Young, Berdych: the "cross spin forehand" of the future? (historical C/P)

02-13-2005, 06:00 AM
Check this site for streaming video clips of Young's vs Haas' and Moya's forehands. Young's and Berdych's are the latest forehand innovations, sez this writer. ;)

Big Defense at the SAP Open

Jim McLennan

I have been studying a lot of tennis material these days, including Oscar Wegner and Luis Wyche. As a teacher (as well as editor) I find all the material coming my way to be compelling, a little overwhelming, and somehow the trick is to see how many of these ideas fit within my preconceived notions. And my notions, otherwise known as biases, are about hitting through the ball, moving forward, and applying pressure when the opponent hits short. I believe this works at a recreational club level, at a senior tournament level (me) and at the professional level (Henman, Dent, Federer). That said I am seeing things that sometimes fit and sometimes don't within my own system.

First, between Wegner and Wyche there is a picture of the racquet swinging across the ball. With Wyche the racquet finishes on the left shoulder, not over the shoulder, and the racquet face has rotated up through the hit in a windshield wiper fashion. Wegner is similar. When I tell old friends (translate “purists”) they cannot even imagine what it feels like much less looks like, for this is not at all about hitting through the ball. But in a synchronous way, a number of events all point to the same issue.

One of the pros at our club, Vinnie Vieira calls it “cross spin” and has seen Thomas Berdych (he beat Federer in the Olympics) use just such a heavy topspin forehand. I watched the Kid – Donald Young at the SAP Open and sure enough his forehand looks exactly like this, and it is the biggest and best part of his game.

In a vague description from someone who is exploring how this stroke looks and feels – somehow the hand and arm are swung forward, and then at impact all the energy is released into the racquet which pops vigorously up and across the ball. And skeptics, the pictures here will tell the story. This appears to be a shot that is evolving, not because of the teachers, but rather because of the players, and if so it will ultimately migrate back down to the teachers and then to the legions.

Styles of play, evolution, and the martial arts. Many submissions to our site these days are written with reference if not emphasis on how the martial arts can influence tennis play. Balance, centeredness, quiet mind, and concentration of force at the moment of impact (like breaking concrete blocks). And additionally, these writers note that the martial arts have had many many hundreds of years more to evolve, to grow, and to refine technique. So from this point of view, tennis is still young, styles are evolving, and certainly that is true.

If someone stroked an open stance forehand falling backwards forehand in 1968, any self respecting coach would have attacked such a technique. I have heard that in the early 1970's Peter Burwash proposed a seminar on the open stance forehand to Eve Kraft of the USTA national tennis teachers conference – and if the story is true – the proposal was not accepted because the open stance forehand was not within the traditional tennis teaching frame of reference. The times they are a changing ….

So, if at one time in the distant past, three of the four grand slams were played on fast grass, the players used heavy racquets, and the racquets had small sweet spots – then somehow an attacking style evolved. Jack Kramer, Ellsworth Vines, Don Budge, Pancho Gonzalez, Rod Laver, Lew Hoad (and certainly many more) played an attacking game. This game involved underspin volleys, blocked return of serves, and perhaps precision more than brute power. Subsequent generations played a similar game, including Stan Smith, Arthur Ashe, John Newcombe (and again a host of others). Topspin passing shots were not truly mastered, and these volleyers had a veritable feast until Bjorn Borg came along. And it must be said; this style came from the players and filtered down to the coaches.

Now the racquets are lighter. The professionals are not using the 9 ounce models, but nevertheless they are better able to whip the racquet. The sweet spots are larger. The athletes are stronger. And topspin appears to be the name of the game. In that light, and from watching two matches this week at the SAP Open in San Jose , I would suggest we have evolved into an era of Big Defense, Power rather than Precision.

Basketball and football titles are won on the strength of their defense. Certainly the same appears to be the case with tennis. Robbie Ginepri beats Donald Young, and Ginepri plays more or less like a boxer, big punches, often in flurries, little precision to the corners (perhaps he didn't need to n this match) but many times Young was out of position and Ginepri powered it into the opening. But it must be said, not close to the lines and in the corner, but sort of to the opening where Young could remain in the point. Still, Young could not counter the shot because of Ginepri's raw power.

Similarly, Tommy Haas defeats Greg Carraz, and often the court is open for a winner but Haas instead powers the ball to the open area instead of threading the needle to the exact spot. When two defensive power players tangle, the rallies become interminable. Guile and creativity are replaced with power, and then more cautiously aimed power. Certainly the players have discovered this style. The slow hard courts may have enhanced this style. But in the main, the style is defensive and the power is just amazing. Big Defense, readers help me here, is there a better tagline?

And what of you and I? Teachers sometimes refer to the four levels of stroking mastery. First one comes to terms with consistency. Can you truly hit 50 forehands in a row (with a partner or ball machine)? Once mastered, then can you retain consistency and narrow your targets, achieving control? Then if consistency and control are proficient, explore spin, again without sacrificing consistency and control. And finally, when consistent, accurate, and using spin, then the player may explore power, without again any sacrifice in consistency, control or loss of spin. In fact, an interesting sequence on the ball machine is just that – 20 in a row in the court, then 20 to a spot, then 20 in the court to a spot with topspin, then 20 in a row in the court, to a spot, with topspin, with power. This drill clarifies what to work on with your forehand or backhand, for if there is a breakdown, then you can retool at the precise level where things went awry.