The Art and Science of Victory
Semi-Western Forehand

This stroke is everywhere. It is used by the vast majority of the playing pros and it is the most common flavor of forehand taught to hot-shot juniors. It is so popular that it has been given a flashy, madison-avenue name; 'Millennium Forehand'.

It is also a very flashy stroke. It has a long graceful backswing and a slashing follow-through. It generates reliable topspin for a consistent ball that you can hit as hard as you want. It is hit with an open stance which simplifies footwork and saves a step compared with the eastern or continental forehands. It is unquestionably the best stroke to have when you are stuck behind the baseline in the Defensive Zone. You can probe your opponents defenses with wide, deep drives and worry the net rusher with penetrating passes and diving dipping droppers.

So why shouldn't everyone use the millennium forehand? It is not the best type of forehand for an aggressive player who likes to come to net. It is difficult to hit a slice approach shot with the western grip, and charging to net behind a high-bounching topspin is downright suicidal. The grip is pretty stinky for hitting the forehand volley and it is hard to switch quickly from the semi-western to a continental or eastern backhand volley grip. To adopt this grip is to accept the role of the defensive counter puncher.

The Stroke

Semi-western forehand - a.k.a the 'Millennium Forehand'

The Western Forehand is an integrated stroke from grip to footwork. The stroke absolutely requires the semi-western grip, an open stance, a full, high backwsing followed by a dropped racquet head and a "windshield wiper' follow through. It is a fairly inflexible stroke; if you fail to do any of these things the ball will dribble into the base of the net or fly over the back fence, but the stroke does allow for some variation of the follow through to vary the power/topspin ratio.

The keys to the semi-western forehand:

  • Footwork
  • Backswing
  • Point-of-Contact
  • Follow Through
  • The Turn of the screw

This stroke has paved the road to glory for more of the current playing pros than any other stroke.

 
Footwork

Semi-western forehand footwork - Note the open stance. Weight is all on the right foot at point of contact then shifts to the left as the racquet travels across the body ('windshield-wiper forehand')

This stroke is hit from right to left: the racquet head follows a course from the right knee across the body to the left shoulder traveling up and across the back of the ball imparting heavy topspin. To stay on balance weight must be transferred from the right foot to the left with an open stance, i.e. with the pelvis parallel to the net. To address the ball, plant the right foot with your toe one racquet length to your side of the line-of-flight of the ball with all weight on that foot. As the racquet follows through across the body catch your weight on the left foot. Often the pros leave the ground momentarily during the weight transfer. This is particularly usefully on a wide ball and allows you to fly through the point of contact and work on stopping your lateral momentum during the follow-through and recovery phases instead of during the stroke itself.

Power from the legs and torso comes from rotation of the hips.

Backswing

Semi-western forehand backswing - Note the long, looping swing that carries the racquet head below the point of contact and uses gravity to increase racquet head speed.

You must get the racquet head moving up through the ball for topspin so the key to the backswing is to get the racquet head below the ball. The quickest way to do this would be to drop the racquet head straight back and down, but then you would have to stop its backward-downward momentum, then get it moving forward and up which fritters away alot of energy. More efficient, though more time consuming, is to bring the racquet back high then drop it below the level of the ball. The natural pendulum motion of the arm will transform the downward momentum into upward momentum. This way gravity is working with you instead of against you. This will guarantee the racquet head speed that is essential for heavy topspin.
Point of Contact

Semi-western point-of-contact - is farther back than the classical forehand and the elbow is bent.

The racquet head is below the level of the wrist. If you drop the racquet head with the eastern or continental grips you will be slapping the ball on its buttocks and it will sail over the back fence.

The ball is contacted just in front of the right foot. This is pretty far back compared with the eastern or continental forehands which are hit just in front of the left foot with closed stance so the ball is contacted earlier - well out in front of the body. This means that with the semi-western forehand you have a few more precious milliseconds to finish the backswing - critical on hard-hit incoming balls such as as when you are returning a hard serve. Many of the best returns in tennis are hit with the semi-western grip.

At the point of contact the elbow is bent. This is monster. It is at the crux of what makes this stroke very effective but also very disruptive. It is why new millennium baseliners don't go to net:

  • Effective - Think of your forearm and the racquet as one blade of a propeller. Your upper arm is then the drive shaft of the propeller. In the millennium forehand the upper arm rotates at the shoulder, driving the forearm and racquet in an arc ('windshield-wiper followthrough'). This results in incredible racquet-head speed and viscous topspin with all of its benefits.
  • Disruptive - The 'classic' forehands, including the forehand volley, are hit with a straight elbow. Topspin is achieved by dragging the racquet head up through the ball from the shoulder with the wrist and forearm helping a little. The result is rather anemic topspin compared to the semi-western forehand, but greater versatility; you can hit topspin, flat and underspin with the same grip and hitting softly (i.e. 'touch shots') is easier with the classic forehand. Although it is very easy to switch between the continental/eastern and semi-western grips, the co-ordination of the shoulder, elbow, forearm and wrist are radically different between these strokes. Most practitioners of the semi-western forehand simply limp along using that grip for the volley, drop shot, etc. but the results are...suboptimal.

