Photo: Frédéric de Villamil
Recently people have been asking me what the best arm position on the forehand is. Some of the questions I get asked on social media, in my newsletter or in person are:
- Do I get more racket head speed with a straight-arm forehand?
- Is a bent-arm forehand more consistent than a straight-arm forehand?
- Can a straight-arm forehand cause injuries?
- Should I copy Nadal or Federer’s forehand technique?
I didn’t realise there was so much confusion about this but a quick Google search reveals all sorts of conflicting, wrong, and half true tennis tips from amateur coaches and self proclaimed experts.
No wonder people are confused!
So since I haven’t seen any other top level coaches with an understanding of sports biomechanics explain this I’ll do so below. Don’t worry this isn’t rocket science so you’ll get it pretty quick.
Here is what I’ll be covering in this article:
- What a straight-arm forehand is and looks like
- What a bent-arm forehand is and looks like
- The difference between tennis style and tennis technique
- Is a straight-arm forehand or a bent-arm forehand better?
- Why copying Federer and Nadal isn’t always a good idea
- Technique summary and tips
- Frequently asked questions
- Further reading
What is a straight arm forehand?
In tennis a straight arm forehand refers to the arm position of a player as he/she makes contact with the tennis ball. If a players arm has no bend at the elbow at contact point then it is considered a “straight arm forehand”.
Top players who use the straight arm forehand technique:
Although the majority of pro tennis players use have a bent arm on their forehands there are a few notable exceptions:
…and a few other players here and there.
What does a straight arm forehand look like?
Roger Federer probably has this generations most iconic straight-arm forehand. In the image below notice how straight his arm is. His elbow has virtually zero bend as his strings makes contact with the tennis ball. Also, pay attention to how far in front of his body his contact point is (I’ll come back to this later).
Here is what it looks like in slow motion:
What is a bent arm forehand?
A bent arm forehand (some people call it the double-bend forehand) in tennis refers to the elbow bend a player has as she/he makes contact with the ball. So if a player has a comfortable bend at the elbow at contact point it is a “bent arm forehand”.
Top players who use the bent arm forehand technique:
- Novak Djokovic
- Andy Murray
- Stan Wawrinka
- Fabio Fognini
- Jo-Wilfried Tsonga
- Alexander Zverev
- Kei Nishikori
- Dominic Thiem
- Marat Safin
- Fernando Gonzalez
- Pete Sampras
- Maria Sharapova
- Caroline Wozniacki
- Lindsay Davenport
- Serena Williams
…and the list goes on and on.
What does a bent arm forehand look like?
In the image below you’ll see that Novak Djokovic has a bent elbow at contact point. His arm is in a relaxed “handshake” like position as he swings forward and makes contact with the tennis ball. Again, notice where Novak makes contact with the ball in relation to his body (more on this in a minute).
Here is what it looks like in slow motion:
Tennis style vs tennis technique
Before moving on it is important to understand the difference between style and technique.
Style is an individual characteristic and can refer to things like a loopy backswing, unusual off-hand movement, a peculiar body posture, a unique stance, or how a player bounces the ball before serving.
Technique refers to the underlying biomechanical principles and body movements in a tennis stroke. The things that influence power, control, movement and injuries.
Unfortunately a lot of amateur coaches and players get this mixed up. They’ll see a professional players style and try to emulate it thinking it’s the secret to their success. Or they’ll discount a certain player because their style isn’t to their liking.
To truly improve you have to see past style to the underlying biomechanics.
It is possible for a player to have a distinct, unique or quirky style to their tennis strokes while still having fundamentally good technique. And it’s possible to look great on court while having flaws in ones technique.
Straight-arm forehand vs bent-arm forehand
So which forehand arm position is better? What are the benefits/drawbacks?
Like most things in tennis there is no answer that is perfect for everyone. There are always exceptions to the rule. However, from a technical perspective one forehand arm position is superior to the other in almost every way…
Biomechanically speaking the bent-arm forehand is almost always better than a straight-arm forehand.
Benefits of a bent-arm forehand
The main benefits of a bent-arm forehand or “handshake” arm position is that it gives you more control and flexibility while reducing stress on your body.
Remember, you want all the movements of your forehand stroke (the kinetic chain) to work together in harmony. As I explain in this tennis stroke guide, you are looking for the correct amount of:
- Up/down movement
- Side-to-side movement
- Forward/backward momentum
The “handshake” like arm position of the bent arm forehand makes achieving the correct balance of these movements much easier.
Because a bent arm forehand brings your contact point closer to your core which is a stronger more balanced position. From here your body can twist, turn, tilt and adjust all at the same time without causing resistance in your kinetic chain. The result is a fluid, relaxed and stable forehand stroke that is less injury prone.
When developing your forehand try to emulate the handshake arm position that players like Wawrinka, Serena Williams, and Murray have…
Stan Wawrinka slow motion forehand:
Serena Williams slow motion forehand:
Andy Murray slow motion forehand:
Notice how all their forehands all look remarkably similar at contact point.
Drawbacks of a straight-arm forehand
Locking your elbow in place forces you to hit the tennis ball further in front resulting in an unbalanced weakened body position. Making contact with the ball too far in front normally leads to too much “forward/backward “ movement which causes imbalances in other areas of your forehand stroke like rotation and/or side-to-side movement. If you’re doing too much of one thing you have to do less of something else. Also, a straight arm forehand places more stress on your joints which can lead to injury.
