The modern forehand and how Federer and Nadal use it

Rick Macci, who has been the personal coach of Serena and Venus Williams, Andy Roddick, Jennifer Capriati and Maria Sharapova, analyses every aspect of the modern forehand, comparing and contrasting how Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal use it as the cornerstone of their extraordinary games.

Roger Federer has a near-Eastern grip, one extreme for topspin forehands.   -  Getty Images

“Major matches are won by a combination of three factors. One needs the technical skills to guide and control the ball, the tactics to probe the opponent’s weaknesses, and the nerves to hit the strokes and carry out the plan when the pressure is on.” — Pancho Segura, 1940s-’50s champion, coach and author.

The top men players today all have powerful, versatile forehands that they use to vary the pace and amount of topspin for their tactical purposes. Most of the men hit what is called “the modern forehand.”

Better than anyone, Rick Macci, a leading Tennis Channel technical analyst, understands how superstars Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal execute this revolutionary, 21st-century shot.

He’s studied more than 50,000 mri/high-speed videos of them and other leading pro players at 400 frames a second and analysed their digitalised body movements.

Named the United States Professional Tennis Association’s (USPTA) Coach of the Year seven times, Macci became its youngest Hall of Fame inductee in 2017. The personal coach of five players who have ranked No. 1 in the world — Serena Williams, Venus Williams, Andy Roddick, Jennifer Capriati and Maria Sharapova — he’s also coached Grand Slam titlists Mary Pierce, Anastasia Myskina and Sofia Kenin. Rated a Master Professional by the USPTA, Macci serves on its Player Development board. For many years he has been a featured instructor in the award-winning videos “On Court with USPTA” on Tennis Channel.

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When Macci, also an author, motivator and life coach, isn’t sharing his expertise as a featured speaker at clinics and seminars around the world, he runs a year-round junior tennis programme and a summer tennis camp at his eponymous tennis academy in Boca Raton, Florida. There the 66-year-old dynamo arises daily at 3:30 am and gives 65 hours of lessons a week.

In this comprehensive interview, Macci analyses every aspect of the modern forehand, comparing and contrasting how Federer and Nadal use it as the cornerstone of their extraordinary games.

How would you describe the evolution and purpose of the modern men’s forehand?

What I’ve coined “the ATP forehand” evolved because the pro game has gotten so much faster during the past 15 years. As a result, the leading players have been forced to make several adaptations to their swings. The new methodology reduces the range of motion, the length of the swing, by replacing it with faster muscle mechanics to hit the ball more efficiently. The new swing produces more racquet head speed, and that creates more power.

Let’s get specific. Exactly how do you hit the modern forehand?

There are six phases — the preparation phase, the elbow extension, the “tap the dog,” the flip, the forward swing and the finish.

Rafael Nadal uses a Western grip, one extreme among topspin forehands.   -  Getty Images

 

What do you do in the preparation phase?

The “preparation phase” starts with an early unit turn, which is a turning of the shoulders. During the unit turn, the left elbow elevates and extends away from the body, while the right (hitting arm) elbow also elevates and bends into a right angle with the right forearm parallel to the ground.

What happens during the elbow extension?

Once the elbow is elevated, you go into the back loop, and you extend, or straighten out, the elbow to complete the backswing. The elbow is the key element because that’s the first thing that can break down in the kinetic chain. If you keep the elbow up, that engages the right shoulder more, which ensures your forward swing stay on a straight (linear) line.

Please explain the “tap the dog” phase.

After the elbow extension, three things happen. The palm faces down somewhat, the racquet is positioned to the outside of the body, and the wrist is (cocked) up. You want to extend or straighten the elbow like you’re tapping a dog on the head. When you do that with your palm down and a closed racquet face, the motion causes the racquet to go down and back.

What happens during the “the flip” phase? And why is this phase so crucial?

Because the racquet is positioned to the outside of the body and the racquet head is above the hand, when you pull the hand and drive the legs and the hip, the racquet goes down and back on its own. That’s what we call “the flip.” Your arm, wrist and grip are relaxed, which is essential for the “flip,” which will involuntarily occur as the forward swing starts. It goes very quickly and finds a position where the racquet butt cap faces towards the oncoming ball. There is a lot of momentum, which produces a lot more racquet-head speed. Finding the dynamic slot enables you to hit a bigger, heavier ball. The power starts from the ground up where you drive the legs and the hips turn.

Please describe the forward swing.

As you start your forward swing, the elbow and hand are positioned to take a more linear route toward the contact point.

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What happens in the finish, what we used to call the follow-through?

Once the elbow passes by your body trunk, you want to get some type of rolling action on your forearm. This internal rotation is how you create topspin on the ball. You get arm extension and “turn the doorknob” for a great finish.

How would you sum up these six phases?

We’re reducing the range of the swing motion and replacing it with quicker, shorter, faster muscle mechanics. Now we have a shorter stroke and a faster racquet. The name of the game today is getting more racquet-head speed and being more efficient.

Novak Djokovic’s forehand routinely has the least downward flip and has a flatter trajectory, says Macci.   -  Getty Images

 

Is this basic motion essentially the same, regardless of the grip?

