Forehands, Forehands on the Court: Who Has the Biggest in the Sport?

Rob YorkSenior Writer IFebruary 16, 2009

Igor Andreev, thanks to the explosively heavy topspin he generates through his forehand, gave eventual champion Roger Federer his toughest match at the U.S. Open in 2008, pushing the great Swiss to five sets in the fourth round.

This came nearly two years after Federer dispatched James Blake, another player known for launching a ballistic ball off the forehand wing, in the 2006 USO quarters. Blake, however, lost his match with Federer in four sets, one of which was 6-love.

The differing margins by which they lost to the Swiss in their Open matchups had little bearing on their Australian Open encounter this year, however. Blake defeated Andreev in the third round in four relatively routine sets, 6-3, 6-2, 3-6, 6-1, making him six-for-six against the Russian.

Blake, whose forehand is very flat and requires much less backswing than the whippier Russian’s motion, kept his opponent on the defensive throughout most of the match, denying him the time to set up for his forehand, and thus denying him all but a few groundstroke winners.

The result was hardly due to an above-average performance from Blake: He lost in straight sets in the very next round to Jo-Wilfried Tsonga. Tsonga proceeded to bow out in four sets in the following round to Fernando Verdasco, who lost an epic five-setter to Rafael Nadal, who won another titanic match against Federer in the finals.

What does every name mentioned above have in common? They all correspond with a player considered to have a Big Forehand. It is probably the most overused, and definitely the most oversimplified term in men’s tennis today.

It was perhaps logical though, that as the game grew more international and the athleticism of its players evolved, the forehand wing (usually the first shot that beginners master) would replace the serve-and-volley as the weapon of choice.

But for me, the breaking point came at the 2008 Roland Garros, when Frenchman Jérémy Chardy defeated David Nalbandian and Dmitry Tursunov before falling against Nicolas Almagro in the round of 16.

According to an online write-up I read later, his success was due to the French crowd support and his “big forehand.”

My first reaction was to wonder how having a “big forehand” differentiated Chardy from any of the guys he’d played at the RO (especially Tursunov). It seems to me that tennis writers need a more detailed system of classification.

I hope to start improving the classification system starting now. Having watched the game for about two decades, here are the different types of Big Forehands I’ve observed, the players who’ve employed them, and the specific nature of their effectiveness.

Also, I’ll attempt to answer the troubling question: Who has the best of the Big Forehands?

Category 1: The Laser

Notable Users (Past): Pete Sampras, Richard Krajicek, Tim Henman

Notable Users (Present): James Blake, Jo-Wilfried Tsonga, Max Mirnyi

Characteristics: This shot is very flat, hit with a very conservative grip and requires very little backswing. It is most commonly employed by net-rushers who, if they can’t hit an outright winner with it, can still set up a good approach shot.

Advantages: Because it requires very little backswing yet penetrates the court like no other groundstroke, it takes reaction time away from opponents, especially those with very extreme Western grips.

This is also one of the rare shots that’s even more effective when hit on the run.

Notable users of The Laser, Sampras and Krajicek in particular, tend to keep their opponents on the defensive for most of the match, even other heavy hitters like Andre Agassi and Jim Courier. When The Laser is hitting its targets without fail, the opponent may feel like a spectator.

Disadvantages: Utilizing little to no topspin, this type of shot has the minutest margin for error of any Big Forehand. When it’s on, it’s really on; when it’s off, the player racks up an obscene amount of unforced errors.

Therefore, most players who’ve used it have not relied on it exclusively; players like Tsonga, Henman and especially Sampras mostly rely on their serves and/or volleys. That way, on days when it’s misfiring it’s not the only shot they have available.

Of those mentioned, only Blake makes The Laser his primary weapon; as he lacks a great serve or volley, Blake has not been able to duplicate the success of the other Laser users.

Excellent movement is absolutely necessary to use this shot effectively. Almost none of those who’ve employed The Laser have known much success on clay.

Outlook: As the serve-and-volley players and big servers grow fewer in number, The Laser has become rarer in practice. Perhaps there is no reversing this trend.

