As a full-time teaching professional, I am always seeking better ways to teach my students and occasionally, I get to gain a concept or phrase which I had not heard before.
This past week, I had a wonderful group of players from Durango, Colorado and was working on the serve. Quite often I come across players who serve using a continental grip after first learning to serve with an inferior eastern forehand grip. What sometimes happens during this learning period is that the player will unconsciously shift the grip in mid-swing, reverting to the more familiar and comfortable eastern forehand grip.
When I mentioned this to one of my students, (Karen Spear — who I promised I would give credit to!), she said, “Dave, so I’ve got Grip Drift?”
Grip Drift! I hadn’t heard the concept phrased that way before and it made me laugh. I agreed, “Yes, Karen, you have ‘Grip Drift.'”
This concept, (well phrased by my student!), is actually fairly common among players of different abilities. In fact, I was working with a Top 500 world-ranked player (A.J. Bartlett) who, several years ago, was having tremendous difficulty in hitting his second serve with consistency and pace.
A.J. had spent the previous year in Florida at a fairly well-known teaching facility and came back to his former home town of St. George to have me look at his game, and, in particular, his serve. I had taught A.J. as a junior and his parents wanted to get him some international competition, taking him to Florida for the best opportunity. Within three serves, it became obvious: sure enough, in the middle of his backswing, A.J. was shifting his grip towards the eastern forehand which prohibited ideal racquet position within the swing pattern to create optimal spin axis and rotation.
Of course, the largest contingent of players who experience grip drift are those who indeed started with the eastern forehand grip on the serve. The problem lies in the backswing: when the racquet moves back to the collapse or “trophy” position, the player’s focus moves completely to the ball that has been tossed in the air. At this point, the familiarity of the grip takes over. Because the arm moves in a unique back-and-forth manner, the seeds are sowed to switch the grip towards the eastern forehand.
Conscious control of the racquet needs to be maintained within the backswing. There are a few ways that players can do this: hold a penny or other coin in the palm when you serve. Unless you have a very sweaty hand, the coin will usually fall to the ground if you switch grips on the backswing. Just having the coin in your hand is usually enough to help a player maintain conscious feel of the grip.
Another tool is to grip the racquet with the bottom two fingers tightly, letting the index finger and middle finger hold fairly loose. This grip position, when held offers feedback as to any grip drift that might be occurring.
Remember, if you have first learned to serve with an eastern forehand grip, there are several other factors that must be changed when learning to serve with the continental grip. You need to stay sideways much longer within the swing. (Players will typically open up the shoulders on the toss to face the net if they first learned to serve with an eastern forehand grip.) The swing path is different in that the player will keep the elbow higher and back longer allowing the racquet head to accelerate past the hand and forearm.
Most players using the eastern forehand grip align up into the “waiter’s grip” position leading with the elbow and pulling the elbow down to bring the racquet head square to the ball. At higher levels, players learn to push off on their front foot (left foot for right-handed players) and land on this foot using the continental grip and swing pattern. Players swinging with an eastern forehand grip tend to step through with their back leg. This obviously causes the player to rotate around, bringing the body forward as in facing the net.
These changes (in addition to the grip change) make the transition to the continental grip and subsequent proper swing pattern so very difficult. But, once a player has recognized these key elements, can isolate them, practice the proper concepts (at slow speeds at first (since players who swing faster tend to automatically revert back to their old, familiar muscle memory!), and consciously employ them in competition, the transition can become complete and the player will be well on his or her way to mastering the serve!
David W. Smith is a Senior Editor at TennisOne, read more at www.TennisOne.com.
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