Many things have changed in the game of tennis over the last 40 years. In many ways, it is a different sport than when I grew up in the 1970s.
Growing up in the 1970s (with coaches who grew up in the 1950s), I still learned the game the "Old School Way," but due to the quick evolution of the game, I literally lived through the changes in the game.
Up until the mid-1970s, the classic way of playing tennis was to play with a Continental Grip for both ground strokes. Some players moved to an Eastern Grip on the forehand, but mostly, the ball was hit flat, with a slice or with side spin. Top-spin was rarely used, and it was hard to generate spin with the old school grips unless you were extremely strong players like Rod Laver, Illie Nastase and Tom Oker.
Serving and volleying was a very popular style of play, almost a must on grass. The chip and charge was a common play as well, especially on fast surfaces.
Most players competing in high levels of the sport had some kind of net game, as many of them based their careers on being strictly net rushers.
Sometime in the early 1970s with the emergence of players like Bjorn Borg and Guillermo Vilas, the style began to change. Borg and Vilas introduced more extreme grips on the forehand, which allowed them to generate not only a heavy spin, but they were also able to achieve unimaginable consistency which made a five-setter against them at their prime a near-impossible mission.
The beauty of top-spin is that the harder you hit, the more consistent your shot is. The extreme grips, together with the new high tech racquets that were introduced during that period, helped develop generations of players who rely heavily on a huge forehand. This became a major weapon together with a strong and powerful first serve.
Today, 40 years later, most players have adopted the "Bjorn Borg Style," which is basically to build the game around a big and consistent heavy forehand, to have a solid two-handed backhand and to be in top shape to cover the court and play defense when needed. Rafael Nadal is the purest example of this, he has taken Borg's legacy the furthest.
The serve and volley game still exists today, but only as a surprise tactic. It is used rarely even on grass courts, which was unthinkable when I played on the Pro Tour. Even in men’s doubles, I am astonished to see that some players still stay back after a serve.
The chip and charge is practically impossible to execute because of the speed of the second serve and the heaviness of the ball coming off a ground stroke.
The backhand slice, a classic shot, is not used by too many players, and due to the fact that most players hit their backhand with two hands, we don't see world-class volleyers with incredible hands, such as John McEnroe, Pat Cash or Stefan Edberg.
What we do see are a lot of players running around their backhands looking for that big inside-out forehand (or sharp cross-court) that will allow them to open up the court and take control of the point.
When I train a high performance player, my main goal after making sure that they have perfected all of the basic shots is to develop a big forehand that can be used as a weapon. Many of the drills I designed were around looking to run around the backhand.
As most kids hit the forehand with a Semi-Western Grip, I had to adapt and teach the "new style," which is a bit more free-flowing and allows different stances and swings that vary from player to player.
However, there are still many things that didn't change about the sport, and the advice I got from my mentor, past Wimbledon and Australian Open winner Dick Savitt, back when I was a teenager is still as good as gold today.
The slice, the volley, the serve motion, and many of the tips he showed me are still very relevant today. In fact, many young pros who already grew up playing with extreme grips, lack the knowledge of basic tennis fundamentals that still apply today.
There is no doubt that the forehand has evolved into a completely different shot than the times of Rod Laver. He hit with a Continental Grip and flicked the wrist to create top-spin. However, there are still a few things to be said in defense of some "Old School Tricks" that still apply even in today's ultra-modern game. Here is a short comparison of the “Old School Way vs. New School Way" of hitting a forehand.
►Using an open-stance forehand as opposed to a close-stance forehand: The classic question I am asked all the time pertains to open or closed stance. Here is my answer: I teach the close-stance (some people call it neutral) early on. I like to have my students approach each shot in a sideways position, and turning the hip is a huge part of the shot. I find that when you teach a youngster to hit with an open-stance from the beginning, it encourages laziness. After they get used to the idea of a close-stance shot, I teach them the open stance, but only to be used on wide balls or when running around the backhand.
