Chapter 2: Topspin, Power, and the Open Stance

The most efficient body movements are heavily dependent on the use of the body’s “ideal kinetic chain”, which would incorporate a certain feel of many muscles and joints. From animals to humans, the body was gradually developed, through millennia, to create the most ideal structure to flee from harm.

Bone, joint, muscle, work in unison to produce the highest speed and sudden changes of direction, plus lethal power to protect through shape and form the survival of the species and ultimately, the residing source of life.

Which would be the ideal kinetic chain? That which ensures, through efficiency, the highest form, a combination of moves that uses the body with utmost simplicity, but delicately synchronized, in its most potent response.

It would be the most efficient use of the minimal effort possible to produce the maximal result.

Guga Kuerten, 2000 World #1, 3 French Open titles

Bruce Lee, a Martial Arts innovator, demonstrated that rotational movements and changes of direction are the most potent generators of destructive and defensive force. Other sports, when guided correctly or geared instinctively to discover the most ideal operating mode, rely heavily on same principles of efficient form.

Tennis is no exception, although authoritative sources insist on preserving less natural principles which impair the sport, complicating it. One of them is a linear concept that insists on stepping into the ball.

Tennis is thought to be an aggressive sport, pushing one’s body and power towards the opponent or towards the intended placement to maximize the intended effect. A different mind-frame, far more native, more like Martial Arts, necessitates an initial forward attack but a timely withdrawal that increases the efficiency of the stroke.

Most tennis players rely on racquet head speed at impact, while force can be generated by acceleration alone. Uncannily for most, the more slowly, within reason, you get the racquet to the ball, the more you can accelerate the racquet head. That, due to the body’s limitations, can only be generated by a direction change. You are seemingly going to strike the ball in a forward direction, when suddenly you pull from the racquet backwards and across, generating not only a forward but also upward whip effect (the notable windshield-wiper), which imparts the ball not only with vigorous velocity but also with tremendous top-spin. Some top players accelerate the racquet head to over 70 miles an hour and generate forehand ball speeds above 120 MPH and over 4,000 ball RPM.

Further, as some of the following chapters will reveal, rotational power is most efficient with the open stance, where breaking the run and lifting and turning on the outside foot both for the forehand and two-handed backhand increase not only the stroke’s power and efficiency, but also help simplify the needed recovery and coverage of the court.

Martina Hingis, very young World #1

Topspin is a forward roll, just as if the ball was rolling forward on the ground. It is created by brushing up on the ball while stroking and pulling across. You lift the racquet much higher than the intended line of flight of the ball.

That, in addition to the force of gravity, makes for a much more pronounced downward curve. Technically, the top of the ball strikes the air much faster than the bottom of the ball, which is moving with the air, creating a downward force that seemingly adds to the weight of the ball. The ball drops much sooner than if it had no spin at all (a “flat” ball). The faster the ball rotates forward, the more downward force it gets and the faster it drops.

Although still not widely taught at the beginner and intermediate levels, topspin is a tremendous advantage to any player. It allows you to hit the ball with great force, well above the net, knowing that it will come down in the opponent’s court.

The ball is also going to take quite a jump, making it difficult for your opponent to handle it, and could alter his precision by rotating into his racquet’s strings.

This happens very often at the professional level. You see many rallies between the top players in the world where the ball doesn’t go deep, sometimes not clearing the service line by much, but it is still very effective in keeping the other player back.

High Topspin

A ball hit high with a lot of topspin slows down as it goes forward and up. Then it accelerates as it comes down, making it difficult to judge how the ball will bounce. Such a ball usually kicks high and toward the backcourt. That makes high topspin effective, even on hard courts, in troubling your opponent when he is back. And when he comes forward, topspin allows for lower net-clearing balls that drop much faster and also for sharper angles for the pass.

Rafa Nadal, World #1, 12 French Open titles

Confidence Builder

Topspin is a great tool and also a confidence builder. When you are afraid of missing you don’t have to hit a softer shot to be safe. You know the ball is going to drop in the court if you rotate it enough. Your fear doesn’t show since you don’t need to slow down your shots to keep the ball in the court.

With topspin, you can also clear the net by a wider margin. With practice you get the feel that the more you hit up, the more the ball comes down. That is why I teach this technique to the beginner, the intermediate, the advanced player, and the pros who haven’t mastered it yet. It encourages them to hit much harder, even under pressure.

When to Learn Topspin

The techniques used in this book to teach ground-strokes develop topspin naturally, right from the beginning.

Although this learning is done at slow speeds at first, the swing developed is the same low-to-high stroke used by the pros.

I consider this a very basic part of learning to play tennis well. Topspin requires that you apply much more upward force to the ball than the intended line of flight of your shot. Taught early, it becomes a habit, something that will be difficult to shake in the future. You hit the ball with a certain direction of effort and you relate this action to the speed and height of your shot, and to where the ball lands. If I first taught you to hit flat and later tell you to lift your strokes with topspin, you’ll probably panic. You’ll be afraid of hitting the ball too high and too far.

If you are a differently experienced player, hitting the ball squarely, you may understand these new principles intellectually, but deep inside you may have been conditioned differently. You haven’t instinctively built the feel that comes with topspin: the more you hit up on the ball and the more you roll it, the more it comes down. Players who have hit flat most of their lives and now want to hit topspin may need hundreds of hours of practice to master this new feel.

For all these reasons I like to see beginners hit up and use topspin to bring the ball down in the court, rather than forcing the ball down as soon as they develop some faster shots. With beginner players, their tennis instinct is virgin territory. They need to get the feeling from the start that lifting the stroke causes the ball to curve down.

Most notably, I use a string about three feet above the net to train students and to practice topspin myself.

The results are quite amazing. Not one of the players I taught with topspin was afraid of hitting the ball out. Whenever their shots went beyond the baseline, they rolled the next ball more.

Topspin builds up your confidence. Flat hits cause innumerable errors, lessening your confidence.

As you progress as a topspin player, you’ll learn to rotate the ball more and more efficiently, whether on your forehand, backhand, or serve. The safety factor in your shots will always be in your favor. Should you decide to risk a few, you can hit some flatter shots, but you can always revert to safety when needed by going back to topspin strokes.