Many factors go into hitting great groundstrokes, like timing, racket speed and rotation of the body. Most people are aware of those and I’ve written about them before. However, I want to explore a few misunderstood concepts when it comes to the differences between the ATP and WTA swing paths in professional tennis and how you can learn from them. I believe there’s a certain swing path we must take to maximize power. In this post, I’ll elaborate on the differences in the swings and which one I think is best suited for the club player.
The nuances of swing paths of the ATP and WTA players are quite noticeable to most tennis coaches. However, these differences are quite subtle to the casual fan of tennis. My hope in this blog post is not only to enlighten you of this very interesting information but to give you a better idea of stroke anatomy so you can improve your own strokes.
All players, from beginner to advanced, can benefit from this information. If you’re lacking power in your groundstrokes, this article could be the solution. It took me years of studying stroke anatomy and watching the men and women on tour hit in slow motion to formulate my ideas. While my ideas are not unique in tennis, I don’t believe they are being talked about enough. Hence, I decided to write about them here. So let’s begin!
The Outside-Inside-Outside Concept
The swing path is the important aspect of all great tennis strokes.
First, let me explain what I mean by outside-inside-outside. It basically means the player starts their swing (whether it be forehand or backhand) with the racket away from their body. The racket, or hitting hand, will then move close to the body. Finally, it will move back away to hit the ball. This is all done in one smooth, continuous motion and allows for maximum power. This is the basic concept of “outside-inside-outside”, but I’ll go into much greater detail about it right now so you really understand it.
Let’s assume a right-handed player is hitting a forehand groundstroke. When she sets up, her body will be facing to the right. All the space to the right of her body is what I call the “outside”. And all the space behind her and to the left is what I label the “inside”. The best swing path for maximizing power is to start with the racket about head height on the outside. This is traditionally where all great players start their swing. They do this by initiating a unit turn with the racket up high.
As the player is naturally turning to her right for a forehand, the racket will be to her right side, which is the outside. This is extremely important. That’s why you see almost no deviations in professional tennis with this part of the forehand.
Every great player you watch, whether it be Serena Williams, Roger Federer or Pete Sampras, takes the racket up and to the right on almost every forehand. Of course, lefties do the opposite. It’s also vital the racket be some distance from the body. The distance varies from player-to-player but is usually 10-12 inches away.
Once the player achieves this position, the racket arm and hand will begin to drop and move to the “inside”. This means the racket hand will be much closer to the body when this part of the swing is completed. This is what I mean by “inside”. This is the second location of the swing path of the racket.
If you look at the forehand stroke of a WTA player head-on, you would notice their hitting hand moves directly behind them. Some players, like Madison Keyes, actually bring their hitting hand to the left side of the body, which is the far inside.
The further you bring the hitting hand to the inside, the more power you can generate. This is why Keyes is one of the hardest hitting players on the women’s tour. Incidentally, she’s also one of the hardest hitting players (men included) period! If you look at her average groundstroke speed on the WTA tour, she’s often # 1, averaging speeds in excess of 70 mph.
However, this type of aggressive inside action on the hand has a big drawback – and that’s timing. It’s more difficult to time a long, looping groundstroke than a shorter, more compact one. Perhaps this is the reason Keyes has underachieved in her career so far (as of October 2018).
Most women on the WTA tour bring the racket to the inside of their body. This is because they want to generate power using biomechanics rather than muscle. This type of swing path is called a “pendulum”, as it relies on momentum and gravity rather than muscle and might.
Interestingly, Juan Martin del Potro, one of the more successful players on the ATP, uses the pendulum motion to great effect on his forehand. He’s the only player I see in the top 20, or even top 50, using the pendulum forehand swing path. It must be working because it won him the 2009 U.S. Open and as of October 2018 he’s top 5 in the world. He’s also known for hitting one of the most powerful forehands on the tour.
Almost every other ATP tour player, however, has a slightly different swing path at this point of the stroke. As I said, almost all players (men and women) start with the stroke up and to the outside. But the ATP players do not bring the hitting hand to the inside. Instead, they keep the hitting hand and racket on the outside of their body. Still, it does move closer to the body.
This type of swing path results in less power but more control and a quicker racket swing. The men thus rely more on muscle and less on physics to hit the ball than the women. You may be wondering why the men do this? The reason the men do not bring the racket to the inside is because they don’t have the time. The ball is simply coming too fast to hit with a long swing path. That extra half a second it takes makes a big difference to time the ball.
