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▌ © C. Tom Harton 1991-2011 ▐

This is a introductory manual for athletically average people who want to learn to play regular tennis in an unordinary way. Probably some of it will be within your knowledge, however if you are an early learner, much of it will be new. Hopefully it is couched in words which you can understand and use. You can read it in a linear way, but the bold print section titles will allow you to revisit parts of it easily for reference. It contains many descriptions of phrases or concepts that you should be able to understand. It has taken me decades to congeal. Let the journey begin

The Primary Goal

The basic goal of all normally sane tennis players during a game is to hit every ball “IN the court.” IN means inside of the boundary lines or ON (touching) the boundary lines. If any part of the ball touches the line, the ball is IN. If you are in doubt, the ball is still IN.

Overview. Whoever hits the most balls IN wins the most points, games, etc.. Conversely, whoever makes the most unforced errors, loses the most points, games, etc. UNFORCED ERRORS are errors caused by your bad shots -- errors that you shouldn’t have made (relative to your personal playing level) -- rather than by your opponent’s good shots. For most players everywhere, the main cause of losing is making too many unforced errors. When starting to play tennis you will make about a zillion errors for every intentional winner, however beginners cannot make unforced errors because they haven’t established a personal playing level. This will change in time of course, so unforced errors will become an issue.

Classic Form -- the Best Cure for Inconsistent Performance

A student needs to try to develop “CLASSIC” FORM” in order to control the ball so that it reliably goes into the court with spin. Classic form is the form that has proven over the years to get the most balls in the court for the most players. “Classic” in this sense means an exemplar (serving as a leading example), or a paradigm (a of ideas used for understanding or explaining something).

ConsistencyThe Crucial Ingredient

Especially as a learning student, CONSISTENCY IS YOUR OBJECTIVE, not power. Once you have more or less developed classic strokes, success is mainly about mechanical repetition. I take it on as my job to help you develop a solid style and be able to enjoy tennis for the rest of your playing life.


Below is a compendium of one of the most fundamental elements in tennis. I have given great effort to putting the concepts into a readily understandable form. My task is an intellectual battle of being comprehensive VS being clear. Let’s start at the beginning…

The Racket Grip

At the handle end or butt of the racket, is an 8-sided GRIP. These sides of the grip are called BEVELS, and exist so that you can return to the same grip by feel rather than by sight.

If you dont have a correct grip when hitting the ball, then nothing will work right.

Getting a Grip – Shaking Hands

Contacting the ball with your racket face is facilitated by how you grip your handle. The basic forehand grip that I recommend is the Eastern Grip. It is achieved by 1) Placing the palm of your hitting hand, with fingers spread apart, flat on the back of the racket face, and by 2) Bringing your spread fingers straight back toward you down the shaft until you can close your fingers around the base of the racket handle; i.e. by “shaking hands” with the racket. Do not put your index finger or thumb straight up the grip; instead wrap all of your finger around the grip. Also grab the grip at the base of the handle, not at the top or middle. When starting off, shut your eyes and pay special attention to how the proper forehand grip feels. You may need to recheck your grip until the feeling becomes second nature to you.

One of the reasons an Eastern forehand grip is better for beginners is that when you hit a ball, the palm of your hand is in the same spatial plane as that of the face of the racket -- in other words, the plane of your palm is about the same as the angle of your racket face upon ball impact. This may augment your ability to feel like the racket is an extension of your arm.


Today there are three forehand grips that have proven to work the best for most players up through level 3.5, the focus of this article. Each type of grip has its advantages as well as disadvantages, which I will explore. (Note: 2-handed grips are not explored here.)

There are several points of reference concerning identification of the grips. I find the easiest to understand and most usable identifier is the base knuckle PAD on your forehand.

GRIP BEVELS. There are 8 bevels on your racket handle grip. These bevels are there so that you can switch from one grip to another by FEEL, for instance from your forehand to your backhand, without having to look.


The three forehand grips currently most well used are:
Eastern Forehand,
Semi-Western Forehand, and
Western Forehand.

