Sticky Elbow Syndrome

Here’s one of the most common forehand errors I see. People may have reached the point where they can hit with topspin, and they are trying hard to copy a pro with their swing mechanics. But for some reason they just can’t seem to hit through the ball with  much pace.

The bad thing here is when people let that right elbow stick in tight to their waist on the takeback. If that elbow sticks in right beside your waist in the ready-position, then when you turn your body, it stays there. Then, in order to get the racquet through to the hitting position, the only natural thing to do is lift the elbow from your waist to create room. This lifts the racquet well above your head, and it means the racquet must then take a very long arduous journey around your body to the ultimate point of contact (bad). It makes it harder to time the incoming ball properly, and it also makes it much harder for you to extend through the shot.

elbow in chain reaction

(Bad chain of events caused from having the elbow too tight to the body.)

Here you can see that my elbow begins right at my hip in position 1. The racquet is forced to go up over my head to position 2 as I try to create space for my arm. As I make contact with the ball at position 3, there is no forward extension towards the net, and very little power is imparted onto the ball. Instead, most of my weight is being shifted from my right foot to my left foot, sideways as seen by number 4.

Again, this bad chain reaction is all caused by tucking my elbow into my waist on the takeback. You don’t want this! Instead, keep it nice and roomy, and re-visit my 3-step forehand guide for the proper demonstration. Check out the Agassi forehand for an example of how you want lots of space between your elbow and body on the takeback.

Here’s the same mistake from another angle. The red line traces the path of my right elbow, and the pink line traces the path of my racquet. As you can see, having the elbow in too tight on the initial turn can cause a large meandering swing, which causes inconsistency and lack of power.

I got some feedback that the above images were confusing, so here I put together a side-by side to try and illustrate the host of problems that are caused by something as simple as having your elbow in too tight.

elbow in vs elbow out - elbow in vs elbow out- ready position

Figure 1 – The ready position. As you can see, on the left I have my elbows tucked in tight to my body as I splitstep. On the right, I have distance between my elbows and my torso, with the racquet held approximately 1 foot out in front – almost picture wrapping your arms around a small beachball.

elbow in vs elbow out - elbow in vs elbow out- unit turn

Figure 2 – After splitstepping, I start with a shoulder turn. On the left, since my elbow is already at my hip/behind my hip, the racquet is in tight to my body. On the right, after turning my shoulders, the racquet is naturally further from my body.

elbow in vs elbow out - elbow in vs elbow out- set position

Figure 3 – As I coil in preparation to hit the ball, the racquet flies behind me in the figure on the left. This is bad. The figure on the right has the racquet closer to my center line, an even there, the racquet is slightly too far behind my center line.

elbow in vs out pic swing initiated

Figure 4 – You can see here that the figure on the right only has to deal with the incoming ball on one vector – or one direction. The figure on the right only has to swing the racquet parallel to the sideline. The figure on the left, however, has to match the racquet to the ball on two vectors – he has to swing the racquet around the body, parallel to the baseline, and then through to the ball parallel to the sideline. This makes it much harder to hit the ball with crisp timing. An analogy would be throwing a straight right cross in boxing, versus a wild haymaker hook.

elbow in vs elbow out - elbow in vs elbow out- late on contact

Figure 5 – As I start the swing at the ball, you can see that the figure on the right is much quicker to reach the contact point. A more compact swing means that the distance from racquet to ball is smaller, and this makes it easier for you to hit the ball at the precise millisecond you want to. In contrast, the figure on the left is much slower to swing through to the point of contact. The slower swing means that you must time the incoming ball perfectly, and if your opponent hits with heavy spin or pace, then you will mis-hit the ball a lot. Typically people that get the racquet behind them too much end up hitting the ball late in their swing, because it takes them so long to reach the contact point.

elbow in vs elbow out - elbow in vs elbow out- harder to rotate

Figure 6 – Finally, at the end of the shot, rotation is natural for the figure on the right, whereas it is more difficult for the figure on the left. The left figure has had to use their arm to match the racquet to the ball on several vectors, so the shot is predominantly an arm-based motion, and thus will lack not only consistency but also power.

Here’s the video

Agree or disagree? Be sure to leave a comment below 😀


Inside-Out Forehand

One of the easiest ways to gain control of a rally is to get into an exchange with your opponent where you are hitting your strongest shot (forehand) to their weakest (backhand). You will be able to put pressure on them with better depth, control, and spin, while they struggle to be offensive with their backhand. Runing around a ball heading to your backhand in order to hit an inside-out is fairly low risk, since typically you will be able to hit the ball with enough pace and depth that it will be a very low-percentage shot for your opponent to try to hit a backhand down the line. The inside out is key for gaining control of the rally. inout

Inside-Out Forehand

If you utilize the inside-out forehand frequently, your opponent may start to wise-up and recognize that when you run around to hit it, that they should start moving to their backhand side. In this case, you can utilize an inside-in forehand, where you hit the ball to your opponent’s forehand. It is a much lower percentage play, as you are likely to yank the ball out wide as your body momentum carries you to the left, you are hitting over a higher part of the net, and you have less court space to hit into (straight line vs. diagonal).