Quote: “‘The running forehand of Pete Sampras’: Those are not just words, my friend.” – Cliff Drysdale, former professional tennis player and current commentator for ESPN

Category 2: Let’s Get Clean

Notable Users (Past): Jimmy Connors, Andre Agassi, Yevgeny Kafelnikov

Notable Users (Present): Marat Safin, Nikolay Davydenko, David Nalbandian

Characteristics: This shot also uses a fairly traditional grip, but the most important factor is something that can’t be taught: These players have the uncanny knack for hitting the center of the racquet for the best combination of power and control.

This is also the classification with the most obvious parallels to the women’s game: Monica Seles, Lindsey Davenport, and Elena Dementieva are also Clean Hitters.

Advantages: As these players are the best at finding the sweet spot, Clean Hitters tend to be the most consistent of the Big Forehands.

They are the most accurate, consistent, and most consistently potent groundstrokers of them all. Their backswing is also minimal, and their tremendous reflexes and vision make them the best at taking the ball early, on the rise.

All of them have great returns of serve, with Agassi widely considered the best returner of them all. As a bonus, virtually every Clean Hitter boasts a backhand just as solid, if not more so, than his forehand.

Disadvantages: Staying back and rallying with a fit, in-form Clean Hitter is one of the toughest tasks in tennis. However, with the exception of Safin and Kafelnikov, they tend to be more one-dimensional than other players, needing their groundstrokes to carry the heaviest load.

Those who beat Clean Hitters on a fast surface usually do so through great serving and attacking the net (like Sampras, McEnroe) or at least incorporating net rushing (like Federer).

Clean hitters also have a tough time outhitting clay court specialists (see category 4) on dirt. Furthermore, perhaps due to their natural talent, many Clean Hitters go through befuddling periods in their career in which they lack fitness, work ethic, or the will to win.

Examine the (male) names in this section: who among them, besides Connors and Davydenko, hasn’t had his will questioned at one point?

Outlook: Clean hitters have been shut out of the Grand Slam winners circle in recent years, but that may have as much to do with Safin and Nalbandian’s mental and fitness issues as anything.

Look for them to continue playing an important role in the game, though it remains to be seen if they can reach the top.

Quote: “There is some abnormality in (Agassi’s) eyes, otherwise he wouldn't have had such a phenomenal return. He sees the ball like no one else and just guides it wherever he wants to.” – Mats Wilander, seven-time Grand Slam champion and former World No. 1.
Category 3: Forward Momentum

Notable Users (Past): Boris Becker, Mark Philippoussis

Notable Users (Present): Fernando Gonzalez, Tomas Berdych, Joachim Johansson

Characteristics: This shot has a big backswing, but little spin. This type of player doesn’t so much hit the ball as assault it, leaving opponents on the back foot scrambling to return.

Advantages: Like The Laser, Forward Momentum is a very penetrating shot that allows its users to hit through the court, and hit through the other player's spin.

The difference between the shots is that The Laser requires less backswing, but Forward Momentum generates a mite more spin.

In terms of outright generation of pace, Forward Momentum has no equal: The players listed here all make the short list of the hardest hitters to ever play the game. Berdych and Gonzalez are the considered the biggest of the Big Forehands active today.

Also, while court coverage is a weakness for none of these players (save Philippoussis and Johannson), none are great movers: This suggests that players employing the Forward Momentum approach to the forehand have the least need for speed.

Disadvantages: While employing slightly more margin for error than The Laser, players who employ it are still known for their streakiness. Only Becker, who had a great serve and developed champion's instincts at an early age, wasn't prone to bouts of maddening inconsistency.

Outlook: Becker and Philippoussis were net rushers with serve-based games, while Gonzalez and Berdych play baseline almost exclusively. Since this type of shot has survived the decline of serve-and-volley tennis, there's no indication that it's going away.

Quote: “When (Gonzalez is) on, you won't find a better shotmaker; when he's off, it ain't pretty. Flat forehands that appear springloaded either scream into the corners or into the stands.” –Jon Wertheim of Sports Illustrated
Category 4: A New Spin on Things

Notable Users (Past): Sergi Bruguera, Gustavo Kuerten, Albert Costa

Notable Users (Present): Rafael Nadal, Igor Andreev, Fernando Verdasco

Characteristics: The extreme Western grips that these players use allow them to hit the most spin of any type of player.

In the case of top-ranked Nadal, that works out to a forehand that makes the ball rotate 3,300-5,000 times per minute – 20 percent more than Federer.

This type of player has dominated Roland Garros for more than a decade, but only recently started making headway on faster majors.

