The Best Shots in Tennis – 2. The Forehand

Roger Federer embeForehand

You have never won a French Open, even though you could have won the title multiple times in any other era. The same player has vanquished you for the last four years, each year more convincingly than the previous. This year, that same person bows out in the early rounds, and all the pressure is on you to win the title. Yet, you find yourself two sets down, 3-4 down and a break point down on your serve. It is a virtual match point given that the opponent was not broken since the start.

Roger Federer Forehand

What do you do? You hit a massive inside-out forehand wide from the ad court, which barely catches the line on the opposite side of the court for a scorching winner. You save the break point, save your serve, save the match, and go on to win the only Major that had eluded you so far. Greatness. Rather, GOATness.

In the 90s, the dynamics of the faster courts, inferior string technologies, and relatively poor levels of returns made the big serve-first volley crucial to a Major success (think Pete Sampras, Boris Becker, Stefan Edberg). The dynamics have now changed to the big-serve, big-forehand combination. In fact, forehand has become the single most important stroke in tennis (even more than the serve—think Rafael Nadal) given the way the game has advanced.

Players can virtually control the game only using their forehand, be it with a cross court punch for a winner, a down the line forehand following it up to the net, or pushing the opponent out of the court with a massive inside out heave. And in the worst case, they can hit a running forehand cross-court to leave their opponent at the net staring in disbelief. Winners out of the forehand wing far outweigh the winners from any other stroke in tennis, be it serve, backhand, or volleys (duh!). In fact, the biggest reason why Andy Murray and Novak Djokovic have not won more Majors despite great all round games is because of the lack of a big forehand.

And the size and build of modern players has given the game some of the biggest forehands we have ever seen in Tennis. Be it the ugliness in the massive, huge heave of Robin Soderling, the effectiveness of Tomas Berdych, or the explosiveness of Andy Roddick (that is, before he converted into a grinder) or Jo Wilfried Tsonga, big forehands have become a norm. However, the massiveness of the forehands also come with their weakness. Soderling cannot hit them in windy conditions or when made to run because of his huge backswing, Berdych inevitably breaks down under pressure, and Roddick, well he does not hit them with that explosiveness anymore.

This leaves us with three contenders.

Juan Martin del Potro won the U. S. Open ’09 with the biggest and flattest forehand ever seen in the tennis history. In the final, he outplayed Federer by hitting 37 forehand winners as opposed to only 20 by Federer. What makes his forehand so effective is not only the flatness and the speed, but the minimal backswing that he requires to unleash this stroke, which makes it ideal for all conditions and situations.

If Del Potro has the flattest forehand we have ever seen, Nadal has the loopiest one. It is not amazing is not that he can generate incredible amounts of topspin on all surfaces. What is amazing is how can do it time after time in the most pressure situations given the extremely unorthodox technique he has. Even more amazing is the variety and evolution of the forehand, be it the adjustment to make it flatter on hard courts and grass (he has four Majors on these surfaces now) or the ridiculously curving banana swing forehand on the run. Of course, you know the point is about to end once he shapes up to fly in the air and hit that inside out forehand.

But even Rafa’s forehand has its limitations, and even now he sometimes struggles to return fast, deep balls. But there is one person against whom it will be hard to find any such weakness. He hss the best of both the worlds—he can hit it flat and almost any desired angle, hit with huge topspin second only behind Rafa, hit it on the run or create winners from center of the baseline.

This clip of his Australian Open matchup against Tommy Haas demonstrates that what this man can do with his forehand borders on the realm of the impossible.

The main reason why his forehand (or for that matter, any shot) is so effective is because of his great footwork. During the days, when he was THE Roger Federer, and not FedError or Shankerer (as his fans lovingly call him), he had such control and confidence on this shot that the ball seemed to wait an extra fraction of second just before it hit his racket. Jason Goodall further describes the Federer forehand.

In fact, the Federer forehand is not only the best among the contemporaries, but is possibly the best forehand of all times. That his forehand is as eye pleasing as it can ever get only makes his case stronger.

Winner: Roger Federer

Close Seconds: Rafael Nadal, Juan Martin del Potro

Honorable Mentions: Tomas Berdych, Robin Soderling, Jo-Wilfried Tsonga

Fearsome Firepower: The Serena Williams Forehand

The Women

Winner: Serena Williams

Close Seconds: Kim Clijsters, Justine Henin, Ana Ivanovic

Honorable Mentions: Svetlana Kuznetsova, Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova, Samantha Stosur, Elena Dementieva

Articles in the same series

1. The Serve

3. The Return of serve

4. The Volley

5. The Drop Shot

6. Movement

7. The Backhand

8. The Head

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