Inside-In Forehand

Things to notice in the above GIFs:

  1. Quick feet and many steps, shuffling to get in position.
  2. Shoulders turned immediately
  3. Head and eyes track the ball closely
  4. Head stays level, knees stay bent
  5. I try to keep the racquet as compact as possible
  6. Good rotation through the shot.
  7. I could do a better job at moving into the ball, hitting through the ball (but I was dropping the feed so it was tough).

How to Hit a Looping Topspin Forehand

Hitting a looping topspin forehand with a high arc over the net is actually a very aggressive shot. Used properly it can be a very high percentage play. Most amateurs believe that to emulate the pros, they must hit the ball low and flat over the net. This is not true. By imparting topspin on the ball, and hitting it high, you are making the ball bounce far over your opponent’s head, and it is difficult for them to deal with. It is the most effective shot against people who play with a continental or eastern grip.

Here’s a gif of the regular height over net during a professional rally.


The lines are faint, but you can see a yellow, green, and red line just above the net. The peak of the green line is a typical rally ball, with lots of height over the net. The yellow line peak is sub-optimal as you will not get as much depth on your shot. The red line is only entered when hitting an attacking ball from the short-court and you are in full control of the ball.


Here, I am illustrating one key that will help you hit a looping topspin forehand. The green arrow traces the path that my left hand takes. If you look carefully, you can see that my shoulders turn normally just like any other shot, but I move my left hand in a high arc over my head before initiating my swing. By rotating my body with my left hand up high, it forces me to drop my right shoulder, and get the racquet well below the ball, which then causes a higher trajectory shot.

Also notice that I still accelerate at the ball, and rotate normally with my legs and hips.

In contrast, notice how in the below video I bring my left hand low and straight across my body as I rotate, and the ball flies low and flat. The ball will tend to follow the trajectory you trace out with that left hand.


Low Open Stance Approach Shot

It can be one of the most frustrating shots. Your opponent hits a weak short ball, but it bounces too low for you to really attack it. You have to move way into the court, and know you have to follow it to the net, but you struggle to hit an aggressive approach shot because it’s so low.

Here’s the footwork necessary for hitting a low approach shot aggressively.

Approach Shots Hitting Demo

Open Stance Forehand

Hitting Demo

1) Grip

2) Ready Position

3) Split Step

4) Shoulder Turn

5) Loop / Drop the tip of the racquet below the height of the ball.

6) With the butt-cap pointing towards the ball/your opponent, swing through the ball and upwards for spin.

7) Use your left hand to help turn your body, and then rotate your body 180 degrees as you hit.

8) Make sure for your last step, you roll your foot from heel to toe. This keeps your movement fluid.

9) Make sure your right toe is pointed toward your opponent. This is vital because it allows your hips to rotate through the shot, for maximum power. If your toe is pointed to the side of the court, you will not be able to hit through the ball, but rather the tendency will be for your body’s momentum to carry you towards the side of the court. This will also leave you vulnerable for your opponent’s response.

The direction of your right toe is even more important when moving wide or back, as in these instances you must move quickly and then reverse your body momentum as you hit.

10) After you hit the ball, recover back to the proper recovery position near the center of the court.

11) Your head should remain level throughout the entire stroke. As you move to the ball, you should be approximately 1 foot lower in height than your resting height, and as you hit the ball, your head stays at that same low level froms start to finish.

Analysis and Instruction

Common errors to avoid:

1) Allowing the racquet to float behind you. This means that on your swing through, your contact zone becomes a contact point, meaning the chances of your hitting the ball cleanly are reduced dramatically.

2) Having a big looping swing. This makes your swing slower, and you are more likely to hit the ball late.

3) Both error 1 and 2 are generally caused by unnecessary arm movement. Using shoulder and hip rotation should generate more than enough power for your shot. Arm movement only adds an extra ingredient of complexity.

4) lazy footwork and not rotating your body through the shot 180 degrees.

5) Stiff legs. Stiff legs make it impossible to explode through the ball. It makes it harder to maintain balance, and harder to move dynamically.

6) Poor balance, or moving your head.

7) Letting the ball come to you instead of moving towards the ball and hitting it as it is rising. Ideally hitting the ball higher in its arc after it bounces means that you are able to hit down on the ball and attack it. If you wait for the ball to drop too low, then you have fewer options of how to hit it. So always move in to attack when possible.

8) Never hit with a closed stance. That is for old fogies and losers.

9) Pointing your right toe to the right side of the court instead of at your opponent. The basic concept is that wherever your toe is pointed, that is the direction your body’s momentum will want to travel. Since you want to get your bodyweight behind the shot, you want your toe to be pointed toward it! If it is pointed to the side, it’s very difficult to rotate properly.

Good drills: Hitting against a wall, doing shadow strokes, using a ball machine, playing mini-tennis, swinging in front of a mirror, take a vide of yourself and analyze your swing.

This series of 3 videos reviewing Federer’s forehand are solid except for the nonsense about the grip being eastern. Ignore that.

Contact Point

(Backhand view)

(Forehand view)

If you are having trouble controlling the ball on the court, it may be related to where you are hitting the ball relative to your front foot. If you are hitting the ball too far in front of your front foot, it will zoom out crosscourt. If you hit the ball too late – too close to your body, it will spray out down the line. If you feel like your contact point is always off, but you can’t help it, then it’s probably due to bad footwork. Practice taking lots of little stutter steps before you hit the ball, and visit the footwork section for drills.

Next Lesson: learn to carve up your opponents by mastering spin.