Advantages: The Super Topspin forehand arcs well over the net, and drops well inside the baseline for great consistency. These players are able to generate a considerable amount of pace with the shot, but even more than that, an overwhelming amount of spin.

The topspin is tiring for opponents to hit against, and tricky for them to time appropriately, leading to more unforced (though the heavy spin would seem to “force” them) errors and short balls.

This was the only shot that could be considered a weapon in Bruguera's arsenal, and yet he used it to win two Roland Garros titles. Other, better athletes like Kuerten and especially Nadal have been able to achieve greater success on other surfaces.

Disadvantages: The massive backswing required for this shot makes it difficult for it to be used effectively on surfaces faster than clay. Only Nadal, the rarest combination of athletic ability, champion's mentality and fitness has demonstrated the ability to win majors on other surfaces with this shot.

Furthermore, generating this much spin isn't just tiring for opponents: Those with Super Topspin forehands must be very fit to use it well, and even Nadal suffers from regular bouts of fatigue and injury.

Outlook: It was once thought that this sort of shot would one day go out of style due to the demands it places on the player's body and the fact that it is designed primarily for one surface.

However, Nadal, Verdasco and Andreev have actually propelled it to new, almost absurd degrees of spin, so there's no sign that it's going out of fashion.

Quote: "When you see Nadal, how fast he moves the racket through the air, and the amount of spin and speed he generates, his forehand is the heaviest shot in tennis.” –Current world No. 4 Andy Murray
Category 5: The Revolution

Notable Users (Past): Ivan Lendl, Jim Courier

Notable Users (Present): Roger Federer, Andy Roddick, Novak Djokovic, Dmitry Tursunov

Characteristics: Connors’ clean, flat groundstrokes made the power baseliner approach an option, but Lendl’s semi-Western grip, which could be hit flat or with heavy spin, made it a routine.

Twenty years later, John McEnroe called Federer’s forehand “the best shot in tennis.” The chief identifying characteristic of The Revolution is that it is hit in a forward direction, but also uses heavy spin.

Advantages: In the '80s and '90s, Lendl and Courier, neither of them the most athletically gifted players of their generation, used this shot to win majors and reach the game's top ranking.

In the 21st century, Federer, perhaps the most athletically gifted player of all time, made it the centerpiece of the game that made him No. 1 for an unprecedented 237 weeks.

While The Revolution may not generate quite as much spin as the Super Topspin forehand, or penetrate the court quite like Forward Momentum, it combines the advantages of both. It is furthermore less prone to error than the latter and is more adaptable to all surfaces than the former.

In the hands of a great athlete like Federer or Djokovic, it may be used to open up the court with angles and spin, plus generates more than enough pace to finish points.

Disadvantages: The Revolution does everything quite well, but may not be enough to surmount a certain obstacle unique to that player.

Lendl’s forehand was not suited for the speedy courts of Wimbledon; Courier’s could not compensate for the more complete games that certain players, Sampras especially, had to their advantage; and Federer’s has not yet brought him triumph at Roland Garros against Nadal's heavier ball.

Outlook: The Revolution is the Big Forehand that started it all, and will outlast them all. All other types of Big Forehands require a very unique talent to use appropriately, but Courier, Lendl and Roddick proved that this one does not. However, that a player like Federer has used The Revolution to overpower this generation indicates that has a long future ahead.

Quote: “With increasing frequency since the days of Ivan Lendl, the big forehand has replaced the first volley as a primary offensive shot. And no one has done more to demonstrate everything you’d ever want in a forehand than Roger Federer.” -Joel Drucker of Tennis magazine
In Conclusion

As a layman, my purpose in writing this was not to be the final word in the classification of Big Forehands, but to begin a more detailed discussion that helps fellow fans understand which type of forehand works best in which situation.

Hopefully, more detailed analysis will one day replace the blanket "Big Forehand" term.

Among all the shots currently in use, Berdych and Gonzalez have the hardest, while Blake and Tsonga generate the most pace with the least amount of effort. In terms of whose forehand is best, however, one really can’t go wrong with Federer or Nadal’s.

Federer’s might seem the better option for imitation as it is less surface specific and has helped him win 13 majors, but it’s hard to argue with a No. 1 ranking.

So, in terms of who has the best forehand in the world, well, that might not have answer.