Developing Killer Topspin

By Brendan Sheehan – March 1, 2014
photo by Brian Fitzsimmons

Topspin and the extreme spin of the tennis ball have taken over tennis at the highest—and even at the recreational—level. This is the unfolding evolution of tennis.

Modern tennis mainly pertains to the groundstrokes: the open stance forehand and, in some cases, the open stance backhand. What created this evolution of modern tennis is the ball’s increased speed, the result of more powerful racquets, stronger athletes, and better biomechanics. The classic style of play involved a flatter hit with less spin on the ball. Today’s modern forehand with a semi-Western grip simply has a lot more rotation and body behind the swing than does a classic swing with a Continental grip.

As the ball travels over the net at a faster pace, players on the other side have less time to get ready and turn sideways, causing them to hit from a more open position. Faster athletes, more powerful racquets, and the fast, hard courts of American tennis have produced a game where no one can afford to play without some kind of rotation on the ball. This simply controls the ball, and just ripping the ball with all the spin you can muster can take the stress out of the game.

To become a good player in today’s game, a student must learn to brush under or up on the ball to create topspin. The best players are putting many revolutions on the ball with this brushing method; it's said Rafael Nadal can put out 3,500 rpm while his rival Roger Federer puts about 2,500 rpms on his forehand. These are the examples we need to follow in tennis to learn a modern topspin method.

Loading the kinetic chain is the key to unleashing your topspin potential. It starts from the ground up, moving through the legs, hips, shoulders, arms, and then finishing with a flick of the wrist at impact. The tennis player has to learn this as well as how to time the selected shot and be balanced at the point of contact. This type of swing is also referred to as the “windshield wiper method,” for which local favorite Andy Roddick is known. The move has changed the game forever—and tennis is one of the few sports where modern players are using a totally different technique from Chris Evert and Jimmy Connors and other champions of the 1970s and ’80s who hit the ball “flat.” Things change, and, as a result, today’s tennis players can decide whether to play the classic way or learn the new principles of modern tennis. Many experts agree the modern game adds power and control and is easier on the body.

The more you load the kinetic chain, the more your swing speed creates spin and power. The key is to learn these principles and be efficient with them. For the tennis player, the game is all about time. One of my coaches always said, “You can never get ready too soon.” The faster you get set/ready, the more time you have to unload on the back of the ball.

 If the key to successful modern tennis is the topspin, its enemy is a tight grip. To get the best possible spin on each groundstroke, a player must learn a relaxed grip and create power through relaxation rather than muscle tension. Anyone can just hit a shot with over-squeezing on impact; unfortunately, this technique causes a loss of swing speed and uses mostly arm, which leads to a poor shot (and possibly tennis elbow, if you keep repeating this method).

To make the transition from a classic swing to a more modern open-stance swing, you’ll need a good tennis professional to show you the way. It can be challenging to change muscle memory; new movements can feel uncomfortable and awkward in the beginning, and it can take 3,000–5,000 shots to groove a new neuromuscular pattern. Understanding the kinetic chain is the key to improvement. Looking at your swing in a mirror, practicing hitting with a ball machine, undergoing video analysis, hitting against a backboard, and having someone feed you lots of tennis balls can help in the transition toward a modern swing. I find it’s worth the effort—and it’s always fun learning new shots.


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