January 18, 1988
ON YOUR OWN: TENNIS; Subtle Steps to a Better Grip on the Game
By ALEXANDER MCNAB; ALEXANDER MCNAB IS THE EDITOR OF TENNIS MAGAZINE.
LEAD: THE names of the basic tennis strokes, forehand and backhand, should tell you something about the role of your hands in shot-making. The adage is that the racquet should feel like an extension of your hand. You should meet the ball on the forehand side as if you were striking it with your open palm, and on the backhand side as if you were hitting it with the back of your hand.
THE names of the basic tennis strokes, forehand and backhand, should tell you something about the role of your hands in shot-making. The adage is that the racquet should feel like an extension of your hand. You should meet the ball on the forehand side as if you were striking it with your open palm, and on the backhand side as if you were hitting it with the back of your hand. That's why instructors spend so much time teaching beginners about grips - how to place the hand on the handle to make the racquet meet the ball squarely.
There's another aspect of holding the racquet, though, that's important, especially as you progress as a player. How tightly you hold the racquet, and when, can be critical to good shot-making. Arthur Ashe, the former Wimbledon and United States Open champion, divides players into two categories: those who play with hard hands and those who play with soft hands.
''People who are described as natural talents, or who have natural ability, are more prone to grip the handle with soft hands,'' he said. ''That is, they don't hold it tight. They have the correct grip, but they know when to squeeze tight and when to release. Then there are some players who hold the racquet tight all the time, or so it seems.''
With those words in mind, here are some handy thoughts to keep in mind the next time you play.
A soft-hands player generally uses the natural flexibility of the wrist in hitting the ball. A hard-hands player, by contrast, hits the ball with his wrists locked in a stationary position in relation to his forearm.
Each method has its advantages and disadvantages. You get more versatility by playing with soft hands. You can add more last-second speed, touch, spin and placement to your sh ots by subtly manipulating your wrist. But with soft hands, you also increase the tendency to hit the ball late, to be sloppy with fundamental mechanics like turning the shoulders and keeping your racquet head up, and to hit the ball shallow or be overpowered by an opponent's shot because your racquet head was unstable at contact.
Employing hard hands is a more forgiving technique. It forces you to hit the ball with proper form, generating power from stepping into the ball and correctly rotating your hips and shoulders. It prevents your racquet head from being knocked off line by your opponent's power. But it restricts the amount of touch you can put on a shot. Moreover, if you hit every ball with your wrist and forearm rigidly locked into position, you can develop a sore arm because you negate the shock-absorbing qualities of the wrist joint.
Ashe recommends that you learn the rudiments of hitting the ball with hard hands, then experiment with less tension in your grip. ''Try swinging the racquet and not holding it very tightly,'' he said.
If you can still control the speed, direction and depth of your shots, perhaps you have the talent to play with soft hands. But you never want to get to the point where your shots are nothing but limp-wristed slaps at the ball.
Even if your shots are best when you squeeze the racquet handle hard, don't do it all the time. You need to hold on tightly only from an instant before contact until just after most shots. If you squeeze hard during your entire swing, you'll slow down the speed of the racquet head and restrict the amount of power you can generate.
A loose grip as you prepare to hit is especially important on the serve. As you swing the racquet around and up at the ball, it should be accelerating. A way to insure that this happens is to hold it principally with just your thumb and index finger. Some photos of top pros actually show the last three fingers entirely off the handle at different stages of their service motions prior to hitting the ball. Of course, you should firm up at impact.
While the thumb and index finger are the key grippers during the serve, the last three fingers are the ones to squeeze tightest on ground strokes and volleys, according to Peter Burwash, the former Canadian Davis Cupper who now heads a global network of teaching pros. What that does is ''keep your wrist and racquet head moving together in the same plane during your stroke,'' he said.
You need the firmest grip on returns of hard serves and on volleys, when the ball is coming at you fastest. If you hold the racquet too loosely, the speed of the oncoming shot will knock your racquet face off line and you won't be able to control the direction and trajectory of your return.
Burwash is also a proponent of using your nonracquet hand as a helper as you prepare to hit ground strokes and volleys. His suggestions go beyond the simple cradling of the racquet shaft on one-handed backhands or doubling the grip on two-handers. He recommends that you always wait for the ball with the index finger of your nonracquet hand resting on the bottom of the strings at the racquet's throat, where the shaft joins the head. It's a technique you'll often see used by pros like Mats Wilander and Boris Becker.
That index finger helps you rest your racquet hand and keep the racquet head up. It also serves as a subconscious guide to where your racquet head is and at what angle it is inclined.
Finally, rest your racquet hand between points and even between shots. When a point ends, immediately shift your racquet to your other hand. Your hand can get surprisingly tired from gripping and swinging your racquet during the course of a match. You need to conserve the strength and feel in your racquet hand. Unloading it of its burden between points is helpful.
But be sure you go a step further and release the tension in your hand as completely as possible between shots in a rally. One way to practice, Burwash says, is to wipe your palm on your shorts between each shot in practice, until that loosening and tightening of your grip becomes habit.
Who knows, it may help to make wiping out your opponent a habit, too.