These somewhat confusing appellations don’t tell the novice anything, nevertheless we’ll have to employ these labels because they are used almost everywhere in tennis realms.


To achieve the Eastern Forehand, grab the handle with your base knuckle pad on bevel 2. This puts most of your palm behind the handle and feels comfortable to most beginning students. Your palm is in the same plane as your racket strings. Some novice players when starting to use this grip at first, tend to hit the ball flat, but this is caused by the swing arc, not by the grip. For topspin, on balls anywhere near your waist hitting zone, the Eastern forehand grip is perfectly adequate. This grip is problematic for shoulder high and higher balls, but you can use a forehand slice for those. For extremely high backcourt balls I recommend using – wait, wait, wait for it – an overhead. (!)

To achieve the Semi-Western Forehand, grab the handle with your base knuckle pad on bevel 3, which is one bevel clockwise from the Eastern grip. This grip is used by many higher level players (4.0 and up), and is the grip of choicer for most pros. This grip is advantageous for hitting high-bouncing balls because of its downward tilting string face. It also can provide more power, however at your level, controlled shots are infinitely more desirable than power shots. Disadvantages of this grip is that it is more difficult to hit low balls and it takes more time to change to a one-handed backhand grip.

To achieve the Western Forehand, grab the handle with your base knuckle pad on the bottom bevel. This grip is the easiest grip to hit higher-bouncing balls. It permits you to hit with extreme topspin but it sacrifices power. Some clay or soft court players prefer this grip. It is also useful for hitting topspin lobs, but they are beyond the average abilities of many 3.5 and lower players. Disadvantages are significant difficultly in hitting really low balls, and it is challenging to change your grip to a one-handed backhand grip. Because of the later difficulty, most Western grip players use a two-hand backhand grip.


Eastern Forehand – out in front of you near your lead foot
Semi-Western Forehand – less far in front of you
Western Forehand – closer to your body

For many years while competing in 4.0 USTA leagues, I primarily used an Eastern forehand grip while winning over 95 percent of my doubles matches. Everyone should use their grip of choice according to their personal preferences and playing styles. Ideally you should be able to use several grips according to what type of stroke you are going to hit. For instance, I liked to use a Western grip for hitting really high topspin lobs. It’s fun to experiment.

Racket Face

Upward from the handle (or grip) is the racket SHAFT; then comes the THROAT; then the racket HEAD. The frame of the head encircles the string bed and is called the RACKET FACE. You will need to be acutely aware of how your racket face is positioned when you hit a ball. ► The angle of the racket face dictates where the ball goes.


You should Not rotate your wrist much at all as you swing once you start the racket’s forward motion. You should keep your racket face stable just before, during, and immediately after contacting the ball. Especially do Not break your wrist (bend it forward or backward) as this immensely complicates hitting the ball consistently.

Ball Contact Time

When you strike a tennis ball with your racket face, where the ball goes is intimately and forever determined by how the strings meet the ball at the moment of contact.

High speed photography shows that

contact lasts only about four thousandths of a second!

This fact is important because if you tilt your racket face wrongly just before you hit the ball, it will not go where you intend. This fact explains why you should not rotate your wrist, as stated in the Wrist paragraph above. Ask your instructor to explain this if it is not clear.

Best Method of Contact -- How the Racket Face Should Be Positioned

A groundstroke is a stroke used to hit the ball after it has bounced once, usually from the back of the court. The best way to contact the ball when hitting a topspin groundstroke is with the face of the racket either straight up and down or tilted slightly downwards, in other words, with the racket frame on edge at about a 85 to 90-degree angle with the court surface. The higher the point of contact, the more the racket face should be tilted downward. Important: topspin will only work properly if your swing path is moving forward and diagonally upward from a low to a higher position. Ask your instructor to demonstrate this if you cannot visualize it.

