Face It and the Pull the Elbow Forward!
The Subtle, But Critical, Pulling Motion
In my first article on FACE IT I used multiple animations from my stroke library to show how Frank Early's advice (from the wonderful book Tennis Strokes That Win) to "FACE IT!" is spot on in describing how good players turn their hips, shoulders and hitting arm into the ball so that they "square up" to the ball at the exact moment of impact.
To recap, this rotation is critical for two reasons. First, it provides a tremendous amount of acceleration of the body and racket in a very quick turning motion, but because it is a turning motion (not a swinging motion), the hitting arm configuration remains intact. And second, by "squaring up" to the ball, you position your hand, arm, and shoulder behind the ball in a way that mimics a boxer punching and driving his arm and shoulder into his opponent.
To make this work properly, however, you can't just turn into the ball. You also have to pull your upper arm forward as you rotate so that you meet the ball in front of your body plane for proper leverage.
Focus on the Elbow
We can observe this crucial pull by focusing on a player's elbow. The elbow will start to slide forward as a result of the pulling motion, and on contact the elbow will be positioned several inches in front of the body plane. Roll your mouse over the image of Kateryna Bondarenko to see how she is pulling her arm forward as she starts to turn into the ball.
This pulling motion is, in my opinion, the greatest "secret" of the stroke simply because a) it is subtle and therefore difficult to observe and b) you just never hear about it. I "discovered" this secret years ago from multiple sources.
The first source was Nick Bollettieri's "Killer Forehand" video, which highlights the retired Belgian player Xavier Malisse. In the video, he shows an exercise where Malisse is pulling a towel out of the hands of someone standing behind him as he also turns his shoulders to face forward (click here to see it). It's a fantastic way to replicate the pulling motion and was a real paradigm change for me when I saw it.
The second source was Revolutionary Tennis, where Mark Papas added on to this insight years ago by noting that the elbow of the hitting arm "slides" in front of the body in every professional forehand. He has some very nice illustrations and explanations on this page to show how this works.
The third source comes from a defunct site called "EasiTennis". The creator of EasiTennis, Ray Brown, also noted this elbow position and suggested, quite astutely, that when tennis instructors say "hit the ball out in front", what this really means, bio-mechanically speaking, is that the elbow is positioned in front of the body plane on contact. Ray made this elbow position a central component of his forehand instruction.
The fourth source, was a fascinating email I received from from Gary Adelman in 2006. In the email (Click Here), Gary described how the forearm supinates and the shoulder blade and upper arm laterally rotate, causing the elbow to lead the forward motion of stroke. It is a brilliant observation of the bio-mechanics of the forehand, and it is something I simply did not see until he explained it to me. If you mouse over and out of the Muguruza picture on the right, you can see what Gary describes in action.
The fifth source comes from Doug King, who, in his brilliant article for TennisOne "The Hands Have It', gives a wonderful description of how this motion "builds up torque in the forearm" for proper rolling motions through contact, and actually slows the racket down in order to achieve leveraged contact between body and ball. His quote is also on this page.
The last source comes from a webpage I happened to luck across that is no longer functional, but fortunately I saved the key animation from it on this page. In the animation, watch how the instructor, Steve, uses a wall to perfectly simulate the supination of the forearm along with the pull forward with the elbow leading. Steve's exercise takes all of the theory, all of the description I've provided, and lets your body just find the position and movement.
I am quite grateful to all these sources for "unlocking" this pulling motion. The Bollitieri video was the first place I had ever heard of "pulling" as opposed to swinging. And Mark Papas and Ray Brown were the first (and still only) place I have seen this astute observation of the movment and positioning of the elbow. Gary Adelman provided the brilliant biomechanical description of exactly how and why the elbow leads the forward stroke. And Doug King, in his beautiful language, illuminates how these motions lead to better contact and more powerful positions. Finally, the exercise from the currently not working How to Play Tennis Videos site, is just a brilliant way to teach this critical piece of the modern forehand.
The Upper Arm and Elbow on Contact
The final result of this pulling motion, combined with "FACE IT", is a perfectly leveraged contact point.
When Kateryna is fully squared up to the ball in the still on the left, notice how her upper arm is pulled forward and her elbow is positioned several inches in front of her body. Her upper arm forms a 45 degree angle to the side of her body on contact. This position looks just like Ginepri's contact point from the previous article. His upper arm is also angled forward from his body plane at about a 45 degree angle with his elbow several inches in front of his body. Without the pulling motion, they would be meeting the ball at the side of their bodies as opposed to in front of their bodies.
In these two still frames, imagine both players were pushing a heavy object. Perhaps pushing open a heavy door. Perhaps shoving a person. In either case, the leverage gained from having their elbow in front of the body is absolutely enormous. It greatly magnifies the amount of force you can apply. And being "sqaure up" to the ball gets the shoulder muscle positioned right behind the bent arm, which supports the hand and racket. In this powerful position, the racket is supported by the bent arm, which is supported by the powerful shoulder muscle. And leveraged is established through the elbow being positioned in front of the body plane. Now as the ball compresses into the racket strings, it is like a wall of support that leads to maximum compression and rebound between ball and racket.
Let's take a look at some other examples. To the right is up-and-comer Austin Krajicek, a huge hitting lefty from the US with a massive topspin forehand. The supination of the forearm, combined with the pull forward of the upper arm is very obvious in this forehand. As his entire upper body rotates into the ball, he is also pulling that entire hitting structure forward. In the last frame in this animation, look at the angle of Autsin's upper arm. It's pulled about 45 degrees in front of his body plane.
In the next animation, the first frame shows how his elbow is leading the stroke. If you mouse over the picture, you will see how he turns into the ball, while still pulling forward to contact. On contact his upper arm is pulled well in front of his body, putting him in a position of maximum leverage. His shoulder and bent arm are perfectly positioned right behind the ball on impact.
Notice how his shoulders are parallel to the net, just as his racket is parallel to the net. Everything has "squared up", creating a wall like quality to contact where the ball will compress into the racket and then spring outward.
As you mouse in and out over the Krajicek picture, also notice how his arm is in the same configuration in both frames. The arm stays in a nice hitting structure while the rotation of the entire body and arm provide the acceleration and the pull provides the leverage. With this Pull and Face It technique, you get speed without "swinging" your arm and racket. And this is why on contact there is so much mass and support of the arm and body behind the ball.