Go to almost any local junior tournament and you’ll probably see an 80-pound 12-year-old girl cracking forehands with so much power that you’ll shake your head and ask yourself, “How the heck can she hit so hard?” You wonder because you can’t do it. As if to add insult to injury, you’re over six feet tall, can bench press 300 pounds, and played football in high school and college.
Where does her power come from? First we have to realize that racquet speed at contact is the primary source of power in tennis. Of course, incoming ball speed can have some effect, but not much except perhaps when volleying against hard hit balls. You see, whatever the incoming ball speed, it is cut by about 50% after the ball bounces due to the court surface friction absorbing its pace. This explains why you can block hard balls at the net and volley with good pace but, on the baseline, racquet head speed is the primary source of power.
In this discussion, we will cover how to get increased racquet head speed on groundstrokes and serves and then offer some tips on how to measure your own speed, with the use of radar guns and without.
Where does racquet speed come from?
A door can swing either fast or slow on its hinges. Think of the door hinge as your shoulder facilitating your arm to hit a forehand groundstroke. But, unlike a hinge, your shoulder has a complex system of muscles holding that joint in place. And, if you tighten any part of your arm, including squeezing your grip, those muscles tighten up. The result of a “tight” arm is a slow moving shoulder joint hinge. The result of a “relaxed” arm is a fast moving joint and faster racquet head speeds.
But the shoulder joint is not the only one working. In the arm alone, the key “hinges” in play to swing a racquet are the shoulder, elbow, and wrist. Yes, a relaxed wrist, coming from a relaxed grip, is a very important part of creating racquet head speed!
Some readers may just have spilled their coffee because of the conflict created between this statement and the many tennis lessons they may have taken where they were told to firm up their wrist. But, even if your teaching pro has advised a firm wrist on groundstrokes, there may be a little common ground to make everyone “right” on this question of a firm or loose wrist. Certainly, no one should “slap” sloppily at a tennis ball if their intent is to hit a ball consistently into the court. But, if you are fairly consistent and need a little more zip, consider allowing all three hinges of the arm to work more fluidly by not tightening up the muscles that hold these joints (hinges) in place.
How tight or loose do the best players grip their racquets? Divide the forehand groundstroke (or backhand or serve) into three parts: Before contact, at contact, and after contact. Then assign a number on a 1-10 scale for each part. I’ve been asking this question to teaching pros, college players, and tour players (ranked above 100) for several years. Unfortunately, I don’t have Roger Federer’s cell phone number, but if you do, please ask him as well!
What do the best players answer? You may want to set down your cup of coffee before reading further. The best answers I have gotten out of about 100 players are 0-2-0 or 1-3-1. If you’ve ever heard the instruction to grip your racquet like you are holding a little bird, you are probably nodding in agreement. The “grip like you are holding a bird” instruction is to hold the bird firm enough so it won’t fly away, but not so firm that it may be injured.
Tips to experiment with faster swing speeds
In this section we will share some quick and easy ways to experiment with a looser and more fluid swing to see firsthand if a relaxed swing results in faster ball speeds.
Tip #1: Drop some fingers – One way to gain a quick feel for a looser and more fluid swing is to drop one or more fingers off the bottom of your grip. When you have nothing to squeeze, your arm muscles will inevitably relax. The result of this relaxation is that the hinges in your arm (wrist, elbow, and shoulder) will function more fluidly, which in turn will increase your potential for faster swing speeds.
Tip #2: Make the wind noise – Try this little experiment in your backyard or next time you are on the court. Swing your racquet without hitting a ball and listen for a swooshing “wind noise” created by your strings and racquet frame passing through the air. Experiment by trying to swing quickly while gripping firmly and then with fingers off the grip as described in Tip #1. The faster your swing speed, the more you will hear the “wind noise” from your practice swings.
Tip #3: Use a Swing Speed Radar Gun – If you like training aids, here’s one to consider for under $200. It clips to a fence or stands on a tripod and you can actually measure your swing speed and therefore calculate your ball speed. And, if you happen to play golf or baseball, it works great for other sports as well.
Let’s finish this article by thinking about top level athletes of many different sports and the extent to which they look relaxed or tense when performing. There are many examples that point to the same conclusion. Namely, that relaxation results in more power.
- Golf – pro golfers seem effortless and smooth in their golf swings. Ask any of them if they are gripping tightly or loosely and you’ll get the same answer we are offering for tennis in this article.
- Baseball batters – although strong, the best hitters have the fastest bats. Yes, they are relaxed when they swing.
- Baseball pitchers – do you think baseball pitchers are gripping the ball tightly as they prepare to try and throw fast balls? Clearly not.
- Basketball – watch the hands of the best free throwers and you will see very loose arm hinges, making the shot seem effortless.
- Boxing – if you’ve ever watched a seemingly muscle-bound professional boxer throw quick jabs and combination punches, you can observe the looseness of their arms to throw those punches that are quick in succession.
- Football – in football, place kickers and punters come to mind. If their leg hinges were not loose and quick, how far would they be able to kick a football? Not very far.
The conclusion is quite clear. A loose and relaxed swing in tennis comes largely from a relaxed grip and the result of that looser swing will be faster racquet head speeds and therefore faster ball speeds. The bottom line? If you want to hit with more power, just relax.
NOTE: You may find that you lose some ball control while experimenting with faster racquet head speeds. This is normal. Your accuracy and consistency will improve with consistent relaxed practice. No doubt about it. In fact, your hitting can factually get more consistent if you just aim for larger target zones. After all, if you are hitting harder and heavier balls, your opponents will have more trouble returning your shots than ever, allowing you to increase your margin for error and not try to hit so close to the lines.
Joe Dinoffer is a Master Professional in both the USPTA and PTR, has been recognized with numerous national awards including the 2019 City of Dallas Humanitarian Award for contributions to inner city tennis, and has conducted clinics and exhibitions in over 50 countries. Joe is the author and editor of 9 books and more than 20 DVDs, has more than 300 published articles in various tennis and pickleball magazines, and has aired many instructional tips on the Tennis Channel. Plus, Joe’s YouTube channel has more than 2 million views and growing! His latest book “Words, Wisdom, and Whimsy” is the second volume of an illustrated series called “Poems from the Heart.” In 1994, Joe founded OnCourt OffCourt, Ltd., a company dedicated to serving the tennis, pickleball, fitness, yoga, and physical education industries with innovative training aids and educational tools. Today, he has designed and manufactured more than 150 creative products being distributed and used in 100 countries worldwide.