Tennis – so many types of shots, so little time to learn them all (or so it seems). As I observe the players at our club enjoying singles and doubles, tinkering with strategy and shot placement, experimenting with the newest racquets, some seem to have a feel for an underspin backhand, others don’t.
I can’t really say that I can convince those in the latter group to experiment, but I can say for sure that those who can “feel” this underspin shot also possess an unconscious competence with the backhand volley, and in these instances there is a simplicity to this shot that enables these guys and gals to hit with confidence on the backhand side. This is not to say the topspin backhand is more difficult, though in fact it may be, but rather when the grip and wrist are positioned just so, this underspin shot seems to flow.
So if you might be willing to experiment, let’s examine this shot from the side view, and look for a few “keys” that may unlock this shot for you. (If you have mastered this shot, please fast forward to the article on the home page, which discusses in more depth the differences between the drive, the chip, and the drop shot - the role of the incoming flight of the ball (ascending or descending) as well as footwork nuances that enable you to approach down the line.)
First, find the continental grip, with your hand pinched over the grip as opposed to wrapped tightly around the handle. The knuckles are up, the thumb more or less pointing at your navel, as though polishing a table, and the grip is long rather than short. These are a lot of words, but for my money without this grip and position of the arm the rest of the material is just a crap shoot. When gripped this way, the racquet face is positioned more or less horizontally, with the strings throat and handle all more or less level. This appears counterintuitive, but is the heart and soul of all that follows.
When hitting an underspin backhand I can feel a number of levers working in sequence, none which overpower any of the others, but rather levers that work in concert when sequenced just right.
The stroke starts with just the slightest shoulder turn, then a slight movement of the upper arm to the contact zone, followed by a slight straightening of the elbow, the slightest rotation of the arm which squares the racquet face, and finally the slightest release from the wrist. Not a locked elbow, not a massive shoulder turn, not an upper arm that flails through the contact zone, and not a floppy wrist – but rather a machine with five levers.
Click photo to hear Jim McLennan talk about variations of the underspin backhand.
The underspin backhand is hit with a similar downward action as is used in golf. Both shots acquire backspin, in golf this keeps the ball up and sailing (and interestingly in baseball the home run ball is also hit with backspin, but that is another story) but just as one may hook or slice a golf ball if hitting across rather than through the contact zone – this underspin backhand may be inadvertently hooked or sliced.
As a means to practice hitting through rather than across the ball, try playing the ball ever so slightly down the line. Once mastered the underspin backhand approach down the line will become your bread and butter shot but for the moment simply aiming down the line can be really challenging.
If you swing across the ball and open up early, the ball will veer back to center of the court. If you swing to sharply outside in, the ball will curve wide of the alley with sidespin. And though both of those shots would have specific tactical uses, for the moment the goal is down the line with “perfect” backspin, the ball rotating backwards on a perfectly horizontal axis.
Toss, Hit, and Catch
So what follows is a devilishly tricky drill – toss, hit, and catch. Positioned across the net from one another, about 15 feet apart, one player prepares for a backhand volley the other tosses the ball gently toward the prepared racquet. The tosser tosses to the contact zone, but importantly, if not with extreme difficulty, the hitter tries to volley the ball back to the tosser, but with backspin, not sidespin. Try this maddening drill, it may take many a shot until you can feel both the spin and the aim but when succeeding, the racquet will be moving exactly through the ball on the slightest downward path. And the rest, as they say, is history.
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