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Modern Classic - Roger Federer's Forehand
Roger Federer’s forehand is the most beautiful, versatile, and powerful weapon in pro
tennis. It may also be the most misunderstood. We’ll dissect four major elements of this
By John Yandell
Many people think Roger Federer plays with a semi-Western grip, similar to Andy Roddick’s.
In reality, his grip is closer to Pete Sampras’. Federer keeps part of his hand off the end of
the grip, but most of it is still on the back of the handle, directly aligned with the face of the
racquet. He shifts his index base knuckle slightly downward about half a bevel toward a
semi-Western grip (to do this, stand the racquet on its end, as in the diagram below, and
place your index base knuckle between bevels 3 and 4 if you’re right-handed or between
6 and 7 if you’re a lefty). This modiﬁ ed Eastern grip is more conservative than that of most
top players, who typically shift farther toward the Western grip and place part or most of
their hands under the handle. This grip allows for the ideal contact height for a player who
stands close to the baseline and plays the ball early, a key to Federer’s effectiveness.
2. STANCE & TORSO ROTATION
One might expect that with his grip, Federer would hit in the classical style—that he’d use
a neutral stance, step directly into the line of a shot, and swing with less torso rotation.
Players with traditional grips of old, like Rod Laver and Ken Rosewall, typically rotated their
torsos less and ﬁ nished with their hitting shoulders almost parallel to the baseline.
Federer can do this (see above), but usually he doesn’t. Instead, like the more extreme-grip
players of today, he routinely hits from semi-open and open stances, rotates his torso
radically, and ﬁnishes with his racquet shoulder facing his opponent.
The semi-open and open stances allow Federer’s body to rotate fully without being blocked
by his front leg. Yet his grip gives him versatility—the option to hit comfortably from a
traditional stance with less rotation—that most extreme-grip players lack. Players with
Western grips typically rotate their torsos much farther forward just to get the racquet head
through the stroke. They would ﬁ nd it awkward to step into the ball, because their front
legs would block the forward swing.
Federer has synthesized elements of classical and modern technique. He ﬁ nishes with
as much body rotation on his forehand as players like Roddick and Rafael Nadal. Yet his
grip makes him more comfortable than they are standing closer to the baseline and hitting
the ball on the rise.
Many observers have noted how Federer finishes across his body, with his hitting arm
and racquet wrapped around his torso at the end of the follow-through. What’s usually
overlooked is how far out in front of his body he swings before bringing the racquet across.
When Federer drives the ball, the length of his swing toward his target equals or exceeds
that of virtually any player in the game. This is one source of his effortless power.
Federer’s extension happens so quickly that it’s difficult to see with the naked eye. In the
photo below, Federer’s hand has reached about eye level, and his arm and racquet are
almost completely straight, reaching out toward the target. Typically his hand is somewhere
between shoulder and eye level. His hand and his torso are 2 feet apart, if not more.
Federer reaches this point of maximum extension before the racquet starts to move
downward and wrap around the side of his body. Most players who think they’re copying
his motion use a wraparound follow-through but miss a critical element in not hitting
completely through the ball first.
4. WIPER FINISH
Federer’s windshield wiper follow-through often confuses observers who associate this
ﬁnish with more extreme grips. Federer turns his hand and racquet over during his
follow-through, ﬁ nishing across his torso rather than over his left shoulder. The rotation
in his arm can be as much as 180 degrees.
By combining a wiper ﬁ nish and a classical grip, Federer can hit the ball hard and with
a low trajectory over the net. But at the same time he can generate as much spin as
almost anyone in tennis (see chart). There’s one more advantage to his use of the wiper
ﬁnish: By varying how quickly he turns his hand over and the length of his extension,
Federer creates a bewildering range of angles and spins, everything from crosscourt
passes to precise topspin lobs. Because of his grip, he is able to do this while still hitting
the ball early. Combining the extreme and classical components gives him a variety of
options unequaled in the modern game.
LEARN FROM THE MASTER
How applicable are the elements of Federer’s forehand to the average player? In many ways,
he’s a better model for club players than his rivals who play with all modern techniques.
His grip is better suited to handle the majority of balls recreational players face. Club
players aren’t forced to deal with the extreme high-bouncing shots you see in pro tennis.
The natural contact point of most balls tends to be at around waist-level or a little higher,
which is perfectly suited to an Eastern grip. This relatively conservative grip also allows
players to hit from numerous stances without the need for radical torso rotation.
Most important, Federer shows that by rotating the hand and racquet as a unit in the wiper
motion, players can generate signiﬁ cant spin and at the same time hit through the ball for
depth and pace. Most club players should not use the wiper on every ball, but it can add
spin, short angles, and versatility. It’s a paradox: At the pro level, few players have the
timing necessary to make a synthesis of classical and modern elements work together.
But in club play, where the ball is slower and lower, this combination is a realistic option.
Federer’s forehand is both a stroke of genius and a stroke for the masses.