Why We Play the Way They Play

How Practicing the Continental Grip Will Make Us Better Players

I’ve seen it time and again. Players working on their open-stance forehand with their bent elbows and breaking wrists trying to hit the ball like Rafael Nadal. I get it, just like you, I’ve dreamt of hitting just one forehand as big and as bad ass as Rafa’s … and yet it’s never happened.

But why?

We both live in the same physical world, we both breath the same air, my tennis balls are yellow too!

Maybe it’s because I started playing in the seventies with wood racquets and was taught by an Australian who demanded that I learn the one-handed backhand and serve-and-volley game. Perhaps it’s because I grew up in the Northeastern United States where slap-shot-indoor-tennis dominated the ranks.   

As it happened, my inability to hit the ball like these western-grip wielding legends started me to thinking why I or any amateur should be trying to hit the ball like them. We don’t have to deal with the same pace as they do, and rarely if ever do we face the same ferocious spin that they put on the ball. So then why do we try so vigorously to hit the ball like our heroes?

It’s because we have a need to mimic them

I’m the first to admit that I’ve tried to serve like Johnny Mac and volley like Martina. I’ve tried rip a Wawrinka backhand up the line and yes I’ve played around with perhaps the most elegant stroke in the history of the game, the Bjorn Borg two-handed backhand (you’ve got to let go of the racquet with the left hand at the end of the stroke). Does it make me a better player? I’m not so sure. I’ve taught thousands of hours and probably played more and yet the thing that helps me the most as a player and as a coach is my understanding of the ‘classic’ game of tennis. The game I grew up playing. The game that was so prevalent for decades and has been over shadowed by the smash and crash, monster serve and gnarly forehands of the ‘modern game’ or as I prefer to call it the ‘professional game’. Don’t get me wrong, I’m amazed by the dynamism of today’s tennis. These players have an almost unnatural ability to drop the ball on a dime from eighty-five feet away (the court is 78 feet long) in the biggest moments and though I marvel at their skills and how professional tennis has evolved I also believe that, unfortunately, the ‘modern game’ is,  from the everyday player’s perspective, misunderstood.

What’s Different

You see, the playing style changed to accommodate the heavier spins that began to take hold in the late 80’s and early 90’s. Then with the advent of the polyester strings the spins and by consequence the grips became more extreme in order to hit the high ball with consistency and strength. Players had to be bigger, stronger, faster and hit with more racquet head speed than could be previously imagined in order to keep up with the new face of tennis.

I know you already know all of this stuff though, so I’ll get to it. The point is that although we would like to play a ‘professional game’ the truth is that a huge majority of us would benefit from being trained in the ‘classic method.’  As I lamented earlier, we simply don’t hit the ball that hard, nor do we spin the ball that much, but just as important, the players that we are facing do not hit the ball with the vigor, spin and pace of the pros we admire so much. And although we were left behind we have tried determinately to play as if we are on the pro tour.

What we can take from the “Classic Method”

The classic game is the basis and the structure for today’s ‘modern game’. The uninterrupted and rhythmic footwork, the focus on the contact point, the proper spacing and full extension at contact, the use of body weight for power and leverage, the follow through, the recovery and one’s ability to recreate it successfully and then do it all again and again and again…

But again and again I see players practicing the open stance and blasting away at their groundstrokes. But what about the low ball or the approach shot or the volley for that matter? In many instances we have forsaken our backhands for bigger forehands but have found ourselves out of position. We have turned away from learning the art of coming to the net and putting pressure on our opponents in order to produce results. Some would say that serve and volley is dead. But tell that to the Men’s first seed at the Australian Open this year. The truth is that these shots and styles are possible with one’s ability to transition to one grip. The Continental.

Ten Shots, One Grip

I’m a great believer in the notion that if you practice something properly and often then you will get better at it. I often see juniors and adults play a terrific point from the baseline and then receive a low-short ball or a wide shot that they are unable handle efficiently because they cannot use the most basic grip in their repertoire, the Continental Grip. The difference between great ‘modern style’ players and not so great ‘modern style’ players is their ability to transition from one grip to another with ease and with little or no thought. The Continental is truly ‘the utility grip’ in tennis and the greatest ‘modern’ players in the world are able to exploit it in the most intense situations. Every player should have it in their arsenal yet it is often neglected in practice and therefore botched in match situations. Below are the ten shots in which a player can use a Continental Grip:

1.   Serve (first and second)

2.   Backhand (one and two-handed)

3.   Slice Backhand

4.   Wide Slice Forehand    

5.   Low Short Balls (Forehand and Backhand)

6.   Forehand Volley

7.   Backhand Volley

8.   Half Volley

9.   Drop Shot

10. Overhead

Practicing the Continental

Let’s get on the same page here. I think that you should, for the most part, stick to what got you to this point but find opportunities to work on the Continental grip. For instance your warm up is a great time to work on it. Feed the ball with a Continental when starting a rally. Imagine how you could simplify your game by adopting one grip whenever you go to the net. We are always trying to simplify our lives. Why not our games too? Start to feel how you’ll have to move your feet and rotate to the side in order to get the desired result. Get a sense of how much easier it is to get under a low ball with the proper grip. Believe me it won’t be easy at first but in time practicing the Continental grip will help you strengthen your arm and clean up some of the difficulties you’ve been having on some of those tough shots. 

In the mean time I’ll set my sights a little less loopy and dream of hitting the ball just once like Roger Federer… I know, fat chance. But I can dream.     

2 comments on “Why We Play the Way They Play

  1. Great article! The continental grip should definitely be used more often!


  2. Shand Stephens



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