Path of the Racket During the Contact Phase

For the vertical racket face to hit the ball properly -- with topspin -- you MUST swing your racket from LOW to HIGH. If you stand next to your coach on the racket-arm side and view the racket path from the side as it moves forward from low to high, you’ll typically see the entire racket travel in an upward path at about a 30  to 45  angle.

Racket Face Tilt -- “Closing your racket face”

When you are on court learning to hit topspin groundstrokes and are given the corrective instruction to close your racket face, this means that the flight of the last ball you hit was too high and that you need to adjust the tilt of your racket face downward from an upward facing angle to a straight up or slightly downward angle so that the next ball you hit will be lower, i.e. closer to the top of the net.

There are two basic conditions which cause the ball to fly too far upward, and there is a different adjustment for each condition. One condition is that you have unintentionally turned your wrist up when you swung at the ball so that your racket face was tilted upward too much. The adjustment is to keep your wrist stiff as you swing so that the racket head is on edge, straight up and down, or slightly downward, when you hit the ball. Again, do not rotate your wrist as you swing.

The other condition is that if you usually tend to hit the ball too high, this means that you should adjust your grip so that the racket face is normally more closed. To adjust your grip to a more closed position, you need to loosen your racket hand’s grasp on the handle and then turn the top of your racket face (counterclockwise) downward slightly, so that when you tighten your hand again, the face of the racket will be tilted more downward toward the court surface. This is called a modified Eastern grip.

Open & Closed Racket Face

The terms open racket face and closed racket face are very important for you to understand. They are used frequently in early learner instruction lessons. If you have a fuzzy understanding of these terms, consult your instructor and be sure you understand these two basic terms. Otherwise you will be like a blank wall to which the coach is talking. :-)

► Most beginners tend to hit the ball with their racket face too open, in other words with their racket face tilted skyward too much. This open racket face results in your ball sailing up into the air (called a lob). As a beginner, pay attention to your grip and racket face; check them often. Also, be conscious of keeping your wrist firm as you swing forward to contact the ball. :-)

Groundstroke Defined

A GROUNDSTROKE is a ball that is hit after the ball has bounced once, typically hit in your backcourt. The backcourt is that part of the court which lies near the baseline. For most players the forehand groundstroke is the heart of their tennis game. If you don’t develop either a good forehand or backhand groundstroke, you will sooner or later be toast.

Closed Stance Defined

A “closed stance” refers to your body stance as you prepare to hit the ball. A closed body stance is with your body more or less 90  to the net. For a right hander this means that your left shoulder is closest to the net, and your right shoulder is away from the net.

(Note: The open stance, where the player’s feet are more or less parallel with the net when addressing the ball, is a relatively recent development. It has become, popularized by college and professional tennis players in order to conserve split-second time when receiving high paced balls. This adaptation makes sense for those ballistic pace competitors; but for beginners to 3.5s this is an unnecessary complication. Forget this particular groundstroke technique for now.)

Visualizing Your Racket Head Swing Path When Contacting the Ball

To visualize the racket path as you swing low to high, first imagine that the ball has a horizontal equator drawn around it’s center, and then visualize your racket face brushing up the back side of the ball as your racket moves from low to high.

► This brushing upward motion causes TOPSPIN, which in turn causes the ball to drop toward the court surface much quicker than with no spin (gravity only) or with underspin. (Note: Underspin is the opposite of topspin and results from a downward chop of the racket.)

Swing Path & Arc of the Ball When Hit

Once you have learned how to hit a topspin shot and do it regularly, you will want to alter the flight path of the ball.

TV commentators and others refer to “hitting the ball flat.” This is a misnomer and confusing to early learners. A flat ball or shot is hit with a flat or level-with-the-court swing and has no intended spin. Jimmy Connors, one of the greats in tennis, hit groundstrokes which most commentators called “flat.” Actually, if you look at videos of Jimmy hitting groundstrokes, his racket moves from low to high and imparts topspin to the ball. However, the typical flight of his groundies are much flatter (lower to the top of the net) than his competitors. Hence his groundstrokes were incorrectly called flat when in reality they were topspin shots with little arc. The importance of this to learners is that you should not be misled into using a flat swing when hitting groundstrokes.


