Few parts of any tennis game come as naturally as the forehand. Not everybody, of course, will have a huge forehand, but it is undeniable that it is by far the easiest shot to hit. It requires the fewest extra technical movements, as compared to the backhand, serve or volley—the forehand volley included.
In the hands of some players, the forehand has become devastating, an offensive shot par excellence. No other decade has seen such a proliferation of power-play; the forehand, while being the easiest shot, can now most easily become the shot with the easiest power, with the racket technologies available to players.
Nonetheless, there are stylistic variations among players, and some hit the forehand differently. The following list will contain players of varying styles, no doubt, but all are united by one commonality—their forehands have wreaked havoc on court.
Hewitt's forehand was hardly the biggest even at the height of his fortunes from 2001–05. It is a thoroughly consistent delivery, nonetheless, hit in the older, flatter fashion. It certainly isn't the most penetrating of forehands, but is an effective weapon when used as such.
Andre Agassi was best remembered as possibly the game's best-ever returner of serve. Having an uncanny eye for the ball, however, also made his forehand a quick shot off the mark.
While he had a tendency to work off the pace, his ability to take the ball early, including on his forehand side, made this wing always a potential source of danger.
While it was another more classical, flat shot, and while there was the inevitable risk involved in taking the ball so early, it meant, nonetheless, that he was often able to control the centre of the court with his forehand.
Safin's forehand was probably something of a progression from Agassi's and Hewitt's, signifying the booming forehand. It was never his strongest side—his backhand was by far more solid, and his slightly extreme Western grip was suspect under pressure.
Nonetheless, he generated a bit more spin, as well as pace, from it, than Hewitt, for instance, was able to. It realised its destructive potential, too, against the Australian, in Melbourne in 2005, when Safin simply blew Hewitt off the court.
It was a great and highly dangerous shot, but under the greatest pressure, this was the most likely wing to fold.
Carlos Moya was the first in a generation of Spanish players with highly spun topspin forehands, played with the extreme Western grip. Winning the French Open in 1998 was in many ways due in no small part to his forehand being, at his prime in the late 1990s, a highly potent shot. Especially on clay, his heavy topspin proved especially effective.
Nonetheless, Moya was able to adapt, and enjoyed some fine hard-court success too, reaching the Australian Open final once, in 1997. His forehand was suited not only to the clay, but could also be flattened out with penetrating effect on the concrete.
The legacy of Juan Carlos Ferrero to modern power tennis can be summed up, essentially, in his booming forehand.
The heir of Moya, in style and in success, he won the French Open in 2003, and his forehand proved, for about a year in 2002-03, one of the most impressive on tour. On clay, especially, his big swing, and extreme grip, ensured his opponents had to deal with a heavy and difficult shot.
The only problem about having the best, of course, was that soon everyone was emulating him—not long after his time, just about everyone started to have a forehand like his.
Andy Roddick is known mainly for his slightly odd service motion, which has generated the fastest serves known to tennis. His forehand, however, remains a key component of his artillery.
It was in his most aggressive stages, in 2003, when he was flattening out and going for broke on this side, that its merits were revealed to the world. It is a flat shot, taken with a not-quite fully Eastern grip, which can be hit with some damaging pace and spin.
His lapse in the years 2006-08—right until his hiring of Larry Stefanki—could be due in some part to his withdrawing of this great weapon in playing too passively. He would do well to relive the aggression of his earlier days.
Pete Sampras earns a spot here partly on the historic merits of his career, but partly also because he possessed a running, cross-court forehand that was out of this world.
It was a relatively flat shot, and even his typical forehand—always his stronger shot—usually proved a dangerous weapon. It was most often his inside-in forehand, rather than a boomer inside-out, which Sampras was most comfortable in hitting.
The running forehand, of course, was as inside-in as one could get; it was the consistency of the shot, however, on the run and defense, that was most spectacular. Even in our day of Federer and Nadal, a quick glance back at some old videos would not fail to impress.
The bizarre Frenchman, Gael Monfils, has a bewildering game—his forehand alone, at its best, however, earns its merits here just for what it is.
Monfils' game is probably the most purely athletic in men's tennis, and his forehand would show it. It is hardly a consistent offensive shot, and more often the Frenchman would prefer to rally and defend.
The pace he is capable of generating from it, however, when on occasion he decides to reveal his clownish performer alter-ego, is simply stunning (quite literally).
Full-blooded hits sometimes reach the 190 km/h mark—as hard as a serve.
James Blake was the world No. 3 in 2006, after a stellar run and season. In no small part was it due to his amazing lightning forehand—on a hard court, it was its sheer swiftness and purity of contact which never ceased to amaze.
On its day, his forehand in 2006 could hit just about anyone hard. With a much less solid backhand, Blake's footwork in keeping himself within hitting range of a forehand was typically of the highest order.
It is a relatively flat shot, but possesses a bullet-like beauty for it. With Blake, there are no big preparation swings—it is a compact hit-away for glory.
Similar things may be said of Fernando Gonzalez. A finalist at the Australian Open in 2007, he possesses a huge off-forehand, generated with a slightly cumbersome, but nonetheless fearsome, takeaway.
