Short or Long Backswing?

Crootof photo

You are returning a soft second serve or set up to pound a groundstroke past your opponent(s) … should you use a short or long backswing on your power forehand?  I spoke with three different teaching pros … and got three different answers!

Hard vs. Soft Courts

First, the caveat: if you are playing on a fast, hard court and/or against a hard-serving, hard-hitting opponent, you need to shorten your backswing to get the ball back in play and stay in the point.  But if you are playing senior tennis on a HarTru court, you have a choice.

Pro #1: Short Swing and Accelerate Through

The first opinion (the one I generally share) is that you should keep your backswing as short as possible; and ACCELERATE THROUGH the finish of the stroke. He says that the racquet starts roughly in position #1, perpendicular to the body and you stroke forward from there.

But he points out that too many players use all their acceleration at the start of that motion (to position #2) and then decelerate at the finish – and dump their forehand in the net.  According to him, you should focus your acceleration from Position #2 to the end of the swing.

Pro #2: Take the Racquet Head Back and Drive the Ball

The second opinion says that you don’t get enough power with such a short swing (on both the forehand and the backhand); but you should take the racquet head back – in a loop – and drive through the ball.

He says, it is that increased racquet head speed that will give you the extra power you are looking for.

Pro #3: It Depends on the Situation

Even if you are playing against a non-hard-hitting opponent on a soft court, this pro says the score will dictate which stroke you use.

He believes that, if you are leading 40-love and you have a ball sitting up in the middle of the court, take the big swing and try for a winner.  But if you are returning at ad in, you want to play with more control … and take a shorten backswing to be surer to get the ball back in play.

What do you think… long, short, or something else?

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10 thoughts on “Short or Long Backswing?

  1. Generally I recommend a short backswing, unless you are able to practice eight hours a day and can totally control your big backswing even under pressure.
    However, in either case I recommend keeping your eyes at the contact point until the ball has left the racquet (unlike the person in the picture who is making contact too high on the racquet head because he is looking ahead!)

    Well, if “that person” could have some expert coaching, maybe he could improve his swing! :-), george

  2. I have worked very hard on my return game in the last year primarily by focusing on my footwork. If you can be proactive about getting up to a soft serve and hit as you are moving into the court you may be surprised at how forceful the return can be without altering the backswing much. I would say that most of my return errors now occur when I don’t engage my feet properly. Needless to say this is somewhat difficult to keep up during a 3 set match as you tire but is becoming more second nature for me.

    chris, coincidentally, in a match yesterday, i advised my partner to START much closer to the service box/line, because we were facing a soft server; and my partner was hitting returns long due to having to run forward to hit them. thanks, george

  3. George, the photo (presumably you?) is a classic illustration of someone NOT watching the ball. Instead, the player is looking across the net at his opponents and where he wants to hit the ball. If you study photos of the top players, they maintain a laser focus on the spot where the ball WAS for a split second after they’ve hit it. There are some great videos on You Tube such as:
    which teach how to REALLY watch the ball. I’ve been hitting the ball much more cleanly and accurately since watching these.

    Jerry, yes, that is me! And i knew the comments would come! The pro to watch is The Fed as he hits his backhand and his head stays down. thanks, george

  4. George,

    This is a most interesting question. In all my years of playing and teaching the one absolute thing I have come to learn is that I now know almost nothing about the game!

    Pro #1: Short Swing and Accelerate Through. Great advice and they are absolutely correct.

    Pro #2: Take the Racquet Head Back and Drive the Ball. Great advice and they are absolutely correct.

    Pro #3: It Depends on the Situation. Great advice and they are absolutely correct.

    I know… Coach Fred make up your mind!!!

    I have found that approaching the game as situational works best for me. All of the above answers will work great for me… Some of the time but not all the time.

    Every time a ball comes to me I am intently focused and decide on what the best type of shot is to get the ball back to my target. On the return, if it’s slow, perhaps I can pound it consistently. If it’s a powerful serve I may volley it back consistently because there is already an abundance of power on the ball. If my opponent hangs back I hit a softer shorter returns. If he is kicking the ball up high I may chip it or take it early.