In general, I ask them to prepare for every shot as if they are going to hit in a close-stance and when they get to the ball, they can hit it either open, semi-open or closed. From my experience as a player, I know that in a real match situation, most forehands will be hit either with an open or semi-open stance … that was true even back in the 1980s when I played.
I also see that even players like Nadal, who grew up on clay, close the stance a bit more when they have time (which is very rare). I also take into consideration the fact that I teach in the Northeast, mostly on indoor hard courts. I assume that if I was teaching in Spain or southern Europe on red clay, I would probably teach the open stance a bit more.
►Hitting through the shot using more shoulder and following through high (Old School) versus using more wrist and elbow "window wiper style" and finishing low (New School): I see this a lot with my students. They have the extreme Western Grip, and the racquet head naturally drops down after each shot without going through the ball. This way of using so much wrist opens the door to miss hits and short balls that have no pace and too much spin. In order to achieve more pace and depth, it is necessary to use the entire arm, make contact with an extended arm and follow through a bit more the "Old School Way" with the elbow above the shoulder. Once that happens, the racquet head can drop a little bit depending on the type of shot.
Too many kids try to imitate the pros, using too much wrist and elbow, forgetting that the pros are masters of the sport who have incredibly strong hands and they need to improvise. Great examples of the extended arm during the contact point are in Roger Federer and Novak Djokovic. They both follow through perfectly and extend their arm, even though they use different grips (Federer still uses the Classic Eastern Grip, while Djokovic uses the Semi-Western).
►Eastern Grip (Old School) versus Semi-Western Grip (New School): When hit the right way, the Eastern Grip can produce a perfect shot. Two examples that come to mind from the current crop of pros are Federer and Juan Martin del Potro. Both hit a big flat forehand with the Classic Grip. Pete Sampras and Ivan Lendl had a huge forehand in their time with the less extreme grip, while Andre Agassi, who had one of the cleanest and most dominating and accurate forehands ever, didn't need an extreme grip to produce heavy spin. Agassi had incredible racquet speed and used pace and spin better than anyone I ever saw or played against.
On the other hand, the Semi-Western Grip gives players much more safety, spin and variety and is easier to master at a young age. This is why 90 percent of young players use it.
There have been many examples of players with big forehands who use the Semi-Western Grip over the past few decades, Aaron Krickstein, Andres Gomez, Sergi Bruguera, Thomas Muster and Jim Courier just to name a few. It is a huge weapon on the red clay, and is very difficult to deal with because of the crazy spin and high bounce.
The Semi-Western Grip on the forehand is the primary grip used in today's game. It is rare to find someone using an Eastern Grip anymore.
Having a less extreme grip will help the backhand (less distance for the grip change) and the volley, and will come in handy when playing on fast surfaces and when dealing with a low slice. I usually let the students dictate what grip to use on the forehand. When they use an Eastern Grip, I will ask them to cock the wrist up and slightly close the face of the racquet in order to cover the ball, while rolling the wrist and getting under the ball to create spin. If they cannot get enough spin, I will gently try to move the grip towards the Semi-Western Grip.
There is also the problem of kids using a too extreme Semi-Western Grip. This generally happens when kids start at a very young age and develop a bad habit. I find that the toughest change is when they have too much of a Western Grip … that is not an easy change to the less extreme grip. The balls will be flying long for a while until the student learns to use the wrist to keep the ball in play. Early detection is required to prevent what could potentially be a life-long flaw in their game.
Gilad Bloom, former Israeli Davis Cup player and two-time Olympian, played on the ATP Tour 1983-1995, reached the fourth round of the U.S. Open in 1990, reached a highest ranking of 61 in singles, was Israel Singles Champion three times. Bloom has been running his own tennis program since 2000 and also was director of tennis at John McEnroe Tennis Academy for two years. He can be reached by e-mail at Bloom.Gilad@Gmail.com.