When hitting topspin the steeper your low-to-high upward swing path the more spin you put on the ball and the more arc you get above the net. On topspin shots, when you hit the ball with more arc, the balls clears the net more and falls to the court surface quicker. Since the ball clears the net more it is a safer shot. [See my instructional on Smart Tennis.]

Look closely at Diagram 2, below. It shows two scenarios. In the left side scenario the steeper your upward swing path is, the more spin you impart to the ball, the more the ball clears the net, and the safer the shot. In both cases the racket face is approximately straight up and down but the flight of the ball is changed by the angle of your racket swing path.

Specifically, the greater the upward angle of your racket swing path, the more spin is produced. Conversely, the flatter the upward angle of your racket swing path, the less spin is produced. Take a look at the diagram now while your attention is oriented.

With lots of practice you will learn to hit most neutral groundstrokes about two or so feet above the top of the net. (A neutral groundstroke is one that you hit when you are not under pressure.) This distance through which you hit your ball is known as your stroke “window.”

If your typical window is too near the net you will end up hitting the ball into the net too often (and losing points).

If your typical window is too high above the net you will either hit the ball out of the court too often or you will have to hit the ball much softer in order to keep it from going out.


When hitting groundstrokes with a flat stroke, this polar dichotomy (wooo) is an unrelenting challenge for those players. It’s a exponential percentage situation. When hitting flat, the harder you hit the ball the smaller your window. Translation = you miss more shots. This flat-stroke technique is OK in moderate speed competition because these players have hit flat all of their mainly untutored tennis history and can get fairly good at it – UNTIL they sometimes find themselves in high pressure situations (such as tiebreakers or match points), when they get too tired (and physical/mental fatigue sets in), and when they lose their timing (and you hear them say that their game is “off” that day). Or, when they find themselves competing at 4.0 and up against better tennis players. You can bet that most all of those better players use topspin groundies. You don’t see too many 4.0 and higher players who use a flat swing stroke for good reason.

Beginners should not worry about hitting the ball too soft when learning because your purpose in life at this time is to keep the ball in the court. With experience you will learn how to hit the ball with more pace and control.

Pace is a double edged sword. Many male learners tend to hit the ball too hard, which results in missing too many shots. Sorry guys. When they do this, these men are playing beyond their skill level – a situation which I notice in many social and club matches. Playing beyond your abilities is, er, not too smart in situations where you are playing equal or slightly better opponents. :--)

Diagram 2 – How the Racket Face Moves Low to High

More Topspin Less Topspin


The following procedure is a description of how beginners, or near beginners can learn how to hit topspin. It may also be helpful for those returning to tennis and have forgotten their forehand basics.

Learning How to Hit a Topspin Shot

Stage 1. Back up from the net ten or so feet. Turn your body 90 degrees to the net (in a “closed” body position). Cradle the ball in your non-racket hand, palm upward, as though you are going to toss the ball upward. The racket face should remain straight up and down or slightly closed. Toss the ball straight upward about two feet or more and let it bounce on the court surface. Start off with your racket pulled back and downward about a foot below your waist. Your racket arm should be bent so that your elbow is about 4 to 6 inches from your torso, and your wrist should be bent back. When the ball bounces back up to about your waist level, swing upward and forward and try to brush up the back of the ball. Also, you want to contact the ball in front of your body near a spot about where your left foot is. Do NOT open your racket face up when you swing forward. Keep trying this until you see the ball clear the net with topspin on it. Remember that if you open your racket face much, i.e. turn it upward toward the sky, it is nearly impossible to hit topspin. (Arguably there is one exception, but I will not elucidate it here.)

Stage 2. Next, back away from the net to just behind the service line, and repeat the exact procedure above.