There is particularly brilliant solution to this dilemma - the 'Federer Forehand', which combines the topspin generation and control of the millennium forehand with the straight elbow at point-of-contact of the classic forehand.

Follow Through

Semi-western follow through-Note the graceful arc that the racquet draws through the air. The racquet face is pointing at the court throughout most of the followthrough - This results in consistency in the face of a miss-timed ball and versatility in that the stroke can handle a knee or head-high ball as easily as one in the 'power zone' at waist level.

With your racquet swooping up past the ball with remarkable head speed, it is amazing that you can get the ball into the strings at all. The key to solid contact and consistent trajectory in the semi-western forehand is how long the face of the racquet points towards the target. The racquet is pulled up and across the body as though you are washing a wall with the racquet face. This is sometimes referred to as the 'windshield-wiper' follow-through. Even if your timing is a bit off, your racquet will still be pointing into the court.

You keep the racquet face pointing into the court by pronating the forearm as you finish the follow through.

The Turn of the Screw

The Turn of the Screw - Fine tuning the amount of topspin verses pace. On the left is a tighter turn for more spin and on the left a looser turn for more power.

When you hit the semi-western forehand:

  • You must always hit the ball as hard as you can.
  • You must always hit the ball on the same upward trajectory - aiming at a pont 2-3 feet over the net.
  • You must always hit the ball with a full backswing and follow through.

How then do you vary the pace, height and bite of the ball off of your strings? With all topspin, including the serve, there is an inherent power to spin ratio. If you hit with constant effort, (a very good idea if you want to promote consistency and prevent your emotions from influencing your shots), then increasing topspin will decrease pace and vice versa. If you want to drop a ball at a net rusher's feet, you increase the topspin by increasing the angle-of-attack of the racquet at the point of contact. The more you 'brush up the back' of the ball the more spin you get and the less pace. Note I did not say less power, because you are investing the same amount of energy into the shot, you are just putting more of it towards maximizing spin. The effect of increasing the angle-of-attack can be dramatic - increasing topspin and reducing pace both tend to reduce the depth of the ball so you can aim higher over the net, go for more angle, or find your opponent's shoetops. When you need more pace and depth, say to blow one through your opponents bellybutton, you decrease the angle-of-attack. You don't have to change your racquet face or your effort; you can wail away on every shot. This is like gold when you are a bit nervous or at a critical point. You can be more conservative just by increasing the topspin on your balls, instead of trying to 'hit softer'.

Hitting softer is bad: it is a different stroke - one you probably don't usually use, don't own and therefore shouldn't use. It will make you more inconsistent, not less. You have to aim higher, changing the face of your racquet. You don't get any topspin to help the ball go in. You are also letting your opponent take it to you.The best thing is to pound away - the same on every stroke - and simply vary the amount of spin.

The technique for accomplishing this on the millennium forehand is simply to change the degree of elbow flexion - more 'bent' for more topspin and less for less (and more power). The result of less elbow flexion is a 'longer' or 'looser' follow through. It is like the threads on a screw - the closer together (or 'tighter') the threads the more spin and less power you get. The ultimate 'tight thread' variation is the buggy whip. As you extend the elbow and extend the follow through more into the court you get a marked increase in pace with a concomitant decrease in topspin.

Variations

Semi-western forehand variations - At the extremes of power verses topspin are the Buggy Whip and Federer Forehand. The difference is in the elbow and the tightness of the follow through.

If you follow through by your left ear with a bent elbow and a semi-western grip you are hitting the millennium forehand. You can vary the topspin and pace by tightening or loosening the follow through but it is still the basic semi- western forehand. At the extremes of this adjustment we discover two interesting variations on the semi-western forehand:

  • Buggy Whip - When topspin is what you want, the buggy whip is what you need. The follow through is so tight that the racquet ends up next to the right ear. This stroke is very useful for handling short, low balls and some pros, such as Maria Sharapova, use it as their primary weapon.
  • Federer Forehand - This amazing stroke brings together the best characteristics of the classic forehand and the millennium forehand. It it hit with a straight elbow at the point of contact and a very 'loose' follow through so it is quite powerful, yet there is still considerable and controllable topspin on the ball.