There are so many options when the racquet contacts the ball. As regards the momentum of the incoming ball, one can soften the collision with touch and finesse, or stiffen the collision and shoot the ball off the strings with a firm grip. And then there are racquet acceleration issues, where the racquet can be swung softly, swung forcefully, or whipped into the ball.
In all instances, the feel for this wonderful implement is conveyed through the fingers. And perhaps there is more to gripping a racquet than the positions of the hand on the handle, commonly referenced by the standard grips.
First and foremost, get a feel for, if not reexamine, how you grasp the racquet. If at all possible, reference your grips by the placement of the finger tips. Normally the tennis books use the location of the knuckle of the thumb and forefinger to indicate the particular grip. But in this instance, move to an eastern forehand and feel where your finger tips rest on the handle. Now move to a continental or an eastern backhand and again note the new position of the finger tips. (Click here to view the various grip placements.)
Children (and some adults) can perform pull-ups using the last three fingers of each hand (middle finger, ring finger and pinkie) and, from an evolutionary sense, monkeys used these three gripping fingers to swing from the vines and used the thumb and forefinger to eat their bananas (and no I do not have this on first person authority but the story is fun and plausible).
So when trying to get a good grip on the racquet for jarring collisions, for example the forehand volley, the tension (and placement) of these three finger tips is most important. This is not to say that these fingertips must be tightly placed on the racquet throughout the stroke. But rather at the moment of contact, the gripping fingers should indeed squeeze. The leading professional in our area, the renowned Henry Kamakana, advises watching the ball to know precisely “when” to squeeze, and certainly anyone who has seen his volley (or his students for that matter) would heed his advice.
The biggest serves, like Andy Roddick, have the loosest most relaxed grips.
Just the opposite use of the fingers works on the serve. Pancho Gonzalez was known to remove either his pinkie and sometimes his pinkie and ring finger from the grip when needing a “big serve.” I believe this adjustment weakened the grip and enabled more of a loose whip.
On this score, my first coach, Blackie Jones, was fond of demonstrating the two finger service grip, just thumb and forefinger. In this version, it is so difficult to get a good hold on the racquet that the serve only works if there is continuous swinging momentum. And, though I do not recommend a two finger serve for anything other than your own amusement, weakening the pinkie or both the pinkie and ring finger as the racquet builds momentum, definitely loosens up the service whip.
On a scale from 1 to 5 – where 1 would be very loose and 5 extremely tight, monitor the tension in your hand as you are stroking the ball. The professionals hold the racquet more loosely than you might imagine. Generally your own most trusted stroke will have less finger tension, and the stroke you trust the least and work the hardest on will have more finger tension from start to finish. The trick is to relax the fingers as long as possible, and assume (for it will occur anyway) that the fingers will tighten at impact.
Years ago Jack Groppel marketed a grip tension device that beeped when the handle was gripped tightly. In demonstration with accomplished players, the handle was silent as the player moved to the ball and silent as the player began their backswing, and beeped only at impact. Then, as onlookers who had observed this demonstration tried the racquet, in some instances, the handle would beep as the player assumed the ready position. Truthfully. So really people, “lighten up” does in fact mean something here.
A Nice Finishing Stretch
After a long afternoon on the courts, here is an excellent stretch for the hand and forearm. Open your fingers on both hands as wide apart and as straight as possible. Pull up and back, extend the wrist as far back as possible, then hold, release and repeat. A version of this stretch utilizes one or two stiff rubber bands generally used to bundle stalks of broccoli. Place these rubber bands over the fingers and then pull your fingers apart.
Next time on court, reexamine your fingers. It just might open up a world of possibilities for feel, flow, maybe even fun.
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