Racket Swing Path -- Angles for Topspin

Swing forward and upward (at about a 45 degree angle swing path). Remember that the 45 degree angle refers to the upward path of the entire racket as it moves through the air, not the angle of the racket face. Keep trying this abbreviated swing and see if you can brush up the back of the ball enough to send the ball over the net while making it spin forward. This is exactly the same thing that happens when you hit topspin.

Photo 1Some Forehand Basics Are Pictured

Butt of Your Racket; Laid Back Wrist.

Stage 3. Next, back up until you are just behind your baseline (the boundary line at the back of the court). In a forehand lesson I will feed the ball softly to your forehand so that it bounces once before you hit it. Be at 90 degrees with the net and have your racket already pulled back. Use the same swing instructions mentioned above and see if you can hit the ball with topspin. At this stage you will be using no backswing as you will be starting with your racket already back. The butt of your racket should be aimed at your target. Your wrist will be laid back, so when you swing forward and contact the ball near your lead foot your wrist will still be laid back at a comfortable angle. (Remember, no wrist flex; keep it stiff.) I will feed you twenty or more balls to your forehand. Depending on your previous swing habits, you should be able to hit a number of balls with reasonable topspin. Practice this as long as it takes for you to get the idea and be able to hit topspin much of the time. As this shot is a key element of your game, be patient with it. Consistency is your goal.

Ready Position; Full Swing.

Stage 4. Next do the same thing but start with your body “open” (parallel) to the net in the ready position and bring your racket back (backswing) as the ball approaches while rotating your body to a closed position. In other words, you will be doing the same thing as before but you will be trying to hit the ball with a full swing while rotating (uncoiling) your body.

THE READY POSITION DEFINED. The position of readiness which you use before and after each shot. It is comprised of these elements, each of which is important:

  1. Feet spread apart at least shoulder width apart

  2. Weight on the balls of your feet (often ignored by learning players)

  3. Eastern grip or modified Eastern grip (explained in text on page 4 and elsewhere)

  4. Non-dominant hand (left hand for righties) on the throat of your racket

  5. Racket head chest high (not below your waist or in front of your eyes) and pointed straight ahead

  6. Knees bent, lowering your center of gravity about a foot, and preparing you to spring into action as quickly as possible

  7. Upper body bent over only enough to have your center of gravity above your feet

  8. Eyes on the ball and brain alert (duh)

Note: Wow, an eight step description, but vitally important! Beginners, advanced beginners, and some intermediates regularly fail to have a proper ready position, but it is crucial to playing good tennis as you become more competitive.

Keep in mind that you do not have to swing hard to get topspin. The harder you swing the more difficult it will be to time your shot right. Remember, we are trying for consistency, not power. Consistency is our goal for now – as well as for the next millennium.

Full swing defined, for a forehand topspin groundstroke: A full swing is used for most all groundstrokes (but not for volleys, explained elsewhere). Starting with the ready position, make a semi-circular loop by bringing your racket back head high while rotating your body into a closed position - see page 4. At its backmost point your racket’s handle butt will be pointing at your target area momentarily. (High level players often bring their racket back around further as they are looking to knock the cover off the ball, but I am presenting you with the best way to learn consistency.) Continue your full loop by letting your racket head move downward and then forward through an imaginary point about twelve inches below your anticipated point of contact with the ball. Continue to swing your racket head from about a foot below contact point, upward at roughly a 45-degree swing angle. Brush up the back of the ball and follow through with your racket until the head is higher than your shoulder. Your body weight should move forward into your shot

That’s it! You now have most of the basic elements in hitting topspin groundies. Of course you will have to hit hundreds and hundreds of shots to groove topspin into your muscle memory. BTW, “hundreds and hundreds” is not an exaggeration. :-]

Mindful practice, practice, practice is the mantra. Remember that poor form repetition results in poor outcomes, whereas good form repetition results in good outcomes. This is why “just playing tennis” willy-nilly doesn’t improve your tennis significantly. Makes sense to me.

Four Crucial, Basic Tips for the Topspin Forehand.