    Rarely, will you ever play an opponent with a wide variety in their arsenal. Within a few minutes you can figure out their entire approach to the game and then you simply need to focus down and what works best against them and best for you.

    Ask yourself if you are able to hit the selected shot consistently. If the answer is no then don’t try it! EVER.

    Years ago I developed a system, (statistical proximity analysis). In simple terms I measured the accuracy of everyone of my strokes and based on this information I could then determine high percentage targets. These don’t change. I have found that very very few players actually know what they can and can’t do with the ball. This would be like being a military sniper and having no idea how accurate you are. It’s one of the most illogical parts of the game.

    Be a good student of your game and be adaptable! Hope this helps everyone.

    I’m still laughing at Spike and George’s comments above. George google RF and create a collection of his playing pictures and then look at them often. You will watch the ball in a very different way. : )

    Fred, great advice to “know your own game.” Think about all the club players who crush the first serve … but get it in way less than 50% of the time. Yup. Fed is my “watch the ball” idol. thanks, george

  5. That would speak for keeping the backswing on the short side and your momentum moving will provide the oomph. The key is not to be flat footed when making contact.

    If the serve is short in the box think forceful approach particularly if you slice well.

    Chris, i agree! thanks, george

  6. Fred Robinson, not surprisingly, has it right. Each ball coming across the net presents a unique challenge and opportunity for one to (1) make the right decision as to what shot to attempt and (2) execute the shot successfully. Don’t wish. Know your abilities, make the right choice, and confidently swing as is appropriate at that moment.

    Alan, confidence is a key factor on every swing (and in every sport)! thanks, george

  7. WARNING: My stuff bores most players to death. . .

    Jerry’s YouTube video is excellent for several reasons. Have found that particular online teaching pro to be generally excellent.

    To the original question about swing length, I’d think it would be appropriate to define “length”.

    Note Dimitrov’s nice, slow motion forehand in that video. His hand doesn’t move all that far – like with most all ATP forehands. The long axis of his racquet head changes something like 130° – in a very short period of time. *That’s* an efficient way to generate racquet head speed. Note also how long his racquet face remains essentially vertical *and* facing the target. Could talk about *that* for a *long* time. So, is it a long swing?

    Few compare to the Fed with watching the ball. Have watched a jillion slow-motion videos of tennis strokes on YouTube and elsewhere. Have also done about that many “freeze frame” screen shots from them and posted them by categories in my Flickr albums. I don’t think I’ve ever found an instance of a WTA player with her eyes on the ball, Federer -style. George’s gaze in his pic is more typical. It can obviously be made to work. . .

    Had also noticed that Federer, after contact with his slice backhand, is sometimes actually looking *behind* the contact point (I think).

    Had no idea that Fred was as big a logic nerd as I. 🙂 Would love to read about the specifics of his systematic determination of shot accuracy. I *do* recall commenting about the *precision* of his forehand, rather than the pace, after he took me apart in singles in New Orleans. 🙂

    Kevin, thanks for coming to my defense! george

  8. My immediate reaction to the picture was not that George was not looking at the ball but the position of the ball on impact. It definitely looked too far back which is so common with many players. I have always found when the contact is a little bit in front, the power is so much more. Related to that when the contact is back, the ball is hit with the arm. When the contact is forward, the ball is more naturally hit with the body and it naturally becomes more effortless. One of the great side effects of this is limiting injury to the shoulder and possibly the arm. I know when I make that contact just right in front, I get that feeling of “magic” which to me is total effortlessness. Coolest feeling.

    Dave, no question… one of the skills the pros have that we mere mortals don’t is incredible timing. One of the things to strive for. thanks, george

  9. Many, many mis-hits and errors are caused by our eye shifting off our point of contact too soon. There’s a fabulous training device called The Tennis Eye Coach. It’s designed to strengthen the eyes at the point of contact. Learn to keep your eyes on the point of contact for a brief moment (actually, for one recovery step) after the ball leaves your strings and your tennis life will change!

    Greg, thanks for the tip. george

  10. To add to the last comment…try and hit that soft ball in your strike zone. If it is lob or high bouncing ball let it drop, be in the ready position and when it comes down hit it where you want with the added plus that you may disguise your shot by being ready!

    Terry, being ready and moving your feet are critical! thanks, george

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