Power playing: Make your muscle matter

Published by Scott Draper

As artistry evolves so too do players hard-hitting weapons. You need muscle to matter in the modern game. Scott Draper explains the place of power and some ways you can achieve it. Photo: Getty Images
As artistry evolves so too do players hard-hitting weapons. You need muscle to matter in the modern game. Scott Draper explains the place of power and some ways you can achieve it.

Comparing tennis today to the game of the past is like comparing a boxer and fencer. There are two heavy weights at each end of the court – think Serena Williams v Maria Sharapova or Rafael Nadal v Novak Djokovic – and it’s a slugfest. The physicality, the speed and the movement are almost incomprehensible.

And we’re not talking gentle taps. It’s absolute full-blooded hooks, a swing to the face. The game, once upon a time, was more artistry. Even if you were a boxer, it was more about using the jab to set the opponent up for the swinging hook. You’d try and get inside to tactically manouevure your opponent around; you’d use a lot more variety because that’s what you had to use to break through.

When we talk about the power game, there is no question that it’s incredibly difficult. Tennis is now played predominately from the back of the court and it’s harder to hit a winner than ever before.

Elements of power
Power: a ball that has no spin on it, is the most effective and fastest way of getting the ball to travel from point A to point B. The more spin on the ball, the slower the ball travels through the air. Today’s game incorporates both elements – that is, speed and spin. To achieve both requires massive cuts at the ball. The ball is fast off the racquet and jumps off the court at the other end – this is what’s known as today’s ‘heavy ball’.

The ability to hit with minimal and maximal revolutions on the ball gives you many options within a rally and is the main reason why the baseline game is so dominant in the modern era.

Here are some other ways in which power is prevalent in the modern game.

Starting with the serve
The serve has obviously always been the most important shot in tennis, given that it’s the one time when you have full control over what you’re going to execute and it’s also the easiest time to get a free point in a rally (especially in the men’s game).

The serve is even more important in the power era. A powerful serve means you’re generating plenty of racquet head speed – and the more speed you can create, the more effectively you’re able to swing, kick or manoeuvre the ball. With the return of serve featuring more dominantly in today’s game – keeping the opponent from attacking the serve is critical to preventing one of the modern weapons from surfacing.

More than spin…

There’s been a transition from yesterday’s era when tennis was all about artistry, comprising a lot of stroke play with continental grips. It transitioned to more multi-segmented forehands, or the modern forehands when grips started to move further around, giving players the ability to hit with a lot more spin. A grip that goes too far, such as the western grip, makes hitting the ball flat when required generally more difficult (especially at end range). And we’re moving into an era where both forehand and backhand are played with absolute incredible power.

The height of the ball moving over the net has changed. Where players like Albert Costa or Sergi Bruguera – clay court specialists of the 1990s – had a lot more shape in their strokes. Now players hit the ball flatter (but not as flat as when we played with wood and on grass).

The ability of modern players is that they not only hit the ball heavy but they can also hit it with a lot of pace and they can hit it flat. When there is a short ball, they can put it away. They can be on the dead run, and you’ll see players nearly doing the splits and creating incredible power from the back of the court.

Backhand benefits
There are less single-handed backhanders in the game than ever before, which lends itself to having a greater ability to dominate on the return of serve. As a double-hander, you start with both backhand and forehand grips ready. As a single-hander, you have to adapt your grip as the ball is approaching. You can really take some cuts at the ball and be offensive off the return.

Simple steps for power
Whether you’re a beginner, a social-level player or more advanced, it’s natural to crave a more powerful serve or a bigger forehand. Achieving those objectives can be a complex process requiring many hours fine-tuning technique with a qualified coach. At the same time, there are also some simple steps that can help you build a bigger game.

From the ground up
Put simply, power comes from the ground up. In other words, your legs. No matter what shot it is – the serve, forehand or backhand – you’re trying to create a position for your legs to drive from.

Note that the lesser the player, the harder it is to incorporate legs in the swing, especially the serve. Using the legs requires high levels of coordination – try using some of the tips below that don’t involve the legs before moving on to the lower half of your body. You can still create significant power through your upper half.

Make it free-flowing
Generating maximum power requires an absence of tension. You need to create a torque in your body that in turn allows for an elastic band effect. Initiating your legs start a kinetic chain, from which your technique basically unravels. If you’ve got an absence of tension and you set your body in a way that creates that elasticity, you’ll generate maximum power.

A fast arm
To be able to serve fast, you need solid throwing mechanics. You can actually make the ball travel out of your hand at speed. If you can throw well and you can replicate those mechanics with a racquet in your hand, then you’re naturally creating racquet head speed. If throwing mechanics change, something has broken down. Typically, that’s tension. Like I said, keep it free-flowing.

Get a grip
Or at least get the right grip. Players will grip too tight; they’ll force too much. A real secret to speed and power is relaxed muscles. Think of cracking a whip. If you create tension in a whip, that whip is not going to travel as fast. And if you’re the one cracking the whip, you need to have a rhythm to it. It’s the speed from which the whip moves up and down that’s going to make it crack.

