by Oliver; Jan. 10, 2015
Learning Tennis for BeginnersHere's a quick and dirty list of tennis pointers for beginners. I like the onion method of learning, where you start from the outer layer, learning the bare minimum, then go deeper. So here's the entire lesson boiled down into bullet points:
- spin plays a massive role in the game of tennis (both topspin and, to a lesser extent, backspin)
- get low and hit down to up on groundstokes to generate topspin
- move to the ball and set up your shot, rather than waiting for the ball or stretching to it. Footwork!
- turn your shoulders perpendicular to the net in preparation for groundstrokes (+90° for forehands, -90° for backhands)
- use your nondominant hand as a guide to set up your forehand
- employ the ready position and the split step
- know racket anatomy and the effects of changing basic parameters
- change your grip for different stokes
- the serve is its own shot with its own unique identity; follow the instruction of YouTube gurus for this difficult stroke (see next point)
- study YouTube footage of pros for technique. Some amazing video libraries:
SpinImagine you're an archaeologist macheteing your way through the steamy jungles of South America. You stumble upon an ancient aboriginal tribe, lost to modern civilization, who worship spin. An implausible scenario? Well, in tennis, spin is worthy of worship; it's worthy of demonic rites; and it's worthy of human sacrifice. In other ball sports—say, basketball or volleyball—spin is a fact of physics but not indispensable to the game. Not so in tennis. Groundstrokes from the baseline present a unique problem: the ball has to go up over the net and then drop down inside the line. This means, if you treat a tennis ball as a hitter in baseball would, and crank it, it's going to fly out: neither a fly ball nor a line drive has the right trajectory for a tennis court.
Spin solves this problem. In a hard baseline rally, the ball describes arcs where it appears as though magnets are pulling the ball down at each end. When David Foster Wallace observed that, "Extreme topspin is the hallmark of today’s power-baseline game," he was not making a controversial statement. If you want to get technical, there's a nice video on the Magnus Effect here. One confusing thing about this video is that, in the tennis portion, it illustrates backspin (upward force) rather than topspin (downward force). Since topspin is more common, observe the following figure from Wikipedia:
(Image credit: from Wikipedia, modified for clarity)
This is topspin, produced when the ball is spinning head over heels in the direction of motion. In this figure, the ball is moving right as well as spinning right (clockwise). It feels the wind, or air resistance, pushing it in the opposite direction, left. At the top of the ball, the wind (air resistance) is in the opposite direction to the spin, but at the bottom of the ball, it's in the same direction. Again, Wikipedia:
... Since there is more air friction occurring on the top surface of the ball compared to the bottom, this differential causes a greater pressure to be applied on the top of the ball, resulting in the ball being pushed down.The Encyclopedia Britannica has a good explanation of this effect:
A spinning object moving through a fluid departs from its straight path because of pressure differences that develop in the fluid as a result of velocity changes induced by the spinning body. The Magnus effect is a particular manifestation of Bernoulli’s theorem: fluid pressure decreases at points where the speed of the fluid increases. In the case of a ball spinning through the air, the turning ball drags some of the air around with it. Viewed from the position of the ball, the air is rushing by on all sides. The drag of the side of the ball turning into the air (into the direction the ball is traveling) retards the airflow, whereas on the other side the drag speeds up the airflow. Greater pressure on the side where the airflow is slowed down forces the ball in the direction of the low-pressure region on the opposite side, where a relative increase in airflow occurs.There's a nice figure at schoolphysics, which succintly states, "Giving the ball 'top spin' will make it dip while 'back spin' will make it rise":
(Image credit: schoolphysics)
And there's a really sexy illustration at COMSOL blog which illustrates sidespin:
(Image credit: comsol.com)
In this illustration, the ball is moving forward and spinning counterclockwise in the plane. The Magnus effect is pushing it right. Sidespin is not relevant in tennis, but in soccer it's used to bend the ball (e.g., on a corner kick).
All this pedantry aside, you discover and internalize a feel for spin on the court without ever worrying about these scientific details. As we'll discuss below, you produce topspin naturally by hitting groundstrokes from down to up, and you produce backspin by slicing up to down. Let's crystallize this with a table:
|Stroke||Spin||Racket Motion||Ball Motion||Function|
|groundstroke||topspin||down to up||spins in the direction of motion||causes a (high) ball to drop (inside the baseline)|
|slice||backspin||up to down||spins opposite the direction of motion||causes a (low) ball to rise (over the net)|
Finally, let's observe topspin in action. Here's a video of pro Grigor Dimitrov hitting groundstrokes in slow motion. Take note of the down-to-up "brushing" action and how high he can hit over the net and still get the ball to drop:
(Video credit: YouTube: Grigor Dimitrov Forehand & Backhand From The Back(Slow Motion))
And here's footage of Andy Murray, who also puts a lot of spin on the ball, at normal speed:
(Video credit: YouTube: Wimbledon Winner Andy Murray Practice From The Back 2012(HD))
(At 0:37, he slices the ball, employing backspin.)
