Friday, December 07, 2012

A Roadmap to a Hall-of-Fame Forehand - Part 8: An Anatomical Comparison of the Federer and Nadal Forehand

Back when we started our series on the “Hall of Fame Forehand”, we asserted that the topspin forehand mechanics used by the two most decorated players of the last decade, Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal, and their combined 28 Grand Slam Singles Championships are very, very similar. This finding probably surprised many tennis enthusiasts and aficionados mainly because of the very obvious differences in their (perceived) general game styles, and because of clear differences in how each Champion uses their forehand to dominate their opponents.

To show you just how similar their two forehands really are from a technical perspective, this post will describe the movements used by each Champion using anatomical terminology (see our earlier post for an introduction to our “anatomical” perspective on tennis stroke mechanics).

Using this approach, you can see with your own eyes just how similar their forehand mechanics really are in terms of both what movements are used and when those (specific) movements are executed in the overall movement sequence used by each player.

Are their exact topspin forehand mechanics literally identical in that they are “perfect mirror images of one another”?  
No, they are not “perfectly identical”, yet at most key stages of the stroke, they use the identical types of movement (as defined anatomically) and vary as a function of when the particular movement is performed in the overall movement sequence according to the intent of the shot they want to produce—i.e. spin, speed, length, trajectory, angle, etc.—as dictated by the playing situation they face.

In this post, we were careful to make sure we would make this visual comparison with both players striking the shot under very similar conditions – paying special attention to their court positioning and the height of the ball at impact.

So without further ado, let’s take a closer look at the anatomical details of the Federer and Nadal forehands…
1. The Ready Position

Identical movements here…  Save for the fact that Roger is right-handed and Nadal is left-handed, and they use slightly different grips to hold the racquet.
Since the subject of grips was raised here, this is good a time as any to assert that—contrary to the opinion/beliefs of many—we have found that maximizing topspin production at high racquet and ball speeds may not be necessarily sensitive to what grip players use to hold the racquet. We’ll elaborate on that subject in a separate post down the road.

Let’s just say right now that the hand positioning/movements of the stroking motion appear to be far more important determinants of how much topspin players can generate on a given stroke—and that the choice of grip—is far less important than is widely believed.
2. Breaking the Triangle
Both players use virtually identical body movements to initiate their respective backswings… Except for the slight (left) Wrist Extension that Nadal shows here that results in the hitting surface of his stringbed facing more towards the sideline than the net. This wrist movement doesn’t appear to serve any practical purpose.  It’s more of an idiosyncratic movement that appears to appear, disappear and reappear at this phase of Nadal’s forehand stroke depending on the calendar year it’s recorded on video.
In fact, Nadal’s left wrist moves back to a neutral position by the next phase of his stroke.

3. Completed Backswing

Despite the clear difference in the stance each player is using in these images—Federer is using a much more open stance than Nadal, the anatomical movements used by both players is essentially identical yet again, except that it is unclear from this image if Roger’s left hip is externally rotated like Nadal’s due to the camera perspective.
You should also take notice that it as this stage of the stroke, as each player is still completing the backswing or preparation phase of the stroke – preparing to swing the racquet forwards to impact—that they begin straightening their racquet arm using Elbow Extension. It is at this relatively early stage of the stroke when they establish what many refer to as the “arm structure” that is used to deliver the racquet to impact.
In our own coaching experience, using a “straight” (e.g. Verdasco, below left) – or more accurately, “extended” – racquet arm enables players to consistently create more racquet speed and generate more topspin than players who use a “flexed” racquet arm (e.g. Nishikori, below right).  Just like Federer and Nadal.

We’ll explain in detail the advantages (and disadvantages) of delivering the racquet to impact using an “extended” versus “flexed” racquet arm in a future post.
4. First Forward Move (FFM)

Again, identical anatomical movements are used by both players at this stage of the stroke. So far there has been only one minor difference in the (anatomical) movements used by both players.
Now that we are reaching the point where the forward swing to impact is imminent, let’s see if the similarities continue…

5. 20 Frames (95.2 milliseconds) before Impact

Of the eight (8) key movements that occur at this stage of the stroke, there are two differences between the two champions: Federer has straightened his legs using knee extension which also triggers the (activation) upward movement of his pelvis (Hip Extension), whereas Nadal’s legs remained slightly flexed (i.e. he maintains “Knee Flexion” in both legs).