The power chain
All of the above points also apply to your ground strokes – the forehand especially. Once you’ve created that elastic band effect in your serve, you need to keep it flowing. As soon as there’s stiffness, there’s an inability to displace the racquet as far as needed. If you let gravity work, there’s an absence of tension. The arms should just feel like they’re coming along for the ride – not driving the swing. Creating a rotational effect is how you create racquet head speed – and that’s the generation of power in simple terms.

Tougher tools

Equipment is almost certainly the biggest contributing factor to the power revolution in the modern game. Racquets and strings have taken tennis to a new place.

Weigh up your options
The tallest players – think Juan Martin del Potro at 198 cm or Mark Philippoussis at 196 cm – tend to have longer swings and aren’t quite as rotational as the smaller players who are generally more angular in their attack as opposed to the linear styles of longer limbed players. Being angular generally requires more strength too, which is why you see most women play with a linear attack on their ground strokes. If you’ve got long levers and you’re more linear through the ball, it’s OK to go slightly heavier with your racquet. Slightly heavier. If you’re shorter and more rotational, it’s probably easier to use a slightly lighter racquet.

In tennis today, however, there’s no real need for the average punter to use anything heavier than what’s on the shelf. Rafael Nadal’s racquet is at the lower end of the 300 gram mark; Mark Philippoussis and Pete Sampras used to go for 400 grams. That’s unbelievably heavy. Nobody does that anymore. Standard shelf weights generally range from 250 to 300 grams.

String section
Over the past couple of decades, there has been a real shift from serve-volley tennis to baseline tennis. String is the main reason.

In the past, surfaces were faster and the balls were too. Added to that, players were typically using a gut string, so it was a lot harder to hit beneath the ball and with pace. Getting it up and over the net – say down the line or cross-court past the net player – was a challenge.

These days, players can take huge cuts at the ball, so the ball is faster off the racquet. Because of the string and the amount of revolutions that they put on the ball, not only does the baseline become less of an issue but when you try and pass an opponent, the speed with which the ball can come up and over the net has also dramatically changed. The ability to pass is far easier than before.

Point to point

Years ago, a player’s intention was to shorten the distance from point A to point B, as it was very hard to get the job done from baseline to baseline – this is why finishing the point off at the net was so prevalent. The distance between point A and B when finishing the point has changed in today’s game –slugging several ground strokes in to the corners to force a short ball (which is typically put away), is most common. This ‘put away’ ball is usually struck somewhere between the baseline and service line. The other weapon of choice today from this part of the court is the drive volley. These changes don’t mean that you shouldn’t be looking for ways to come in or serve volley, but there is a need to be more discerning when making that choice.

Physicality and power

So how do you win a point considering that the distance between hitting point A and hitting point B is so much greater? It’s an especially difficult question given that you’re playing on slower surfaces and with slower balls.

In many cases, the only way is through changing your physicality. Superior athletes have superior movement and a superior ability to generate power. At the same time, accuracy and a sustained ability to slug a ball from corner to corner needs to be extremely good.

But achieving power through physicality doesn’t automatically mean bulk. Body shapes in the men’s game are a lot leaner – as Djokovic, Andy Murray, Nadal and Federer all demonstrate at the top of the game. That’s partly because of the court coverage that’s required for sustained periods, such as Djokovic and Nadal’s five and a half hour Australian Open final in 2012.

You can’t necessarily afford to carry the massive bulk you once could. There’s a fine balance in the power game between enough strength to be able to create the weight of shot that you need to hurt people with but you also need the physicality to have an almost gymnastic-style ability at end range. Consider that elastic band effect, players like Djokovic hitting the ball at ridiculous speeds in the splits position. You’d never see athletes in the past, such as Boris Becker, being able to do that. There’s a different requirement in the game these days.

Power and the social player

It’s impressive watching the pros absolutely roasting the ball and natural that you’d want to do it too. Power isn’t always everything though. At beginner and intermediate level then surely the enjoyment in the game is to have a rally, especially if you’re hitting with a mate. If you’re trying to bazooka the ball and hit it out three times in a row, then it’s not going to be very enjoyable for an opponent or your friend.

Here are some suggestions to add power to your game: First, grab a basket of balls, have a friend feed some balls to you and you do the same for them.

  • Work on creating pace
  • Don’t grip too tight
  • Don’t have tension in your upper body (only a strong core) – the arms come along for the ride
  • Practice hitting with different speeds/spins/ trajectories to see where your balance point is between hitting it hard and hitting it in
  • A drill for hitting with spin is to try and hit the ball as hard as you can whilst keeping it inside the service line. This is only achievable if you give it plenty of rip. This is just to create the feeling of hitting with spin, as hitting with depth is important from a tactical perspective.

Scott Draper was a top-50 player on the ATP Tour, achieving fourth round finishes at the French Open in 1995 and 1996, as well as the US Open in 1997. Draper is now Developmental Tennis Manager at Tennis Australia.

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