The Tennis RacketBefore we get ahead of ourselves, how do you choose a tennis racket if you're just starting? First, here's the anatomy of a racket:
(credit: image of Wilson Pro Staff from tennis-warehouse.com, modified)
The main thing to be aware of is that head size is a trade off between power and control. Tennis-warehouse.com has a good discussion about this:
Power is directly related to head size - a larger head will provide more power than a smaller head, all other things being equal. A larger head also offers a larger hitting area and sweetspot, providing more forgiveness on off-center hits. Today’s racquets are offered in head sizes ranging from 85 to 135 square inches, with the most common being 95-110. These head sizes offer a compromise between power and control for many players. Generally speaking, a smaller racquet head appeals to more accomplished players seeking more control, while larger racquets appeal to beginning and intermediate players seeking more power and a larger sweetspot.As the blurb says, more experienced players use smaller, heavier rackets because control is prized as the be-all and end-all. For head size, 100 square inches is perhaps a line of demarcation—go above it if you're a beginner and below it otherwise. Another important parameter is handle size. Err on the smaller side and you can always beef it up with overgrips. One last tip: use a vibration dampener on your racket head to suppress high frequency vibrations traveling to your arm.
Footwork and PositioningWhether to discuss strokes or footwork first is a chicken and egg problem, but let's start with footwork. The key to footwork is proactively moving to the ball rather than the converse: keeping your feet planted and stretching to the ball. A good default court position is, naturally, in the center and near the baseline. What about body position? Look at the following still, taken from YouTube: Roger Federer Practice @ Cincy Open - Part 1:
(Image credit: YouTube: Roger Federer Practice @ Cincy Open - Part 1)
This is sometimes called the Ready Position (it's related to the Split Step—a little jump taken when your opponent hits the ball—which you can read about here). Note the horse stance and gently bent knees. Also observe that Federer rests his nondominant hand on the "V" (or throat) of the racket. If you watch the linked video, you'll see him using this hand (his left) to change his grip as he hits differents shots (it's especially pronounced when he prepares for his one-handed backhand). Different shots have different grips—this is an important point!—and the most convenient way to adjust grips is to twist the racket with this hand. This is not something only Federer does. Many pros have the exact same ready position, even those who hit with two-handed backhands.
The GripThe way you hold your racket—the grip—is intimately important because it's connected to the geometry of your racket face as you swing. There are good resources on the subject of grips here:
- Wikipedia: Grip (tennis)
- Busy Tennis Players: All Tennis Grips Explained Clearly
- Fuzzy Yellow Balls: Grips
(Image credit: Wikipedia)
And Busy Tennis Players painstakingly illustrates each grip. Here's the subset I like (again, shown for a right hander):
- The Continental Grip
- The Eastern Forehand Grip
- The Semi-Western Forehand Grip
- The Two-Handed Backhand Grip
- The Eastern Backhand Grip
- The Extreme Eastern Backhand Grip
(Image credit: Busy Tennis Players)
No one counts bevels on the court—you know your grips by feel—but they're useful for taxonomy. Choose the set of grips that feels comfortable to you but know that, if you're doing something out of alignment with the rest of the tennis world, it will lead you astray. The most common mistake beginners make is not varying grips. And the second most common is to serve with a forehand grip rather than the Continental Grip (aka, the Hammer Grip). Foreshadowing our discussion of strokes, observe the following fact: if you think of the racket's butt cap as a clockface, where the continental grip represents 12:00, then the hand moves in the clockwise direction for forehand grips—putting more support under the racket—while it moves counterclockwise for one-handed backhand grips.
