Michelangelo was asked by the pope about the secret of his genius, particularly how he carved the statue of David, largely considered the masterpiece of all masterpieces. His answer was: “It’s simple. I just remove everything that is not David.” From Taleb’s Antifragile.
In Part II we looked at recent changes to how tennis is taught at the grassroots level, and how it might hurt the overall development of juniors. In the final part of Death of a Forehand, we apply another Taleb-ism—'via negativa'. Via negativa is the study of what not to do. It is about the power of subtraction. Improving your writing means cutting words. Improving your diet means cutting processed foods. Improving your work means cutting distractions.
Most YouTube videos and tennis lessons are mostly prescribing things: ‘add 10% power to your serve with this one trick’, ‘do this one move to get more spin’. A lot of them are helpful and very knowledgeable (I highly recommend Joel Myers), but a lot of them are overly complicating things. This Rick Macci forehand video is a masterclass in prescribing a thousand tonics to your poor forehand.
In just seven minutes, Macci makes the forehand a very complex shot: shoulders take the racquet back (‘more torque/more speed/more giddyup’), elbow away from the body, (“pretend you have a light on your elbow and point it at the ball”), racquet inversion (“you should experiment with this”), elbow up-elbow extension (“pat the dog”), “turning a doorknob” on the finish. The title, ‘The Revolutionary Next Generation World Class Forehand’, would have Taleb in fits, as he explains how he identifies the charlatan in Antifragile:
I have used all my life a wonderfully simple heuristic: charlatans are recognizable in that they will give you positive advice, and only positive advice, exploiting our gullibility and sucker-proneness for recipes that hit you in a flash as just obvious, then evaporate later as you forget them. Just look at the “how to” books with, in their title, “Ten Steps for—” (fill in: enrichment, weight loss, making friends, innovation, getting elected, building muscles, finding a husband, running an orphanage, etc.).
It’s not evident all of that is needed. Let’s take a look at one of the all-time great hammers of men’s tennis: Juan Martin del Potro’s forehand.
I think Delpo’s forehand can be explained quite simply: Extend your wrist, take the racquet up and back with your left hand, drop and follow through. The challenge is being able to remove the unnecessary parts of your swing: To reduce the noise of the body. The following forehands could all be described in a similar fashion. Extend—Loop—Drive.
Gonzalez, Nalbandian, Robredo, Wawrinka, Davydenko, Moya, Agassi, and Thiem could all be described the same. They are all the same modern forehand, but they are unique to each player’s style. Thiem’s forehand transformation from 13-year-old, to young pro, to grand slam champ was an exercise in removing swing length.
At 13 years old
Nextgen power: 2018
Grand Slam champion: 2021
By shortening his backswing Thiem could play further up the court, take the ball on the rise, and make adjustments that weren’t possible with his long swing of old. No power was added. No spin was added. Yet, he got better. How did he change this? It looks like his coach, Nicolás Massú, made it shorter by rushing him for time.
In my opinion, what is holding back the next crop of players from displacing Nadal and Djokovic is not a lack of power or spin, but a lack of control. Zverev’s forehand under pressure is unreliable. Tsitsipas struggles to control his backhand when he is required to be defensive on that side. Medvedev and Shapovalov struggle to have feel at the net. On the topic of Medvedev, it is interesting that he is the one who has had the most success in recent years. I wouldn’t describe his game from the back of the court as ‘powerful’ or spinny. He hits flat, deep, controlled shots. When we look at his groundstrokes, for all the talk of him being a quirky and eccentric player with his style, he achieves a great degree of control by reducing wrist action. He gets the racquet tip up with an extended wrist, then swings. It’s simple where it counts.
He’s not unlike Djokovic in the way he keeps the wrist very stable on groundstrokes. As I mentioned in Part I when discussing Davydenko’s forehand, you get control by reducing movement/prioritizing control at the distal part of the body—the wrist. I would take it a step further and say that the three most important keys to being a really consistent player are prioritizing control at the three distal body parts: the feet, wrist, and head.
