Look at the way Iga Swiatek (20), the number 1 in the world, holds her racket. The knuckles of her hand point to the ground. The palm of her hand is under the handle of the racket. Her arm is bent. It seems impossible to hit a ball well over the net now. But just by holding the racket like this, she can give the ball a huge sway with her forehand. She makes the most bizarre angles on the tennis court with this grip. With the ‘western grip’ the Polish can swing her racket extremely aggressively, much more than with more conventional grips.
The quick upward movement, like a windshield wiper, gives the tennis ball a lot of effect. This extreme rotation of the ball, ‘topspin’, causes the ball to go high over the net and then descend quickly. Swiatek can hit almost any ball with full force, because the ball bounces back inside the lines, thanks to the extreme topspin. After the bounce, the rotating ball ‘shoots’ extremely far. It is a stroke that certainly gives her a big advantage on clay. Partly for this reason, Swiatek is the big favorite for Roland Garros.
A tennis grip hasn’t always looked like this. Who looks back on the victory of American tennis champion Billie Jean King at the US Open in 1971, sees a tennis star with a much less extreme grip: the ‘continental’. With this, a tennis player holds the racket as you shake someone’s hand.
With this classic hold, the most common until well into the 1970s, King (now 78) gracefully punches through the ball. It was important to ‘point after’ the ball and make as long a swing as possible. The longer the better. The wrist remained tight around the racket to place flat balls over the net. Those balls stayed low on the grass.
King played with her wooden racket at a time when placement was more important than speed. Service volley was the norm, you won the match at the net.
The Swede Björn Borg, who won six times Roland Garros and five times Wimbledon from 1976 to 1981, was a pioneer. He held his racket differently, in a style called “eastern,” a term derived from the Eastern US playing style.
Borg (now 65) turned his fingers down a few inches, giving him room to swing his racket more upwards instead of horizontally. He hit topspin. Instead of rushing every point to the net, he could also win points from the baseline. He had found a way to hit hard but still keep the ball in play. The trajectory of the ball became more and more a ‘curve’.
After the Borg era, plastic rackets ensured that the balls could be hit even harder. Eastern grip topspin became the norm in the 1980s and 1990s. Roger Federer (40), whose comeback is expected in the fall after knee surgery, is still playing with this grip. Partly because of this, the game of the Swiss has a classic look.
A player with a completely different vision was Alberto Berasategui, a Spanish tennis player who reached the final of Roland Garros in 1994. He was one of the first tennis players with an extreme ‘western grip’, where his hand was under the racket. He was a sensation, which tennis fans sometimes looked at with a bit of pity.
Berasategui’s grip was so extreme that he played his backhand with the same side of the racket as his forehand, because he didn’t have time to turn his racket properly for his backhand. His exotic grasp would not be imitated. His way of playing tennis generated a lot of topspin, but was clumsy for other strokes and put extreme pressure on the wrist.
Berasategui emphatically pushed the limits of the tennis grip. Every top player sees that as much topspin as possible is often optimal, but the grip must remain workable. The interim solution came about twenty years ago with the ‘semi-western’. From the eastern, the hand on the handle of the racket turned slightly clockwise again. It is the grip Rafael Nadal, number 1 in the world Novak Djokovic and of most of the current top 100 in the world. They benefited from stiffer rackets and better strings, allowing each ball to be hit over the net with extremely high topspin.
The semi-western grip dictates a completely different way of hitting. Where in the past mainly the arm did the work, the whole body is now required to generate power and topspin. The legs have become more important. They push off against the ground and initiate the rotation of the hip. This handle also has an important disadvantage. So much is demanded of the wrist joint that the number of wrist injuries in tennis has increased.
“Nowadays, partly due to modern grips, you see enormous accelerations of the racket head, whereby the ball gets a lot of spin and speed,” says Frits ten Bruggencate. “Everyone at the top is so physically strong that they can hit every ball.” Ten Bruggencate used to coach the Dutchman Martin Verkerk, finalist at Roland Garros in 2003, and now trains full-time with talents who all play with a semi-western grip or even western. “The racket gets an enormous acceleration from the hips and acceleration from the arm and hand. You see that nine out of ten children who follow a tennis training, nowadays play semi-western. Semi-western is no longer an extreme grip, that is the western grip,” says Ten Bruggencate.
The way Iga Swiatek holds her racket in the western grip is very popular with a select group of top players. They are looking for an extreme amount of topspin. The Norwegian Casper Ruud, number 8 in the world, hits forehandballs with this grip that fly over the net at 3,564 rotations per minute (measured last year at the masters tournament in Monte Carlo). Even more intense than Nadal’s topspin.
Tennis talents will look to Swiatek’s tennis and try to copy it. But in the race for increasingly extreme tennis grips, her swing and style seem to be the end point for now.
It is interesting to study Carlos Alcaraz (19), the Spaniard who conquers the tennis world with his all-round game. The speed and topspin in Alcaraz’s shots are impressive. Yet he does not play with an extreme grip, but with the semi-western. The advantage of this is that he can hit volleys, slice and drop shots, without taking his grip excessively. The volley and service are still played from the continental grip by most top tennis players. Tennis players often have to change grips after hitting a ball. The faster this can be done, the easier.
Alcaraz’s all-round play, hard balls combined with a velvet touch and brilliant drop shots, is what makes his game so good. Alcaraz also has the ability to hit a little flatter with his grip, if necessary.
In fact, his playing is a step backwards towards Billie Jean King’s grasp rather than a step forward.
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