When two strong guys are belting the ball at each other, especially on hard court or grass, a more compact swing is needed. Additionally, most men have more strength than women and can generate sufficient power with their bodies to compensate for their shorter swing paths. A former top 200 Russian player (now a coach) named Darya, once told me that, “men take back and women loop”. That’s a good way to think about it.
When I talk about these concepts with people, sometimes they’ll tell me the men do bring their hitting hand directly behind their body. I know it looks like that in slow motion, but that’s actually not the case. What’s happening is that the men are using wrist lag to generate extra power. The racket thus acts like a slingshot and the head of the racket moves to the inside of the player’s body (if only for a fraction of a second). However, the hitting hand remains on the outside.
So what does all this mean for you? Well, I believe if you lack power at the club level, whether you’re male or female, you should experiment with bringing the racket a little further to the inside. At the club level, and especially on clay, you can get away with longer swing paths. I would advise you to start by bringing the hitting hand only slightly more to the inside at first. A big change in swing path may cause your timing to be way off.
This is all great stuff. But we still have the third part of the stroke mechanic to discuss. This is when the hitting hand and racket move back to the outside. Again, on the WTA tour, this move back to the outside will be much more pronounced than the guys on the ATP.
When the women move from inside-to-outside, they are completing a circular movement that relies on momentum, which is why it’s called a pendulum swing. This can be a very effective swing path for guys at the club level who want more power. If you’re a guy reading this, don’t think of yourself as hitting like a woman. A lot of successful professional male clay court players have used this type of swing, such as Gustavo Kuerten, who won the French Open three times.
Since modern day ATP players keep their hitting hand outside their body (but not by much), they have a less pronounced movement of the hand. The wrist lag that causes the racket to flare behind them gives the illusion otherwise. But it’s just an illusion. The move of the hand back to the outside allows the racket to continue its swing path without slowing down.
Let’s summarize it all so it makes sense.
- The racket sets up on the far outside,
- moves to the inside,
- and then comes back outside to make impact with the ball.
Women bring the racket inside their body and men keep it on the outside but close their body. I Hope that’s clear to everyone.
What does this mean for you? Again, once you recognize that all swing paths have this outside-inside-outside feature, you can begin to look at your own swing. This is valid for both forehands and backhands. Actually, in my opinion, it’s more important on the backhand side and a little more difficult to do.
Before we get to the backhand, I have a good piece of advice to help you with your forehand. Video your forehand swing from directly in front and behind. Look at how far your hitting hand moves to the inside (or not) and then experiment with changing it. If you use a pendulum swing this tip definitely applies to you.
If you have an ATP style forehand, you may want to bring your hand only very slightly closer to the body on the “inside” part of the swing. The wrist lag should give you all the power you need. However, moving the hand slightly closer to the body may give you that extra 5-10% of power you’re needing.
When I teach new kids, I first access their natural level of tennis ability. I’ll then decide on which stroke to teach them – pendulum or ATP. Currently, I’m teaching the pendulum to most of them — all of the girls and most of the boys. I find that a good time to teach the pendulum swing to boys is when their aptitude is lower than average. This is especially true for boys that have slow racket speeds. The pendulum swing just makes more sense, as those type of players need more power.
Regardless of which stroke I teach to kids and adults, I explain the outside-inside-outside swing path to them. You can even tell them it’s like making a circle with your racket. A good way to illustrate this is to show a video or image from directly above the player. As it’s not so easy to find, we created this graphic to show the difference.
Backhand – One and Two-Handed Swing Path
The two-handed backhand swing path is similar to the forehand in that it begins on the outside, moves to the inside and then returns to the outside to make contact with the ball. The WTA players have a more pronounced swing path – meaning they bring their rackets further to the inside on the two-handed backhand than the guys on the ATP. The ATP players generally stay on the outside, with perhaps a few players moving slightly inside.
For beginners and club level players, I highly recommend bringing the racket to the inside, like the WTA women, as it supplies the most power. The racket actually moves so far inside for some WTA players that the dominant arm will actually be touching the torso of the body. If you view their backhands in slow motion on youtube, you’ll see this very clearly. This move further inside elongates the swing path and provides more power than a simple take back as the ATP men do.
