I’ve seen it time and again. Players working on their open-stance forehand with their bent elbows and breaking wrists trying to hit the ball like Rafael Nadal. I get it, just like you, I’ve dreamt of hitting just one forehand as big as Rafa’s ... and yet it’s never happened.
But why? We both live in the same world, breath the same air … my tennis balls are yellow too! Maybe it’s because I started playing in the 1970s with wood rackets and was taught by an Australian who demanded that I learn the one-handed backhand and serve-and-volley game. Perhaps it’s because I grew up in the Northeastern United States where slap-shot indoor-tennis dominated the ranks.
As it happened, my inability to hit the ball like these Western Grip-wielding legends got me thinking why I, or any amateur, should be trying to hit the ball like them. We don’t have to deal with the same pace as they do, and rarely if ever, do we face the same ferocious spin that they put on the ball. So then why do we try so vigorously to hit the ball like our heroes? It’s because we have a need to mimic them.
I’m the first to admit that I’ve tried to serve like Johnny Mac and volley like Martina. I’ve tried to rip a Wawrinka backhand up the line, and yes, I’ve played around with perhaps the most elegant stroke in the history of the game, the Bjorn Borg two-handed backhand. Does it make me a better player? I’m not so sure. I’ve taught thousands of hours and played more, and yet the thing that helps me the most as a player and as a coach is my understanding of the ‘classic’ game. The game I grew up playing. The game that was so prevalent for decades and has been over shadowed by the smash and crash, monster serve and gnarly forehands of the modern game, or as I prefer to call it, the “Professional Game.” Don’t get me wrong, I’m amazed by the dynamism of today’s tennis. These players have an almost unnatural ability to drop the ball on a dime from 85-feet away (the court is 78-feet long) in the biggest moments and though I marvel at their skills and how professional tennis has evolved, I also believe that, unfortunately, the modern game is, from the everyday player’s perspective, misunderstood.
The playing style changed to accommodate the heavier spins that began to take hold in the late 1980s and early 1990s. Then, with the advent of the polyester strings the spins, and by consequence, the grips, became more extreme in order to hit the high ball with consistency and strength. Players had to be bigger, stronger, faster and hit with more racquet head speed than could be previously imagined in order to keep up with the new face of tennis.
The point is that although we would like to play a “Professional Game,” the truth is that a huge majority of us would benefit from being trained in the “Classic Method.” As I lamented earlier, we simply don’t hit the ball that hard, nor do we spin the ball that much, but just as important, the players that we are facing do not hit the ball with the same pace of the pros. And although we were left behind, we have tried determinately to play as if we are on the pro tour.
What we can take from the Classic Method?
The classic game is the basis and the structure for today’s “modern game.” The uninterrupted and rhythmic footwork, the focus on the contact point, the proper spacing and full extension at contact, the use of body weight for power and leverage, the follow through, the recovery and one’s ability to recreate it successfully.
But again and again, I see players practicing the open stance and blasting away at their groundstrokes. But what about the low ball, the approach shot or the volley? In many instances, we have forsaken our backhands for bigger forehands but have found ourselves out of position. We have turned away from learning the art of coming to the net and putting pressure on our opponents in order to produce results. Some would say that serve and volley is dead, but the truth is that these shots and styles are possible with one’s ability to transition to one grip: The Continental.
Ten shots, one grip
I often see juniors and adults play a terrific point from the baseline and then receive a low-short ball or a wide shot that they are unable to handle because they can’t use the Continental Grip. The difference between great “Modern Style” players and not so great ‘Modern Style’ players is their ability to transition from one grip to another with ease. The Continental Grip is truly “The Utility Grip” in tennis and the greatest modern players in the world are able to exploit it in the most intense situations. Every player should have it in their arsenal yet it is often neglected in practice and therefore botched in match situations. Below are the 10 shots in which a player can use a Continental Grip:
►Wide Slice Forehand
►Low Short Balls
Practicing the Continental Grip
Let’s get on the same page here. I think that you should stick to what got you to this point, but find opportunities to work on the Continental Grip. For instance, your warmup is a great time to work on it. Feed the ball with a Continental when starting a rally. Imagine how you could simplify your game by adopting one grip whenever you go to the net. Start to feel how you’ll have to move your feet and rotate to the side in order to get the desired result. Get a sense of how much easier it is to get under a low ball with the proper grip. Believe me, it won’t be easy at first but in time, practicing the Continental Grip will help you strengthen your arm and clean up some of the difficulties you’ve been having on some of those tough shots.
In the meantime, I'll dream of hitting the ball just once like Roger Federer ... I know, fat chance. But I can dream.