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Table Tennis and the Forearm Roll
In my first article on the modern forehand and table tennis, I showed how similar the hitting structures are for tennis and table tennis forehands (elbow tucked into the body, wrist cocked back and down) and how the arm, racket and shoulder push and lift the ball in a similar way for both sports. I suggested that these aren't "swings" in any traditional sense, but more of a pushing and lifting of the ball rather than a fast swing into the ball.

In this article I would like to look at a second remarkable similarity between table tennis and modern tennis: the rolling of the ball with the forearm. This roll of the forearm in a modern tennis forehand is, interestingly, more similar to the table tennis backhand (because of the way the wrist is positioned in the table tennis backhand). So if you take the hitting structure and arm/racket path of the table tennis forehand, and combine it with the roll of the table tennis backhand, you get a complete picture of how table tennis technique has been adopted in the modern forehand.

But first, let's look at how the feeling of topspin is taught in table tennis. Watch how Sean O'Neill uses rolling motions to demonstate what it feels like to apply topspin to the ball.


Rolling the ball for topspin.

Footage taken from: Table Tennis 101

Let's look at how the positioning of the wrist and forearm enable this rolling motion for both sports.

In the first frame in the image above, Sean's wrist is cocked back and downwards - a technical position that will allow him to roll the ball with his forearm. Notice in the first frame how Sean's right arm is in front of his body for leverage, while the wrist is cocked backwards and downward. In the second frame, his arm has lifted upwards while his wrist and forearm have rotated 180 degrees. The edge of his paddle faces the opposite direction from the first frame. So we have both a roll of the ball with the forearm along with a lifting of the entire arm. Notice how Sean's elbow position has changed from beginning at waist level and ending at chest level due to the lifting of the arm.

In the top right animation you can see how this rolling motion causes the ball to stick to the paddle for a moment and then shoots off the paddle with a controlled yet fast and powerful torque. By "gripping and rolling" the ball, the player gets tremendous feel and control of the ball coupled with tremendous pace and spin.

With the modern forehand, we see the exact same dynamic - "grip and roll" of the ball - with some slight mechanical differences. In the clip on the right of Paul-Henri Mathieu, first focus your eyes on the butt cap of the racket. The butt cap really shows the twisting/torquing motion of the hand and forearm. But you can also see that there is more than just a turning of the forearm and hand. His arm and shoulder are also lifting upward and pushing forward adding weight and mass to torquing forearm and hand.

In the still frame above you can see the two technical positions that allow the rolling motion to occur and the leverage to be establishsed for the roll. First, Mathieu's hand is completely underneath the handle. Traditionally tennis has been taught with the "shake hands" grip where the palm of the hand is positioned behind the handle. But you can't get a proper rolling motion with that grip. Instead players grip their rackets with their hands underneath the handle (the "frying pan" grip) like Mathieu so they can add the rolling/torquing motion of the hand and forearm.

You can see how this works by turning a door handle. Try turning the door handle without twisting your hand underneath the knob. It doesn't work very well. But if you twist your hand (supinate) so that it is underneath the handle you can easily turn it.

The second technical position we see for the roll is the elbow positioned in front of the body plane on contact. You can see this a little more clearly in the Robredo clip to the right. The upper arm pulls forward so that the elbow is in front of the body plane, providing necessary leverage for the rolling motion.

The third technical position which allows for the roll is the supination of the forearm at the initation of the forward pull. By rotating the forearm backwards this puts the forearm under the ball on contact so that it can roll the ball.

Finally, let's look at how this rolling motion is a muscular roll from the forearm and hand as opposed to a flimsy wrist rotation.

In the image on the right I took frames well after contact with the ball. You can see that the wrist hasn't "snapped" over or turned over. The wrist is still fairly stable while the forearm muscles are the ones doing the turning. You can really see Safin and Robredo's forearm muscles exploding from the turning/torquing action. This is very similar to twisting open a tight lid on a jar. You don't snap your wrist. Instead you grip the lip with your wrist and then use your forearm muscles to powerfully turn the lid.

Next we will look at how table tennis was the primary influence behind two of the sport's greatest innovators - Bjorn Borg and Raphael Nadal. I will be taking quotes from Bjorn's Borg's fascinating autobiography "My Life and Game" to show how he defied all convention in using table tennis technique in his tennis ground strokes. And he reports on how this technical paradigm shift was the key to winning Grand Slams.

Raphael Nadal, a technical innovator like Bjorn Borg, was coached by Uncle Toni who credits his experience as a table tennis player for Raphael's unique "reverse forehand". I will also be providing quotes from Uncle Toni on how he was able to connect tennis with table tennis technique and apply it to Rafa's game.

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Footage taken from: Table Tennis 101

Rolling the ball with the wrist and forearm is a secret of professional table tennis - and modern tennis.



Mathieu grips the ball with his forearm and rolls the ball while the arm and shoulder lift upward and push forward.

The elbow in front of the body plane creates necessary leverage for the roll to occur.

The forearm muscles are exploding from the torque created by the forearm.