I also want to make something clear about the one-handed backhand. ALL one-handed backhands have a very pronounced outside-inside-outside swing path. I don’t care if it’s Roger Federer, Stan Wawrinka or Dominic Thiem or Carla Suarez Navarro hitting. All of them bring the racket far inside their body. One-handed backhand players must do this because they are using one arm, which supplies less power than two arms.
All of the concepts I mentioned for the forehand hold true on the backhand side. For that reason, I won’t go into as much detail on it. But I still want to talk about the backhand, as it is a different stroke from the forehand and on the opposite side of the body.
Let’s suppose a right-handed player is hitting a two-handed backhand. Both the WTA and ATP players will begin the stroke by making a unit turn and bringing the racket to the outside. For the backhand, the “outside” is the left side of the body and the “inside” is the right side of the body (the opposite of the forehand). Some players bring the racket up high (around head height) and others bring the racket back a bit lower. This is the first part of the swing.
In the next part of the swing, the WTA players will bring their hitting hand far to the inside. As I said before, they bring their hand and racket so far to the inside that their dominant arms (right) are touching their bodies. In contrast, the men on the ATP keep the racket on the outside of their bodies. Their arms therefore never contact their body on this part of the stroke. This is the major difference between the WTA and ATP two-handed backhands.
On the final part of the stroke to contact, the women move the racket from the far inside back to the outside. The men basically stay on the outside. Although like the forehand, there is a small movement closer to the body on the second part of the stroke. The racket then moves slightly back outside at this final stage to contact.
Like the forehand side, the women are using a longer, pendulum-like motion with gravity and momentum to generate power. The men are relying more on muscle. You may be wondering how the men can hit so hard with short backswings? Similar to the forehand, they lead with the butt cap by using a wrist drop that causes the racket head to drop and retract. It’s not as pronounced as the forehand, but it does offer additional power. Most of the women do something similar on their backhands, but it’s also not as pronounced. This allows both the men and women to hit up on the ball, allowing for topspin.
Now that you know the difference between the WTA and ATP two-handed backhands, what does it mean for you? To reiterate, if you’re a beginner or club player of any sex, I highly recommend the WTA style backhand. It offers more power and is easier to learn. The ATP two-handed backhand is tough because the timing and wrist drop need to be synchronized perfectly to generate substantial power.
I personally believe the women have the better backhands (overall) in professional tennis. Their technique looks better than most of the men. For many of the women, their backhands are their stronger wing, while for men, it’s just the opposite. The men prefer the shorter backswings of the ATP style backhand because it saves time. That’s really the only benefit. Some of my personal favorite two-handed backhands on the WTA tour are Monica Puig, Victoria Azarenka, and Caroline Wozniacki.
The One-Handed Backhand
Unlike the two-handed backhand, the one-hander is universal throughout both sexes. The player using the one-handed backhand will bring the racket so far inside, the dominant arm will almost be touching the torso. The only time this deviates is on returns and very high paced shots. The one-hander will forsake the strong inside move to contact with the ball in time. In this case, due to the velocity of the incoming ball, the inside part of the stroke (which supplies the power) is not needed. A short, compact stroke is all that’s necessary on fast shots.
The one-handed backhand is becoming a stroke not so much taught or seen in modern-day tennis. This is because it’s more difficult to learn, more difficult to hit high shots, and does not provide as much stability as the two-hander. For these reasons, we are seeing the two-handed backhand outnumber the one-hander on the order of 10-1 on the tour these days for both men and women. I never teach kids the one-hander, instead showing them the two right from the start. Still, if someone favors the one-hander, it’s still a valid shot and can be quite effective. Some of the best backhands on the WTA and ATP are one-handers.
Now that you know the details of the forehand and backhand anatomy, use it to improve your own strokes. If you’re a coach or want to teach tennis to your child, you now have a great understanding of what provides power on groundstrokes. The other components, just to refresh your memory, are body rotation and racket head speed. The combination of these three aspects together into one fluid stroke, make for powerful forehands and backhands.
If you’ve read this far, congratulations. I hope you found this information interesting and helpful for your game. Remember, video your strokes, analyze your swing path and determine one that is suitable for your body type and strength. There is no one-size fits all in tennis. Some women use the ATP strokes and some men swing more like the WTA women. Use whatever works. I wish you all the best. If you have any questions for me, please drop a comment below.