Topspin is one of the most widely used techniques in the game of tennis. Topspin can be applied to forehand shots, backhands, lobs, and serves. We will focus primarily on the use of topspin on groundstrokes, namely forehand and backhand shots, though the technique is similar with topspin lobs.
There are essentially two main factors that determine topspin. The first is the angle of the racket head, the second is the direction of swing. To create topspin, it’s necessary to swing up and brush the back of the ball when making contact while simultaneously angling the racket slightly face down so it is in a closed position.
The purpose of topspin in tennis is to allow for greater power on shots while keeping the ball within the boundaries of the court. Topspin also causes a ball to bounce high and move aggressively towards your opponent.
In addition, by using topspin you can more easily clear the net. This increases the percentage of success of your shots. A flat shot, in contrast, generates a great deal of power but at the risk of hitting the net or being long.
The Physics Behind a Topspin Shot
Topspin is generated by the forward rotation of a tennis ball and its interaction with air during movement. Topspin creates a downward force on a ball so that it drops more quickly than it would otherwise if hit flat.
Due to rotation, the air friction on the top surface of the ball is greater than the friction on the bottom which in turn creates more pressure on the top. This forces the ball down at a greater velocity.
From a practical standpoint, this effect can be used to create a higher bounce and to allow you to hit with more power while keeping the ball in play. Let’s take a look at the techniques involved when hitting a tennis ball with topspin.
1. Start with the Right Grip
When first starting to learn the game, you may want to get used to the concept of topspin by using less aggressive grips. The eastern or semi-western grips can work well for beginners on the forehand side and the continental grip for backhand topspin shots.
As you become more comfortable with the form you can progress to a more extreme grip such as the western on the forehand or an eastern backhand grip. These grips will allow you to generate even more topspin without sacrificing too much power.
You can work your way into these more extreme grips. There is no reason why you can’t hit with adequate amounts of topspin using the eastern forehand, semi-western forehand and continental backhand grips as long as you swing up on the ball during contact.
To learn more about the different types of grips, see the article on how to grip a tennis racket correctly. It explains the grips mentioned in greater detail.
2. Turn Your Shoulders Early
Once you know whether the ball is coming to your forehand or backhand side, turn your body right away in that direction so that your non-hitting shoulder faces the net. As you do this, start to move your racket back and use your non-hitting arm as a counterbalance.
Use your non-hitting hand to help guide the racket back as you rotate your shoulders and hips to the side. You should rotate your shoulders together as a unit. Rotation should be around your torso.
Let the rotation of your shoulders lead the racket back, don’t just rotate your arm. By turning your shoulders to lead the racket back you also ensure that the racket doesn’t turn too far back behind you.
If you are using a more closed or neutral stance, you will pivot around your back foot at the same time you are turning your shoulders. Step diagonally (forward and to the side) towards the ball with your front leg and bend your knees.
If you are using an open stance, you will still rotate around your torso with both shoulders pivoting simultaneously, but your front leg will not pivot around to the side. Many players today use this stance by preference, but even if you use a more closed stance you may need to use this technique on wide shots where you don’t have time to fully set up.
Since you will likely not be getting your body lower on the ball, you’ll need to compensate by angling your shoulder blades so that the shoulder holding the racket is lower than the non-hitting shoulder.
The open stance is more common on the forehand side. On the backhand side, it is rarely if ever used. Your backhand stroke will be more effective if you turn your body sideways along with both your shoulders when hitting.
3. Lag the Racket Head
After bringing the racket back, pause briefly before bringing it down to initiate the swing. Then drop the racket down and turn the racket head face down so it is roughly parallel to the ground.
As you begin to move your hips and shoulders forward to initiate the forward swing, let the racket lag behind. Your wrist should bend back naturally as the hips and shoulders begin leading the way.
Another way to think of this is that the bottom of the racket handle should be pointing towards the net. This will serve as a coil and set up the shot so that the swinging motion is more natural. It will also position your racket so that the top edge is in front.
By relaxing your wrist, you will create a lag in your stroke which, in turn, will generate greater power and topspin on your shot.
You will notice a difference in the quality of your shots if you implement this technique during play. They will feel more solid, you’ll be able to generate better topspin on the ball, and you’ll have added power on the swing.
4. Lead with the Top Edge of Your Racket
By leading with the top edge of your racket you ensure that the racket head is facing down at an angle. The more extreme your grip, the more the racket face will be closed (facing down). This along with the upward motion to follow is what helps produce the topspin effect.
If you are using an eastern forehand grip, your racket will be less closed during the motion. However, you can compensate for this with your wrist or by bending your knees and getting lower on the ball, while swinging up at a greater angle.