Yes. Federer has a near-Eastern grip and Nadal has a Western grip, the two extremes for topspin forehands. Yet, both of their forehands follow this same pattern. Top players, especially Federer, Nadal and Novak Djokovic, adjust the amount of topspin by controlling how far the racquet drops down and how much they swing up on the ball. Their arms, wrists and grips are still relaxed, but they can apply slightly more or less pressure to control topspin and, therefore, flatten out their forehands to create more power and penetration. Djokovic’s forehand routinely has the least downward flip and has a flatter trajectory. Federer’s forehand routinely has more topspin, and Nadal, of course, has the most topspin of the three and the most of almost all other top-level players.

How do the forehands of the top women differ from the modern men’s forehand?

There are definite similarities. The kinetic chain has the same links, synchronised in the same way. But there are two major differences, reflecting the difference between upper-body strength in men and women. Women’s backswings are typically longer, and this longer backswing allows them to create more power and at least partially compensate for their lesser upper-body strength.

The second major difference is in the backward flip. For women, there is much less downward drop in the flip. When the arm accelerates forward, the racquet flips back, more parallel to the court, producing a flatter trajectory. Using this technique, some women, such as Naomi Osaka and Aryna Sabalenka, can almost match the men in forehand pace, and both men and women can vary the speed, topspin and trajectory of their forehands with either technique.

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Nadal has a full Western grip, and to me, it looks like Federer has a semi-Western grip, although videographer-researcher John Yandell says Federer “has something very close to a classic Eastern forehand grip.” Do you agree with Yandell? And how do their grips greatly determine the strengths and weaknesses of their forehands?

The grip orientates the racquet face. That’s all it does. Nadal has a full Western, and Federer has what we call “a hybrid.” He’s between an Eastern and a semi-Western. Federer has closer to a classic or old-school Eastern grip. The grip has nothing to do with the overall stroke, other than the fact that it may be a little easier, especially for youngsters with a full Western, to hit with more topspin because the racquet [face] will close a little easier when you’re younger and smaller. The surface you play on could also dictate your style of play. So their grips have nothing to do with how similar their strokes are.

Correct footwork is crucial in tennis. “Others play tennis from a stop point. Rafael is always moving. He almost never hits with his feet planted,” Toni Nadal, then his uncle and coach since he was 4, told The New York Times. Should players hit the ball with their feet planted whenever possible?

It depends on what playing level we’re talking about. Obviously, for beginners and club players, balance is essential. Even Nadal — and a lot of players — right before impacting the ball, they come off the ground, which, once again, is a cause-and-effect relationship. The intensity of them pushing on the ground and the ground pushing back make them come off the ground sometimes prior to (ball) contact. But I disagree with Toni because it’s all situational. The situation is going to dictate whether you get set. I think Nadal gets set all the time. Then he loads the system, but he’s coming off the ground right before he hits the ball a lot of times. You’ll see this even more so on the forehand than his backhand, which he hits a little cleaner. Balance and getting set are crucial because there would be so many people off-balance if I presented this in any other way.

Both Federer and Nadal hit amazing shots with amazing regularity. How important is balance in their shot-making? And what are the keys to their great balance?

If your spine angle is correct on any shot, there is a higher probability of success — not only in tennis but in any sport. Federer is the only guy on the tour who has no head shift on every shot. Pros tell students to keep their head still, and that will keep your spine angle correct. During the last four milliseconds before contact — because of the way the brain and eyes interact — people always want to look at how the ball will go, so the head shifts. And that can mess up your balance.

This is such an innate skill that people take for granted because all great athletes in any sport have great balance. But when lesser players don’t have good balance, we try to correct it. Balance is huge, and requires a lot of strength and work. That’s why we always say great players make it look easy because they are on balance, and then they have a better chance to have more optimal technique.

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Both Nadal and Federer use the “straight-arm forehand” — where they hit with much straighter arms than other players do on many balls. Since the great forehands from past decades, such as those of Jim Courier, Ivan Lendl and Bjorn Borg, were hit with bent arms, why do Nadal and Federer hit the ball this way? And what are the advantages and disadvantages of the straight-arm forehand?

When Nadal and Federer complete their backswing, they have the racquet up, and they shape the backswing, then they go to the outside, the hitting side of your body, and when they pull the racquet, the arm straightens out. You don’t have to have your arm straight prior to ball contact, but as you go to hit the ball and pull the racquet forward, the arm will straighten out. Biomechanically, when the arm straightens out, you will get more power from the shoulder. The same thing is true for a stiff arm in football. You get more added power from the shoulder if your arm straightens.

The problem is with little kids and especially female athletes, and there is a misconception spread from teaching pros who start talking about the windshield wiper and coming across the body. So, when you see this (swing) at 400 frames a second, that isn’t what really happens. This misconception has ruined a lot of players. If you can get the arm to straighten out, and then you turn the doorknob once you get extension, you’re going to get more power and just as much spin, but more racquet-head speed. It has nothing to do with size or age. I have girls and young kids who hit a straight-arm shot. It just takes a little longer to learn.

