Is the Modern Game for You?
Among tennis teaching pros there is a continuing debate regarding the pros and cons of the "modern game" and how this new style of play relates to the average recreational player. Some pros suggest that the modern style of more extreme grips, open stances, and heavy spin is the only way to play to the game. They cite the prevalence of semi-western grips and aggressive topspin at all levels of competitive play as evidence and they try to impose this style on all players with dogmatic zeal. Other pros have nothing but disdain for "modern tennis." Just the phrase, "modern tennis," makes them cringe with images of contorted grips and ridiculously whippy swings - swings they claim are more likely to land the player in the emergency room of the local hospital than land the ball within the lines of the opponent's court. So if the tennis teaching community is divided on the merits of the modern game, how does that bode for the average club player who is trying to fix his forehand.
Before we try to take a stand on this issue we first need to determine what we
mean by "modern tennis." Most people who watch the pros play today are dazzled by the speed of the game. Those who have been around long enough will comment on how much harder the pros hit the ball today compared to 30 years ago. Not only is the ball traveling faster it is also spinning a lot more. Both topspin and underspin are used in generous amounts. Because the speed of the swings and the spin of the ball are so impressive, people will typically characterize "modern tennis" in these terms, and they have every right to do so.
To me, however, "modern tennis" is not defined by the speed of the swing or the spin on the ball as much as by the basic structure of the stroke. I believe that modern tennis is based more upon changes in the way the body and the arm are aligned through timing and positioning to make a more solid and consistent stroke. In general terms, what has happened has been a shift away from putting so much emphasis on swinging the racquet and more emphasis on properly synchronizing the core of the body and the arm. Part of this shift can be seen in the adoption of more "open stance hitting" and "back foot hitting."
One thing that contributed to this shift to more efficient stroking was the proliferation of the two handed backhand. Once considered inferior stroking technique by most teaching pros, the two-hander gained widespread popularity in the 70's through the success of Connors, Evert, Borg, Austin, and others. Eventually the two-hander was accepted by the teaching community and became a staple of the teaching curriculum.
Today I start all young children on two hands for both forehand and backhand. I know that Dave Smith, my colleague at TennisOne, also advocates two hands as an effective learning system for children and adults. The two-hander restricts arm swing and encourages proper coordination between the arms and the body. This includes positioning of the feet, weight shift, balance, and even touch in the hands. In a nutshell, it produces a more compact swing.
The Unit Turn.
Evidence of the more compact swing system can be seen in today's game with the systematic use of the "Unit Turn." The Unit Turn is when both hands are maintained on the racquet while the shoulders turn during the backswing phase of the stroke. This is borrowing from the two-handed backhand model, basically making the forehand more like the two handed backhand.
Besides keeping the swing compact, another aspect of modern tennis is good grips.
Modern players have more range in their grips. They are able to shift between
Semi-Western and Continental grips and in between. This allows them to better
develop and manage power by giving them the ability to both add power and reduce
power on the ball. Learning a reasonable range of grips is
essential for the development of a full court game. I don't advocate extreme grips as I feel they are much too limiting for the average player. But some players may find a more radical grip extremely comfortable. If you can execute your shot with consistency, then I see no reason to abandon it. Just be sure that it is not the only grip in your bag.
Developing a new grip can be an excruciating process but sometimes the same
result can be affected by simply relaxing the wrist more. If you allow your
wrist to flex back as you go into the ball you may be able to achieve the same
or similar result as changing the grip. Federer does not use an extreme a grip
but he hits the ball further in front than most because of the
flexibility of his wrist.
Click Photo: Don't get carried away with the speed, power, and spin of the pros but understand the professional game is built on rock solid fundamentals of balance, rhythm, and stroke patterns.
Another thing I think is important to understand about modern tennis is that a lot of what we think of as modern tennis is really in our own minds. Tennis has not changed that much over the years. Yes certain things have developed. Stroking techniques have evolved and racquet and string technology have evolved but more than anything else our understanding of what defines a good stroke has also evolved. Just like the two handed backhand was once shunned as an outcast and is now looked upon with full favor, so too have we made more room for variations in grips and stances.
Tennis has been and always will be a game of timing, balance, and finesse.
Before you decide if the modern game is right for you, make sure you know what it
is all about. Don't get carried away with the speed and the spin that you see from the pros. Learn to appreciate it as an example of the incredible skill of elite athletes in their prime but also understand that the professional game is built on rock solid fundamentals of balance, rhythm, and stroke patterns. Certainly power, speed, and spin can elevate your game, but it should never be done at the expense of consistency. Look instead at the subtleties of footwork , posture, and contact point. Meeting the ball squarely and precisely and being able to do it over and over under varying conditions is the mark of a good player and this will never go out of style.
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