Keeping the Head Still
The modern game continues to evolve: players are stronger and the ball is hit with more speed and more spin. For better or worse, these trends, plus advances in racquet technology, all point toward more and more racquet head speed.
In the classical model, players shifted their weight and turned into the swing, often with a square or closed stance. In the modern game, players are as likely to keep their weight back and generate racquet head speed from open stances. But the one constant between both models is the “turn into the hit.” Certainly the turns appear more dramatic and powerful in the modern game, but no matter what your age or your style of play, it will always be about turning to prepare and turning to hit. Any leisurely scroll through our ProStrokes Gallery will highlight how players rotate their bodies (sometimes just torso when using an open stance, other times torso and hips in a square stance) when hitting the ball. But just as balance and posture may be overlooked by players and coaches, the same may occur with the placement and use of the head (and eyes) during the stroke.
The human head weighs only about twelve pounds. But the consequences of that object wobbling at the top of the spine during the swing are disastrous.
Notice the contrast in serves between Taylor Dent (right) and Pete Sampras.
Taylor pulls his head sharply downward just before contact while Pete remains relatively stable.
Anyone who has ever played with a spinning top knows that when the axis or spine is vertical the top retains speed, but once it begins wobbling off center, it rapidly loses speed. The same occurs when we play tennis. The art, is to turn into the hit (whether groundstroke or serve) without pulling the head during the swing. Federer and Sampras are the model on the serve, but Federer appears to be the only player on the tour who consistently controls his head during groundstrokes. You and I can adopt these techniques into our own game. It won’t be easy, but no one I know ever said this game was easy.
An excellent, but obscure book, "Batting Basics" by John White, applies the principles of gyroscopic stability to the baseball batting swing. I have found the principles in this book apply equally well to tennis. John argues that the most efficient baseball swing employs a short hitting stride, a centered turn into the hit, and a perfectly straight spine so the batter turns into the ball with a short compact swing. Short and compact simplifies the turning forces, and certainly that model aptly describes the strokes of Andre Agassi and Monica Seles, as well as Barry Bonds.
Short, compact, and quick. But whether baseball or tennis, first comes a turn to the side, waiting for the ball (or pitch) and then the timing for the turn into the hit. In terms of timing, turning, and vision, see this quote by a San Francisco Chronicle sports writer on Barry Bonds' breaking out his slump before he broke Ruth's home run record. Bonds, who has looked stiff, has been opening his hips too early, which causes his eyes to shift and spoils his quick, compact swing. As much as Bonds wanted the extra swings, maybe a superstition was involved, too. When Bonds hit his 754th home run, it was preceded by an extra indoor batting session. Translated, Bonds practiced waiting just a moment longer, to improve his vision and bat speed.
Ready, Read, React
So, when waiting for the ball, consider the three R's – ready, read, and react. The first and most critical move in the entire stroke (my opinion) is the reaction – in this case, the turn to the side with the weight balanced on the back foot.
The photo of the great Willie Mays could just as easily describe the turn to the forehand side -- shoulders and hips turned to the side, head and eyes still forward and centered on the incoming ball.
Too often, tennis players make this initial turn with the slightest move of the head (and eyes) such that preparation actually interferes with vision. On the turn to the side keep your head still and eyes forward, for at this moment the ball is just crossing the net, or leaving the pitchers hand.
As the ball approaches, one tracks it with the head (and eyes) following the ball as it approaches the hitting zone. Throughout the Pro Strokes gallery, many, many videos show just this “tracking” of the incoming ball. This may actually be the easiest element in the process.
But at impact is where the rubber meets the road, “skull wise.” The vigorous turning back into the hit often creates attendant forces that move the head with the shoulders, so that the head is pulled “out of the swing.” Bonds practiced opening his hips later, so as not to disturb his eyes or swing. The same thing occurs in tennis. But just as we can see Roddick or Dent move their heads and eyes at impact, they have practiced so much that this imperfection does not ruin the shot (as it might for you and I). However, that movement does really influence the swing and the eyes.
Would Roddick or Dent be more accurate if their head was not moving? Absolutely! In fact, many players who pull their heads on the pro tour are more prone to play the ball to general areas, where others play the ball to specific spots. You can see when the court is open, how many times the opponent plays the ball safely to the open area, others (read Federer) thread the needle at this point of the rally.
Again, notice the contrast in the position of the head and body at contact between Roddick (right) and Federer.
Contrast Roddick and Dent with Federer and Sampras. Clearly Pete keeps his head and eyes up on the serve. Was he trained to do this? Probably. But why don’t others? Good question.
Check it out for yourself in our ProStrokes gallery. Nearly all the servers pull their head, some slightly (Blake) some much more so (Sharapova). And as regards the forehand, Federer is picture perfect. Could Roddick improve? Again, absolutely! Would it be easy? No Way. But worth the effort, and the same is true for you and me. Hold still, feel your balance, and turn into the hit without pulling your head away.
The following practice exercises may improve your awareness of your head, and how it moves on the court. From the ready position, turn to the side as quickly as possible. In many instances, the incoming ball from your opponent will strike the net cord. At that moment the ball has traversed half the court, plenty of time to have read forehand or backhand and plenty of time to have reacted. At the moment the ball strikes the net cord, note whether you are fully turned and whether your head and eyes are still forward (hopefully) or have turned to the side. In the photo above, Willie looks perfect. Copy Willie.
The second drill concerns power and wobbling. When swinging slowly, most find they can keep their head still at contact, and this holds true for groundstrokes and serves. But when hitting harder, additional actions will often interfere with the task of keeping the head still. Using a ball machine or practice partner, experiment with “power strokes” and see and feel if you are wobbling or centered. See and feel if your head and eyes are still at impact. Build your strokes on the “Federer model.” It's a good way to go.
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