While Blake is compact, Gonzalez is well prepared; the effect, for the most part, is the same, however.
On its day, the off-forehand can wreak untold damage, even once getting the better of the impregnable balance of Roger Federer (at Shanghai in 2007).
It is a fine shot on clay, naturally, but with its pace, translates well to the hard courts.
The Spaniard, Fernando Verdasco, is a more unlikely heir to either Moya or Ferrero (who came before him).
His is a left-handed forehand, which he is able to vary nicely, as a well-spun cross-court shot, or a penetrating, flat, down-the-line winner. It is a shot of some elegance—often well measured, and technically very sound.
While some have named him a mini-Nadal, the legitimacy of his own game was well tested and proved at the Australian Open in 2009, when in an epic semifinal, his forehand was on many occasions able to bring the great Rafa to the breaking limit.
Some surprise may come from placing Novak Djokovic only seventh on this list, with all his recent success. As great a shot as his forehand is, however, it hasn't dominated his game the way his down-the-line backhand has.
His forehand is still a very, very fine shot, nonetheless. With its heavy, controlled topspin, it can effectively draw his opponents out to their right—always an uncomfortable movement—and at the same time be flattened out as a very dangerous off-forehand.
It certainly isn't the spectacular, life-saving shot it may be for his great rivals, but is certainly the sort of forehand possessed by the second-best player on the planet.
Jo-Wilfred Tsonga's forehand is a most mysterious, and promising, shot. In many ways, his big, attacking game, with a sublime forehand and equally sublime net game, is reminiscent of the great Swiss, Roger Federer.
His forehand, at least, would stand up to measure. It is a typical, modern-day power shot, combining both pace and spin, which, at its best, is just breathtaking.
So it proved at the Australian Open in 2008, when, facing Nadal in the semis, he blew the Spaniard off the court with crushing forehands, leaving him on many occasions stranded.
His forehand very nearly won him the title in the final.
Robin Soderling's forehand dominates his game, and in a big way. With a massive takeaway and enormous motion, he generates some dinosaur-like pace, which would scare the daylights out of anybody.
It has taken down just about everybody—its biggest victim being, by far, Rafael Nadal at the French Open in 2009. It is probably best going down the line; Soderling's slightly inadequate movement doesn't quite allow him to use it inside-out as often.
His inside-out, however, is one of the most fearsome shots hit in this sport, crunching through the court at incredible speeds.
As with Soderling against Nadal at the French, Tomas Berdych's forehand made headlines last year at Wimbledon when he bounced out seven-time finalist Roger Federer.
It is simply a most devastating shot.
His grip is so extreme he almost seems to cut at the ball, imparting on it, at his best, almost no spin, as it thunders past opponents. It is hit best inside-out, and down the line; with the right ball, almost no one would get his forehand back in play.
Del Potro probably most resembles Soderling and Berdych—who have come before him—in being a big man with a big game. Yet, it is his forehand, and not theirs, that has played a significant role in actually winning a Major.
At the US Open in 2009, he unleashed the fury that had likely been boiling up in him over six consecutive defeats to Roger Federer. It was the rebirth of the running, cross-court forehand, which Sampras had made famous a decade ago.
With bone-cracking efficiency, Del Potro stuns his opponents into submission, striking Monfils-like bombs—aided all the more by his height and build—with alarming regularity.
Rafael Nadal's forehand is perhaps the most unusual, being a shot developed initially by a right-hander, but which has become the trademark of the world No. 1.
It is the culmination of the generation of heavy top-spun Spanish forehands, but brought to new heights. Nadal's unique, matador-like lasso-swing imparts on the ball the highest rate of RPMs among any current, or previously active, player.
It is a monster, especially against right-handers, and has dismantled the backhands of many. It is hit with ridiculous height and spin, but in the recent years, also with great depth, making it in many ways the ultimate offensive shot—a safe rallying forehand that is, at the same time, slowly grinding his opposition.
If nothing else, it is his forehand that has made him King of Clay.
If Nadal's is the most effective, Federer's is probably the most spectacular and breathtaking. Federer is No. 1 here not because his is the most pacy forehand—there are plenty speedier forehands nowadays—but rather because it has proved one of the most versatile known to the sport, and has almost single-handedly encouraged the emergence of a generation of power-hitters.
It is hit with something of an Eastern grip, and is a simple, yet beautifully executed, shot. It is the work of his inhumanly flexible wrist, however, in generating all sorts of angles, that has made his forehand unique.
Nadal's is slightly one-dimensional, and certainly utterly destructive for it; yet Federer can hit the cross-court rallyer and open up the down-the-line winner in an instant. Inside-in, or inside-out, Federer hits his forehand with a certain effortless purity.
The half-volley, swinging volley or short-angled forehand—these are all well within his repertoire. It has been the variety of Federer's forehand which has earned him so many accolades over the years.
If for nothing else, too, it has been his forehand which, having dominated the sport for so long and been feared for so long, undoubtedly has played a crucial role in producing a generation of players—Novak Djokovic being the perfect exemplar—who have had to raise their baseline games to new heights.
Our gratitude for the current golden age in tennis must then be directed in large part to Federer's forehand.