Coming to grips

When I returned to tennis in my early 30s, club pros were teaching a game that bore little resemblance to the tennis I’d learned with a wooden racket as a child.

To ease my transition back into the game, I scheduled a lesson at a local club. I sat in the lounge looking down on a court where the club pro was working with a teenage girl. She waited for the ball, weight on her back foot, the face of her racket parallel to the ground. I clucked my tongue. Poor girl. She had no sense of where the racket face needed to be in order to strike the ball.

And then she flung her body toward the yellow orb, snapping the racket face up and across her body. The ball exploded off her racket, arced over the net with a tight spin, landed deep in the court, and pounded into the curtain behind the baseline. I’d never seen anyone hit the ball with such wild abandon. And I’d never witnessed such peculiar, unintuitive technique, more like something out of Olympic-caliber ping-pong than the game of John McEnroe, Ivan Lendl, and the tennis heroes of my youth.

I descended to the court. “Let’s hit a few balls,” the pro said. I turned sideways, brought back the racket, and after a few mishits, began to find the sweet spot. I was driving the ball, hitting clean line drives. Some landed in the court. Some hit the net. Some almost blew through the indoor facility’s corrugated aluminum siding.

“Try this.” I was holding the racket in my hand. He gave it a quarter turn to the left so that the face angled downward when I extended my arm. “Come up the back of the ball. And open up your stance a little.”

He fed me a few more balls. I was using a new grip, but still following the old swing path, and more often than not, making contact with the edge of the frame. When I got string on the ball, I was putting it in the bottom of the net. “More low to high. You want to come up the back of the ball rather than straight through it.”

I snapped the racket face across my chest. I started to get a feel for the stroke, combing the yellow nap on the back of the ball with my stringbed. But there was no power. The ball fluttered over the net like a sick bird, dying in the service box. “You’re getting the spin. If you can drive through the ball a little more, you’ll generate some power. The spin will keep it in the court.”

I leafed through old Tennis magazines, read instruction books. I watched videos and haunted online forums. I learned that what I was developing was a “Western or Semi-Western” forehand. But it didn’t feel natural. I could never develop much power. The contact with the ball felt too tenuous.

After a few months, I gave it up. At first, I was disappointed with myself. I felt like I’d been vouchsafed secrets of the modern game, techniques that would propel me to the heights of recreational excellence. Soon, however, I began to appreciate the virtues and satisfactions of my old school Eastern forehand: the solid thunk of clean contact on a forehand drive, your racket and arm resonating in harmony; the simple, intuitive, and easily repeated swing shape; the way a well-struck ball bounces through the court, past your flailing opponent.

I don’t kid myself. You won’t find many Eastern forehands on the pro tour. (Federer uses one, at least sometimes, but his stroke is similar to mine in the same way that a chipmunk and a blue whale are both mammals.) In fact, you rarely see an Eastern forehand at the college level or even the higher reaches of high school tennis. By those standards, it’s an inferior stroke.

Among hard-core rec players, however, old-school techniques endure. We’ve even got our own  guru, Brent Abel, an evangelist for all-court tennis.

What about you? Have you dallied with the modern game and only to return to the old? Or have you learned the new techniques and never looked back?

–A. Clarke

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7 responses to “Coming to grips

  1. I started playing tennis in 2001 and then I learned the semi-western grip around 2004. Today, I use the semi-western grip most of the time for my forehand.

    Roger Federer, doesn’t use an eastern grip very often, he usually has a semi-western grip.

    Tim Henman, is the only guy that I can think of in recent years, who’s played at the pro level using an eastern grip.

  2. I use the western grip, and that’s because I learned the game late. I haven’t even heard of the eastern grip – but you make it sound so pure.

  3. I definitely see advantages to the more Western-oriented grips, but I guess I figured that my game built on traditional strokes was solid enough that it wasn’t worth the agony of trying to learn a new forehand. But I admire a well-struck Western stroke.

  4. I started playing in the 70’s and used primarily an Eastern grip. I played through the 80’s but evolved to an extreme Eastern grip. Now I use a semi western and extreme eastern grip with a similar swing path to the old eastern grip. It yields good topspin with a flatter trajectory. I go back to eastern every once in a while and it still feels good, but for competition, the extreme eastern works best for me.

  5. Semi western is probably the best of both worlds. I agree, in competition, most of us need more margin for error, and thus more spin, than we can get with a traditional Eastern grip. I’ve probably shaded a bit west myself.

  6. …..i agree, semi-western gave me a lot of control and consistency compared to the eastern grip i had been using since taking up this sport….at first it was very hard to adjust to the semi-western…it took me months, but once you got grooved on the new grip, you can control the ball to dip at the net during doubles play, you can create better angles and lobs…

  7. After League season this spring, I’m inclined to give Semi western another shot. You’re absolutely right about the lobs, Rafa. I play a guy who uses a semi-western, and his lob is a thing of beauty.

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