You can also increase the topspin effect by rising as you initiate the swing through the point of contact. If you’ve bent your knees and gotten low on the ball, you can use your legs better to rise up on the swing.
5. Swing Low to High
As you continue the swinging motion in an upward direction, brush up on the ball during contact. The contact point should be somewhere between the face and top of the ball. Keep your eyes fixed on the ball during this entire time.
You need to maintain good eye contact as you strike the ball. This is critical to generating good topspin and hitting the ball in the sweet spot of the racket. Your shots will feel much more solid if you maintain good eye contact.
If you look up at your opponent during the stroke, you will likely mishit the ball. To avoid this, keep your head down as you swing through. This will help you focus on the ball and not on your opponent.
6. Make Contact in Front of the Body
When you make contact with the ball, it should be in front of you. This will allow you to swing up on the ball more effectively since it follows the natural path of the swing motion.
In order to make sure you are able to hit the ball in front of you, prepare early. Pivot your shoulders as soon as you know which side the ball is coming and moving towards the ball.
If your timing is off and you are not able to make contact in front of you, you will need to use your wrist more to generate the topspin, rather than taking advantage of the natural swing trajectory.
This is a less optimal position to be in, but if necessary it is possible to make up for the timing by flicking your wrist up. Sometimes it is the only recourse you have if you don’t have enough time to set up.
This technique should only be used as a last resort. You will not be able to generate nearly as much power on your shot, and probably not much topspin either. Always aim to make contact in front so you don’t have to rely on the wrist shot.
7. Pronate Your Wrist After Contact
The wrist can be used not only in situations where you don’t have enough time to set up but also as a way to add some additional spin on the ball when making contact in front of you.
Most of the topspin effect should come from brushing up on the ball. However, pronating the wrist in a windshield wiper motion can provide some added topspin if used when finishing off a shot.
In addition to the wrist, you can use other joints in your arm such as the elbow or the shoulder to brush up on the ball in order to impart added topspin.
Ideally, you want to use all of these joints in unison to lift the racket and create the topspin effect.
8. Swing Through Across the Opposite Shoulder
Because the main direction of the swing will be both upward and forward, it’s important that you fully follow through across your opposite shoulder. Some players prefer to swing across a bit lower. Either is fine as long as you swing through.
Don’t slow down the swing after making contact with the ball. The momentum of swing should be continuous from start to finish, allow your arm to swing around fully.
If you slow down your arm before swinging around fully, chances are good that you are decreasing your swing before you even strike the ball. This will unintentionally slow down the pace of your shots.
9. Give Yourself Enough Margin of Error Above the Net
As previously mentioned, one of the great advantages of using topspin is that it allows a much larger margin for error. You should aim the ball a few feet above the net to make sure it clears.
By the same token, you want to allow for a reasonable margin of error on the depth of the shot. In other words, you want to hit the ball deep, but not too close to the baseline.
Keep in mind that the topspin itself will force your opponent back. The effect topspin has after bouncing is to move the ball aggressively towards your opponent.
That is the great advantage of topspin, it allows you to hit high probability shots while still generating lots of power and keeping your opponent pinned back on the baseline.
10. Go After the Ball
Be aggressive and go after the ball, don’t wait for it to come to you. Always strive to hit your shots in front of you and not to your side. If you sit back and wait for the ball to get to you, your opponent will have more time to set up.
You want to make sure you are hitting the ball with forward momentum. Try to keep your weight on the balls of your feet. You don’t want to hit your topspin shots on the back of your heels. And you don’t want to back up to hit the ball either.
Remember as well that at the end of the day you are playing the ball. You can’t control what your opponent does on the other end. But, you can dictate what happens with the ball when you make contact with it.
Topspin can be a valuable technique to use during play. It will allow you to hit your shots with great power and at the same time make returning the ball more difficult for your opponent.
Topspin not only allows you to hit harder since the effect makes the ball drop quickly after crossing the net, but it also makes the ball bounce aggressively towards your opponent.
While the modern game has moved towards more extreme grips, there is no reason why you can’t generate ample topspin using a grip you are more comfortable with, such as the eastern forehand grip, semi-western forehand, or the continental grip on the backhand side.
Of course, if you are more comfortable using the western forehand or the eastern backhand, by all means, stick to them. The ball doesn’t really care about the grip you’re using or whether you have an open or closed stance, it will react only to the force and angle you place on your shot.
As long as you employ the steps outlined earlier and practice the stroke regularly, you should be well on your way to hitting powerful topspin groundstrokes that you can use to pin your opponent against the baseline.
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