There are two main things to keep in mind when considering the pros and cons of a straight arm forehand…
1. Straight lever vs bent lever
A quick look in the city skyline may explain best. Look at a crane on a construction site. As you can see It is not a straight contraption…
A crane is designed to carry and move heavy objects. To do this it is attached to the ground (your body), has an upright beam (your upper arm), a bend (your elbow), then another beam (your forearm). Your arm is the same. Perhaps not the greatest analogy but you get the idea.
The key thing to remember is that a bent lever is more stable and has more strength than a straight one.
OK back to tennis…
2. Tennis hitting zone
The “hitting zone” is the swing path or area where a players racket can make contact with the tennis ball.
Hitting the ball with a straight arm way out front of your body diminishes your hitting zone and leaves no room for error. Slightly miss timing your stroke, a minor error in judgement, a bad bounce, or a gust of wind is likely to cause a loss of control resulting in an error.
Take a look at the Rogers forehand below and notice how he can’t really stretch further in any direction to make contact with the tennis ball.
As you can see, Federer is at the far limit of the hitting zone. If his timing or judgement is off by just a few centimeters the shot is likely to be weak or a mistake.
With a bent arm forehand on the other hand your hitting zone is much longer. Your forehand contact point can range from parallel to your body up to 60+ centimeters in front without losing control.
Notice how Fabio Fognini has the option to make contact with the ball further in front or further back if he has to:
This gives you a greater margin for error. You can hit the ball a little late or a bit early and still produce a successful shot without compromising control or power.
This flexibility is not only important for shot consistency (especially if you’re having a bad day) but doubly important in windy conditions or when playing on inconsistent court surfaces.
Basically, a straight arm forehand simply lacks many of the benefits a bent arm forehand has. The result of this tends to be less control, flexibility and power in your forehand stroke while heightening the chance of injury. In other words, with a straight arm you end up with a lower margin of error and more miss-hits in your tennis game.
In fact, the drawbacks of the straight arm forehand can snowball and lead to further disruptions in your kinetic chain. For example: Because you have to hit the ball further in front you’ll be more likely to adopt a closed stance forehand. This in turn further reduces your ability to rotate and causes additional strain on your knee. Not good.
Federer, Nadal & Del Potro have straight-arm forehands. What about them?
Yes, there are exceptions to the rule with Rafael Nadal and Roger Federer being the two obvious examples…
As explained above, players with a straight arm at contact point have a small hitting zone. Because of this they have to be incredibly good at moving and positioning their body ALL the time as there is very little room for error. I think it’s fair to say these players are among greats as far as movement goes. I would also surmise that you may well need this level of talent and movement to develop a great straight arm forehand.
Unfortunately for most people, this level of talent is extremely rare…
So as strange as it might sound, rather than emulate them in this situation, Roger and Rafa are great examples of why you shouldn’t always copy the pros.
In the 80’s I clearly remember how everyone was trying to copy the serve of John McEnroe who had an unusual and extreme side on stance. Coaches and kids all over the world were experimenting. However, most forgot that McEnroe is one of the greatest talents ever (certainly the most naturally gifted player I ever played against). At the end of the day all who tried to emulate him failed.
The truth is that just like how McEnroe’s serve was good despite his side on service stance, Roger and Rafa’s forehands are good despite their straight arm technique.
Not because of it.
Remember, these players are among the greatest players ever and are so talented that they can compensate for the quirks and errors in their tennis technique. Even so they still require lots of practice and fine tuning to keep their forehands consistent.
The straight-arm is not the feature that makes Roger and Rafa’s forehands good. It’s all the other technical stuff they are doing well combined with amazing movement and balance.
Also, keep in mind that when Nadal and Federer don’t play well and loose it’s often because their forehands become erratic. In fact, it’s a sign we commentators look for as matches get close. Their opponents know this and often build their strategy around breaking it down. Having said this, it is also a shot they depend on to play aggressively so they’re playing a high risk tactics.
As you now know, blindly emulating a player just because you like their style or they’re number one in the world isn’t always a good idea. Instead analyse their stroke and emulate only the best elements of their technique and ignore the rest.
Can a straight arm work for me consistently? Possibly, but in my opinion it will take a greater amount of practice and/or natural skill to do so. At the end of the day the decision is yours.
The key takeaway is a bent-arm is more likely to work for you. From a technical and biomechanical standpoint it is stronger. So consider the “handshake” arm position best practice. Will it guarantee a great forehand? Obviously not. But will maximise your chances of developing one with training? Absolutely.
Frequently asked questions:
Will a straight arm forehand give me more racket head speed?
Not necessarily. Most speed is developed through the backswing and first part of the swing towards the ball which of course includes the wrist laying back and snapping forward. So most racket head speed is built up before the racket head comes through and finally contacts the ball. If you look closely enough you’ll actually see that the racket head slows down a bit at contact. This is the case for both straight arm and bent arm forehands so both techniques can generate more or less the same amount of racket head speed.
Is a slight bent at the elbow enough?
A slight bend at the elbow (like Marin Cilic) is better than zero bend as it’ll reduce stress on your body. But only a slight bend still means you’re close to the far end of your hitting zone. Adopting a handshake like arm position will increase the size of your hitting zone and give you more flexibility and control.
How important is footwork and movement for a straight arm forehand?
Because your margin of error is lower with a straight arm forehand having footwork and movement is crucial. It’s no coincidence that players with a good straight arm forehand are also some of the best movers in the game.
You might also like…
- Tennis 101: The 6 Basic Strokes Explained Step-by-Step
- The Greatest Forehand in Tennis
- How To “Watch The Ball” Like A Pro In Tennis
- What Makes a Tennis Champion? Natural Talent or Hard Work?
- The Correct Head Position for Better Tennis Technique
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