Important Tip 1: For many learners the single most difficult thing when trying to do topspin is learning how NOT to rotate your wrist so that the racket face is tilted upward. If the racket face is not straight up and down or closed slightly downward at contact the ball will not be hit with topspin.

Important Tip 2: When swinging your racket forward, you MUST swing your racket from low to high. In other words, your racket swing path must be from low to high. If you swing with a level swing (like a door swings), you will not be able to achieve topspin.

Important Tip 3: When you hit a topspin groundstroke, it is especially important to contact the ball near your waist (which I call your hitting zone).

Important Tip 4: When playing, your feet must take your body to the right place so that you can “set up” before you hit the ball. If your feet don’t take you to a good court position, with your body in balance, the results may be variations of a disaster.

Tennis Clinic BallsUsed for Thirteen Years So Far

It is easiest to detect topspin (or any other spin) when you use a dual-colored tennis ball. I use high visibility two-tone yellow and orange Gamma tennis balls in my clinics for this reason. Notice the spin on the balls that you hit and you will see whether you have hit topspin or not. Watching your ball spin is an important key to learning. You can be self informed if you do this.

Why Use Topspin

If you are wondering why topspin is the way to go, there are several significant reasons. Virtually all really good tennis players hit topspin, but that doesn’t tell you why. The main reason for hitting topspin is that In order to get your shot dependably IN at a given pace, topspin gives you a much larger margin of error above the net (translation = larger window in which to be inaccurate). Also, when you hit a ball with topspin it bounces is a way that may be more difficult for your opponent to return your shot.

Note concerning backhand topspin: In terms of swing path, a topspin backhand stroke is essentially a mirror image of the forehand topspin, with several differences. Also you can hit your backhand with a downward slicing motion (high to low). Many most excellent players, including pros, use a slice backhand with great success. But that’s another lesson.

Several years ago my son, Roman, took some pictures of students while drilling in my Clinic. One such photo – See Photo 2 below – provided the following form analysis. When observing my students drilling, my mind continually takes pictures of their form. In this photo the picture escaped from my mind’s library and landed in this instructional.

Photo 2A Tennis Clinic Student Showing Good Topspin Forehand Form



Note: Key words are in BOLD print.




Do this before and after EVERY shot!


About as wide apart as your shoulders


Very Important! Facilitates speed / balance


So you can push off quickly in any direction


Standard grip but can be modified if desired




Your non-dominant hand should be at the

racket throat so you can change your

grip quickly if needed

PIVOT YOUR BODY – Forehand Stroke

Done simultaneously with backswing --

See description immediately below


(Left-handers reverse these instructions.)

Rotate your body 90 degrees to the net

by placing your left foot diagonally

forward & pivoting on your right foot



Done simultaneously as you pivot, so that

when you swing forward you can move



This is called the “double bend” position

which means that your arm is comfortably

bent at your elbow and at your wrist


Elbow should not touch chest, or be straight


In order to move racket from low to high


Butt is aimed straight towards intended target



Wrist stays bent back & should NOT flex

before contacting the ball




Using a 30 to 45 degree upward swing path

low to high



Your body weight shifts forward with your

racket as you pivot




Meet the ball out in front of your lead foot,

NOT back at your shoulder/torso

> RACKET ON EDGE (90◦ to court surface)

Racket face may be tilted slightly downward


Do not flex your wrist until after contact



Arm should be comfortably extended, i.e.

bent at the elbow but not straight




This optimal hitting area is known as your

HITTING ZONE & is accomplished by

quickly moving forward or backward,

Right or left


A very important part of your groundstroke



Rotation is made at the same time that your

arm swings forward, not before or after


Do NOT stop your racket at contact with the

ball; continue your swing upward until your

racket face is high above your shoulder



Move “into” or toward the ball as you swing;

If possible, never lean backward as you hit.


unless you planning to move forward

into the court

This steadies & maintains your balance.

If planning to go forward, your rear foot of

course moves simultaneously forward.



[Basic Forehand Topspin Master For Learners] [92 revisions as of 8-14-2011]



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