Is Nadal’s forehand more variable because he improvises more than Federer?

When players improvise, it depends on what their intentions are. Because Nadal plays with more spin and plays “double net” (his shots often clear the net by six feet, rather than three feet), his intentions are different from Federer’s. Federer takes the ball a little earlier, and he generally plays closer to the baseline. So Nadal adapts his stroke more based on his deeper positions. Even so, their technique is almost identical.

The “straight-arm forehand” isn’t new, however. Mark Philippoussis, Paradorn Srichaphan and Alex Corretja used it in the 1990s and the early 2000s. How are the Nadal and Federer straight-arm forehands different from and better than theirs? Is their racquet-head speed, contact points, the way the wrist is laid back [longer] or torso rotation [greater] different?

These are two totally different strokes. The earlier players had their arm straight, but the arm and racquet didn’t stay on the hitting side of the body. However, in 2021, Andrey Rublev and Aslan Karatsev, the Australian Open semifinalist, do the ATP forehand. They have a little bend in their stroke, but their racquet still flips down and back. The ATP forehand swing is shorter and faster and produces more spin than the forehands of the players you mentioned. Because the sport has evolved into nuclear pinball, and preparation and stroke mechanics are at a premium, these guys have figured out how to adapt.

I’ve broken it down and explained it in layman’s terms so now coaches globally are teaching players to do this. And if they’re not, I think it’s malpractice because they don’t really want to learn what’s going on in today’s game. It’s hard to change muscle memory once you learn an inferior forehand.

A major difference between the top women and the modern men’s forehand is in the backward flip. For women, there is much less downward drop in the flip. When the arm accelerates forward, the racquet flips back, more parallel to the court, producing a flatter trajectory. Using this technique, some women such as Naomi Osaka can almost match the men in forehand pace, says Macci.   -  Getty Images

 

Is it accurate to say that Federer has a naturally lower contact point than Nadal because he generally hits the ball earlier and more on the rise than does Nadal? And what is the significance of the contact point height?

Yes, Federer does have a lower contact point because his intentions are different. He plays closer to the baseline, he takes the ball earlier, he contacts the ball lower, and he hits the ball lower over the net. So, from a tactical point of view, he takes time away from his opponent.

Everyone who plays Federer for the first time says he plays differently from Djokovic and everyone else because the ball is on them so fast. All the juniors of mine who have hit with Federer say, “Rick, it’s just different. His shots are just on me.” That said, when Federer hits balls at his waist or shoulder, he can still produce excellent shots.

Nadal will take the ball early, but he lets it get a little higher simply because he’s farther behind the baseline, and on clay even more so. But when Nadal wants to move inside the baseline and attack, he can flatten his forehand out and go from 70 miles an hour to 90 miles an hour, just like Federer.

Both Federer and Nadal built their games around their forehands and dominate points with it. Specifically, what tactics or point patterns do they use to achieve their strategy?

They continue to hit crosscourt forehands longer to open up the court. Then when they can move inside the baseline, they change the direction of the ball and go for the jugular down the line. All players do that, but Nadal more so, especially on clay. He waits until he gets the ball he wants and then blasts it 15 miles an hour faster down the line. Another Nadal tactic is that he sometimes makes the crosscourt angle more and more acute until his opponent misses.

Most of the guys he plays are at his mercy. He hits his forehands regularly at 70-75 mph and hits one of the heaviest balls. Not a lot of players have the courage or skill to change the direction of the ball to try to hit it to Nadal’s backhand. So Nadal just keeps breaking you down like a boxer with constant body punches. He does this better than anyone who’s ever played the game. You’re playing on his terms, especially on red clay.

Neither Federer nor Nadal blast forehands with the incredible power of Dominic Thiem, Juan Martin del Potro or surprise Australian Open semifinalist Aslan Karatsev. But how do you rate their forehands in terms of power?

Power is overrated. Thiem, Del Potro and Karatsev don’t have anywhere near as many Grand Slam titles as Federer and Nadal. Del Potro is 6’6” and his strike zone is pretty high, and he hits a flat ball with his Eastern grip. As racquet and string technology advances and people make adaptations with the ATP forehand, there are going to be players hitting harder.

But I’ll take Federer’s forehand. It’s hit cleanly, there’s enough spin, and he hits the ball earlier than anyone. Now that tennis is a very fast-paced game, hitting the ball early is where the game is going.

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How do you rate their ability to adjust and adapt to different surfaces? Does Nadal, a two-time Wimbledon champion, change his forehand when he plays on grass?

When Nadal went from winning the French Open to winning Wimbledon just four weeks later [in 2008 and 2010], people have to really admire that. He doesn’t change anything technically on his forehand, but he does play the ball earlier on grass. He also uses his slice backhand a lot more.

Nadal will play more aggressively and take a few more chances. His forehand trajectory is lower because he hits with less topspin and more power. He knows his forehand won’t bounce as high as on clay, so players can hit the ball down the line against him at Wimbledon.

So Nadal does change his tactical approach on grass. He has the positive attitude that he loves this surface, he can win on this surface. In contrast, a lot of players are defeated [mentally] before they even get on grass.

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