The StrokesFour fundamental strokes to master first are:
- the forehand groundstroke
- the backhand groundstroke
- the backhand slice
- the serve (discussed in the following section)
(Video credit: YouTube: *NOVAK DJOKOVIC* In (Slow Motion HD))
The Forehand GroundstrokeYou can extract some pieces of "actionable intelligence" from this video. During the forehand set up, turn your body such that the shoulders become perpendicular to the net. Before you hit the ball, get your non-hitting hand out to serve as a guide (a little like aiming a telescopic sight to track the ball as it approaches you). Let's examine the form of the swing frame by frame:
(Image credit: YouTube: *NOVAK DJOKOVIC* In (Slow Motion HD))
It's useful to think of groundstrokes as a superposition of backward to forward motion (imparting forward momentum) as well as down to up motion (imparting spin). Also notice the racket traces a "windshield wiper" pattern—it starts pointing to our left and ends pointing to our right. This goes back to the grip and how the arm moves. A forehand grip (which, recall, has the gripping hand significantly clockwise of 12:00 on the butt cap for a righty) easily lends itself to the windshield wiper motion as the arm twists about its axis like so:
What's the takeaway? Remind yourself to get low and hit from down to up on your groundstrokes. And twist your arm to get a nice windshield wiper arc as you follow through.
The Backhand GroundstrokeThe backhand groundstroke features some of the same elements as the forehand, but it's harder. Like the forehand, you hit down to up and, like the forehand, you swivel your body perpendicular to the net in preparation for it (the other way this time). A major difference is the grip. You can choose to grip the racket with two hands (easier, majority choice) or one hand (harder, minority choice). Again, the grip is critical. If you're hitting a one handed backhand, you definitely want to use one of the Eastern backhand grips, which will feel funny at first but then intuitive. I'm in the process of trying to learn the one-hander, and I'll update this section if I ever master it. But I'm already hooked on the magnificent imperiousness of the gesture. The sweep of the arm makes me think of a king surveying his lands from a balcony or a wizard casting a lightening bolt in a video game.
The Backhand SliceIf you're running for a ball on the backhand side that's just out of reach or trying to scoop up a low ball before it hits the ground, the backhand slice is your shot. It's also your shot if you want to pitch your opponent a changeup or just don't feel like hitting a full-on groundstoke. The backhand slice is a funny shot because, contrary to the groundstroke, the racket moves from up to down and puts backspin on the ball. It's natural to hit the slice with a continental grip, which is the same grip you'd hold a sword with if you were slicing a watermelon in two. After you hit the ball, you can let both arms fly out like an umpire making a "safe" call (to continue this incessant stream of baseball metaphors).
The ServeMea culpa: my serve is rubbish. But here's what I've picked up about this complicated sequence so far. First, and most importantly, you want to use a continental grip. Much of the counterintuitive geometry of the swing stems from this fact. For starters, this grip means that the racket strings will face the net when your shoulders are perpendicular, rather than parallel, to the net. You hit the ball in a much more oblique fashion than you'd guess at first blush—don't turn to orient facing the net too soon, as the videos below warn. And another don't: don't try to import any of your groundstroke technique or grip into this shot. The serve is its own shot with its own completely unique identity—so treat it that way. One nice, if obvious, point about the serve is that you can practice it without a partner. So no excuses if you want to improve your game while your friends are busy.
I'm more comfortable letting the experts speak when it comes to serving. Here are some videos from Tomaz Mencinger at Feel Tennis Instruction—as close as you're going to get, perhaps, to one brain dumping raw knowledge directly into another brain:
(Video credit: YouTube: How To Serve In Tennis In 7 Steps)
(Video credit: YouTube: Why Is The Serve In Tennis So Difficult? One Main Reason...)
(Video credit: YouTube: Tennis Serve Pronation Exercise For Top Spin Serves)
(Video credit: YouTube: 6 Drills For Improving A Shallow Drop In A Tennis Serve)
(Video credit: YouTube: How to Correct The Waiter's Serve In Tennis)
(Video credit: YouTube: Tennis Serve Racquet Path - Linear vs Circular)
And, finally, this one from Ian at Essential Tennis deals with the misleading term "wrist snap":
(Video credit: YouTube: "Wrist Snap" Myth Busted - Tennis Serve Lesson - Tennis Serve Technique - Roger Federer Serve)
Keeping all we've just learned in mind, let's watch a video of Federer, one of the masters of serving:
(Video credit: YouTube: Roger Federer Serves in Slow Motion HD -- Indian Wells Pt. 08)
I love this video because it shows Federer progressing from lazy warm-up—first getting his fluid arm motion right—to full-fledged serve. It's a rare look at how you might approach learning to serve in a step-by-step fashion.
If you can possibly absorb any more knowledge, these YouTubes get honorable mention:
- Pronate on ALL Serves - Tennis Lessons and Instruction - Slice, Kick and Flat!
- Tennis Serve vs Baseball Pitch - Lessons and Instruction - Nadal and Tim Lincecum
- Ultimate Kick Serve Drill - Tennis Serve Lesson - Learn how to Feel a Kick Serve
- Serving Tips: Best Serving Lesson in the World For the Racket Drop