The (right) Knee and Hip Extension indicates that Federer has begun transferring/releasing the elastic energy (i.e. ground forces/lower body muscular forces) he created in his lower body-starting at the Ready Position-into his overall forehand movement sequence. Nadal will accomplish the same elastic energy transfer using the same movement sequence—using (left) Knee/Hip Extension—just a bit later in the overall movement sequence he uses to execute his topspin forehand.

6. 10 Frames (47.6 milliseconds) before Impact

Again, the movements used by both players are again identical as Nadal has begun “releasing” the elastic energy he stored starting at the Ready Position using left Knee/left Hip Extension. Nadal “releases” all that ground force just a bit later in his overall forehand movement sequence compared to Federer, yet isn’t it interesting that all that energy is released as the racquet is being swung forwards to impact—exactly where it’s needed.  To us, clear evidence of Nadal’s (and Federer’s) vast athletic talents…

7. Impact 

Again, the movements used by both players are virtually identical at impact.
8. 5 Frames (23.8 milliseconds) after Impact

Again –is this becoming redundant somehow? The key movements used by both players are identical in the moments after impact.
Take special notice of how both players close their racquet continuously—using Elbow Pronation and “amplified” using Wrist Flexion/Radial Deviation—throughout the Impact Zone (in the 15 frames or 71.4 milliseconds shown here) . This combination of forearm, wrist and hand movements is very useful, and perhaps very necessary to maximizing topspin production without trading off pure, straight-ahead ball speed.
9. Follow-Through (Arm at Shoulder Height)

And yet again, identical movements are used by both players here…  

10. End of Stroke

And, to top it all off, the movements they use at the conclusion of the stroke are essentially identical.
Overall, the nearly 40 core movements used by the two players to execute their respective topspin forehands are identical in that they both use the same types of anatomical movements in nearly the identical order at these 10 key phases of the forehand stroke. The only detectible (qualitative) difference between their forehand mechanics is a small difference in the timing of the transfer of the muscular forces/elastic energy to their upper body.

Finally, to address a question that no doubt most, if not virtually all of you have out there about the topspin forehand mechanics of these two Champions that goes like this:

If their mechanics are so darn similar, why do the shots they produce using their respective stroke mechanics often look so different? Especially in terms of the amount of topspin and the general trajectory of the resulting shot?
The main reason is this:

Nadal often swings on a much steeper upward path than Federer (especially on the clay) and this steeper path further amplifies the amount of topspin he generates by tilting his racquet face forward throughout his forward swing. Nadal’s steeper overall swing path (see below), combined with his extreme forward racquet tilt throughout his forward swing through impact, results in 25% higher topspin production, on average, compared to Federer, as well as a slightly higher launch angle off of the stringbed that creates a shot with a slightly higher trajectory.

Take homes?

Isn’t it interesting that the topspin forehand mechanics used by the two most successful competitors of this era – whom most tennis enthusiasts believe have diametrically-opposite game styles (clay court grinder versus shotmaker extraordinaire - although IMHO, the former can be an equally skilled shotmaker in his own right!) – are, in fact, so nearly identical in their actual execution?

And, it’s as intriguing to notice—as we have—that so few up-and-coming players (who are themselves trying to emulate the same performance and achievement levels as these two future Hall-of-Famers) do not use/have not developed (copied?!!) the very same, 28-time Grand Slam-proven forehand mechanics.

They may copy the superficial elements such as Nadal’s lasso-like, “reverse follow-through”, but rarely do they reproduce (all of) the crucial movements in Transition and during the forward swing to Impact as those great champions. 

Exactly why is that the case?

 I believe we’ve already outlined our case about why there aren’t legions of Federer and Nadal clones fighting it out in the Juniors, Futures and Challengers worldwide in earlier posts. (Hint: you can’t teach what you can’t see or understand…)
So, until next time, we wish everyone a happy, safe and prosperous Holiday Season!

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At 2:20 PM, Blogger Oliver said...

Is the timing of the elbow extension important in maximising racquet speed? I.e. how much of a difference would it make if you started off the FFM with an elbow extension (therefore the arm was not completely straight in the backswing phase) compared to having the elbow extension as a later part of the FFM (extended after the arm started moving forward)?

Great blog btw, helping to improve my forehand!


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