Federer is probably the most balanced player tennis has ever seen. Is he a talented mover? Yes. But he also positions himself with a very wide base when he plays. Knudson outlines the tradeoff in Biomechanical Principles of Tennis Technique:
“Balance is the ability to control body motion and it is critical in a sport with high body movement and accuracy requirements such as tennis…tennis players must seek the best compromise between motion and stability that suits the situation…A very wide base of support tends to increase stability, but it also decreases the ability of a person to move his center of gravity beyond the limits of the base in order to run.”
When looking at Djokovic’s trademark backhand passing shot, his flexibility at end range allows him to take such a wide base to execute the shot. The width of his base when sliding on the run is unmatched.
Of course, all these top players also maintain a very still head throughout the shot. Federer, again, is the most famous example, often looking at the contact point well after he has actually hit the ball.
Do you have to watch the ball that closely? Probably not, but if it comes naturally to you I guarantee it won’t hurt.
To make a cross-sport comparison in another very technical domain, I find it interesting that of the top six in the golf world rankings, four of them use a bowed left wrist in the backswing: Jon Rahm (#1), Colin Morikawa (#2), Victor Hovland (#4), and Dustin Johnson (#6). Another recent multiple major winner, Brooks Koepka (#15), also displays the same trait to a lesser degree. By bowing the wrist early, the player reduces movement at the most distal joint during the downswing. I asked my golf instructor recently whether he prefers to draw or fade the golf ball. He said he prefers to fade it because when you’re tight it’s easier to control as you reduce wrist action to hit the face.
The Big 3 have dominated the sport for close to 20 years. During that time, no technological innovation has entered the game that would warrant a change from the technical fundamentals all three exhibit, and yet, most young players coming through today don’t display the same fundamentals on the forehand side. While the likes of Sock, Kyrgios, and Tiafoe display huge power and spin on their forehand, I contend they have done so at the expense of racquet head control. Their swingweights (if the numbers reported are correct) are some of the lowest on tour (332, 323, 330, respectively). Although not a direct measure of forehand control, their return statistics make for sober reading; all three lies outside the top 500 for the ATP’s statistical career ‘return rating’. Furthermore, they are three very powerful, naturally gifted athletes, and it makes me wonder how good their forehands could have been if they adopted a modern forehand with a heavier frame. At the end of the day, I still believe this sport is about having a feeling of control. I’ll leave you with this quote from Rafael Nadal:
“You might think that after the millions and millions of balls I’ve hit, I’d have the basic shots of tennis sown up, that reliably hitting a true, smooth, clean shot every time would be a piece of cake. But it isn’t. Not just because every day you wake up feeling differently, but because every shot is different; every single one. From the moment the ball is in motion, it comes at you at an infinitesimal number of angles and speeds; with more topspin, or backspin, or flatter, or higher. The differences might be minute, microscopic, but so are the variations your body makes—shoulders, elbow, wrists, hips, ankles, knees—in every shot. And there are so many other factors—the weather, the surface, the rival. No ball arrives the same as another; no shot is identical. So every time you line up to hit a shot, you have to make a split-second judgment as to the trajectory and speed of the ball and then make a split-second decision as to how, how hard, and where you must try and hit the shot back. And you have to do that over and over, often fifty times in a game, fifteen times in twenty seconds, in continual bursts more than two, three, four hours, and all the time you’re running hard and your nerves are taut; it’s when your coordination is right and the tempo is smooth that the good sensations come, that you are better able to manage the biological and mental feat of striking the ball cleanly in the middle of the racket and aiming it true, at speed and under immense mental pressure, time after time. And of one thing I have no doubt: the more you train, the better your feeling. Tennis is, more than most sports, a sport of the mind; it is the player who has those good sensations on the most days, who manages to isolate himself best from his fears and from the ups and downs in morale a match inevitably brings, who ends up being world number one.”
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