifying FHT

Here’s a relatively simple way to tell the 3 FHT types apart as well as provide you with very specific benchmarks for you to determine and/or modify your own FHT type :

To determine your FHT type, look at the position of the base knuckles of the hand—where the fingers are joined to the palm of the hand—at FFM.
If you use FHT-1 (Sharapova; below), your base knuckles will be pointing toward the ground - meaning that the palm of your racquet hand is facing upward towards the sky at FFM.
If you use FHT-2 (Federer; below), your base knuckles will be pointing at the sky - meaning the palm of your racquet hand is facing downward towards the ground at FFM.
If you use FHT-3 (Del Potro; below), your base knuckles will be pointing somewhere directly behind you at FFM (depending on the extent of your Elbow Pronation) - meaning that the palm of your racquet hand is facing the side fence.

Here are all three (3) FHT types shown side-by-side to illustrate the differences in the racquet hand base knuckle position:
Take Homes
The take-home message we want to leave you with is this - even though we’ve now identified a third type of FH - for all practical intents and purposes, the FHT type you should choose to maximize topspin forehand performance given the current (and likely future) state of elite tennis, is still FHT-2...
By far.

Using FHT-2 will enable you to generate the most topspin as you attempt to consistently generate supersonic racquet speeds, which means that you will maximize both racquet speed and racquet control, rather than having to choose between one (control) over the other (power).
Simply put, FHT-2 appears to be the simplest method to help you achieve the racquet motion that characterizes today's top forehands:
However, our discussion of how to achieve Hall-of-Fame performance on your topspin forehand has only just begun...
While your FHT type exerts the single most powerful influence on your ability to maximize both speed and spin - control - on your topspin forehand, there are still other movements in the forehand stroke that also have very significant effects on both speed and spin produciton as well.
Next time, we'll continue our discussion by describing and explaining how the movement of your Upper Arm by either Abduction or Adduction just after FFM may have a pronounced effect on forehand spin and speed production.


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