Wimbledon – The Underspin Forehand and How You Can Use it
Wimbledon begins in a few days with their glorious grass courts, men’s and women’s outfits observing the all white tradition (with certain pressure from the games leading clothiers), and a surface that is now as rare as it was common really that long ago. Prior to the advent of open tennis, and prior to the explosion in tennis technology that expanded racquet heads and empowered the topspin game, three of the four slams were played on grass (US Open, Wimbledon, and Australia).
In those days the courts were faster, the bounces lower, the racquet heads smaller, and the underspin drive was part and parcel of every contender's game. Coming-in shots were played flat or with backspin at the top of the bounce, volleyers were more prevalent, and in most instances, players found it difficult to pass their nimble net rushing adversaries. It was Rod Laver who first showed he could “topspin” the backhand passing shot, dipping it low, whereas most of the players (Rosewall included, who passed with underspin) had the problem of passing shots that rose if not sailed against nimble and deadly volleyers.
Well, certainly, that has all changed. In 2002, the Wimbledon titlist Lleyton Hewitt boasted that he had not served and volleyed even once during the fortnight. And as the grips move more and more to the semi-western forehand, there are less and less players comfortable or even competent when volleying. The grip, the feel, and the technique for the underspin forehand volley are miles away from a heavy topspin drive (just ask Andy Roddick). But, whether recreationally or professionally, there is still a place for the underspin forehand. McEnroe continues to show us, Fabrice Santoro bedevils opponents with his one of a kind two-handed forehand, and Roger Federer routinely blocks the forehand return of serve with deft underspin drives. Nothing about power, simply playing for position with a simpler stroke.
Yes, Federer does not go to the underspin forehand when attacking. Yes Santoro does not blast the ball through his opponent. And yes, John McEnroe is now 49. But two years ago at the SAP Open in San Jose, McEnroe was the best player on the court in each of his doubles matches on the way to the title. The simplicity of his return of serves often flat if not with underspin, favored consistency as compared with the inaccurate power of his opponents, more accustomed to driving the return of serve with topspin and power. If you take a walk through the Ricoh match statistics on the return of the first serve, generally the blockers are listed towards the top in this category, and the blasters are way down the list.
Blocking, finessing, keeping the ball low, putting yet one more ball in play, creating a low bouncing ball that arrives with a skid, there is more art to the underspin forehand than meets the eye. Years ago when John McEnroe took Arthur Ashe apart in the season ending master’s tournament at Madison Square Garden, Ashe opined, "Against Connors and Borg you feel like you're being hit with a sledgehammer. But this guy is a stiletto -- a nick here, a nick there, and pretty soon you're bleeding." Kids, you too can learn to use this shot.
Fabrice Santoro bedevils opponents with his one of a kind two-handed forehand.
Somehow at the recreational level, the underspin drive is confused with an underspin chip. In the former, the ball is stroked with the entire arm, the ball is driven with pace, and the ball takes a low skidding bounce. In the latter, the ball is stroked with a sharp downward movement of the hand and wrist, the ball floats across the net, and as often as not, the ball sets up with a higher than normal bounce. There may be times when the chip makes sense, but in this scenario the trick is to develop the look and feel of the underspin forehand drive. When this stroke has been approached, if not mastered, there will be immediate dividends on the forehand volley, for there are many similarities between the two.
Roger Federer routinely blocks the forehand return of serve with deft underspin drives.
Turn to the side with a high eastern forehand grip, or continental grip, and check the position of the racquet head in relation to your forearm. When chipping with the hand and wrist, the racquet head will appear up and at an angle from the forearm. This method generally requires that the hand and wrist move the racquet sharply downward at impact. Beware this chip, this ball floats. In contrast, prepare yet again and position the racquet head lower, still above the hand but now more in line with the forearm. Consider this preparing up and away (rather than simply up). When the racquet and the racquet head are positioned in line with the forearm, you can now stroke the ball from the shoulder, the motion is more level and less steep, and truly the ball will shoot off the racquet.
There are many ways to hit that ball, and many ways to play this game. And though topspin appears to rule the day whether on the lawns of Wimbledon or the courts in your neighborhood, there are many uses to the underspin drive, as well as the knifing underspin volley. Explore.
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