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The “Big 3” Forehand Grips and what each one brings to your game

The “Big 3” Forehand Grips and what each one brings to your game
It has been 13 years since Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal played what many people believe is the greatest tennis match of all time. It was the 3rd and last installment of a trilogy of “Fedal” Wimbledon finals, with Federer winning the previous two. It was a brutal battle that lasted 4 hours and 48 minutes plus several rain delays, finally concluding with Nadal victorious nearly 7 hours later!

It's no coincidence that in the recent era Nadal has dominated the clay of Roland Garros and Federer has dominated the grass of Wimbledon. Their forehands have some distinct differences. One of them is “grip”. Here are the main differences between the forehand grips and what each offers.

The “Big Three” Grips

Up until the 1970's there was one main grip in tennis - the continental grip. The sport was more sedate and the swings were simpler. The continental grip enabled all court play - serve, groundstrokes and net play - without really having to change hand position! But in recent years technology and physical ability has meant faster ball speeds. We now need topspin to keep the ball in the court. See our article on “Why you need topspin no matter your level of tennis”.

Since then 3 main forehand grips emerged in succession and today dominate the game. The Eastern, Semi-Western and Western Grips.

3 Forehand Grips in Tennis
image partly courtesy of our partner Online Tennis Instruction
  1. Eastern Forehand - The traditional eastern forehand evolved as a popular grip in the 1970s. Players like Bjorn Borg slid their hand ever so slightly round the handle from the standard continental grip and started applying topspin to the ball. This began the spin and power revolution! (See our blog "8 Ways topspin gives you a tactical edge") Many players use an extreme eastern grip - shifting their hand slightly towards semi-western grip so the knuckle is close to the ridge.
    Players: Roger Federer, Stefanos Tsitsipas, Serena Williams.
  2. Semi-Western Forehand - As technology changed and players became more athletic the grips slid even further round. The “windshield wiper” shape we see in today’s game evolved from the semi-western forehand. This grip allowed players to reach the higher bouncing topspin balls and not be caught on the defensive. Like the variation with the eastern, some choose a strong to extreme semi-western grip.
    Players: Novak Djokovic, Rafa Nadal, Naomi Osaka.
  3. Western Forehand - The western, a further 45 degrees around the racket, then evolved to enable players to cope with the even higher bounces of semi-western forehands and enable players to send them back with extreme topspin. 
    Players: Karen Khachanov, Jack Sock, Kei Nishikori

 

5 factors that influence grip

The forehand grips have evolved over time. So why hasn't every player ended up with the most 'modern' forehand, the western? There are a number of factors that affect grip choice and they vary from player to player. Here are the most important factors to consider when choosing the right grip for you: 

Player Height 

Your height plays a major role when choosing the right grip. A taller player will find the ball bouncing lower in relation to their body than a shorter player. Therefore taller players tend to favor grips that allow them to reach low (eastern and semi-western) and shorter players tend to prefer grips that allow them to reach higher balls (semi-western and western). 

Forehand Grip Contact Point Front View

Court surface

Court surface is as important as player height. Grips are often “environmentally developed" ...this means that the court you learn to play on directly affects your grip. Unless you are told specifically over and over to hold the racket a certain way then your hand will naturally shift to hold it in the most comfortable way for the bounce.

This is why pro players who grew up on different surfaces and in different climates (see below) have varying grips and styles of play. There is only 1 inch height difference between the "Big Three" (Federer: 6’1”, Nadal: 6’1”, Djokovic 6’2). So we know it's their experiences as juniors that created the differences.

Each of the forehand grips forces a different contact point (both height and distance from body). Eastern being the lowest contact point and Western the highest. 

Court surface affects both the speed and height of the bounce. If you are regularly playing on a high bouncing court then you will probably prefer a grip that allows you to reach high balls (semi-western and western) more comfortably and vice versa for a lower bouncing court (eastern). However an above or below average height individual may have to adjust their choice. For example, a tall player on a high bouncing clay court may prefer an eastern forehand as the ball bounces low in relation to their body compared to the average height player. Here’s what each contact point looks like and which grip is ideal for each surface:

Forehand Grip Contact Point Side View
Screen Shot 2021-09-27 at 2.51.35 PM

Let’s look at Federer, Nadal and Djokovic, their grip choices and the surfaces they have dominated.

Screen Shot 2021-09-28 at 12.17.21 PM

Given the bounce on clay it's perhaps surprising Nadal didn't end up with a western forehand grip!

Topspin and Power

At pro level, heavy topspin can be hit using any grip but for the average player here’s what each typically offers: 

Eastern Forehand Grip:                           Less Topspin - More Power

Semi-Western Forehand Grip:             Mid Topspin - Mid Power

Western Forehand Grip:                         More Topspin - Less Power

Given the consistency and accuracy topspin provides (can clear the net comfortably and still land it well before the baseline) it is an important consideration for recreational players.

Climate

Climate plays a huge role in grip choice and development. It affects the ball and therefore your grip:

Temperature: When temperatures rises, the air pressure inside the tennis ball increases, resulting in a higher bounce. Play somewhere cold and you will find the ball barely bounces. 

Humidity: Increased humidity makes the ball heavier and slower.

Wind: Wind affects flightpath and bounce. If you usually play indoors then you're in for a shock when you play in the wind.

Altitude: You may feel like a beginner again when playing tennis at altitude for the first time. The reduced atmospheric pressure at higher altitude, means the internal pressure of the tennis ball is greater, which in turn causes the ball to bounce higher off the court and faster off the strings. This thinner air also does a poorer job of slowing the ball down meaning higher ball speeds.

Style of play

Your playing style also dictates your grip choice. If you enjoy approaching the net then you are probably going to prefer the eastern to semi-western grip will can be changed to the continental volley grip easily. If you are an aggressive baseliner who likes to hit big with topspin and power and occasionally comes to net then a semi-western grip is probably for you. A baseliner may prefer a grip like the western to play those higher balls with pace. 

Choosing a grip that is right for you

When it comes to choosing your grip, first consider your height, the surface and what power to spin ratio matches your style of play. Then make adjustments for climate. The semi-western grip is the most popular grip on the pro tour because it enables a blend of power and topspin while allowing both low and high balls to be reached with reasonable ease. You can also adjust more comfortably to changing court surfaces. Here's a summary of what each grip offers: 

Screen Shot 2021-09-27 at 3.16.14 PM

Or maybe you just want to copy your favorite pro. Federer, Nadal and Djokovic have all been successful across different surfaces, it just depends which one you want to dominate!

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Let us know about your forehand grip experiences and what you think of this post in the comments below.

FAQs

  • How do I find my grip?

  • What is topspin?

  • Why is topspin so important for recreational players?

  • What Topspin Tactics Can I use?

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One response to “The “Big 3” Forehand Grips and what each one brings to your game

  1. Another match I remember watching! Glad Rafa got his chance but Roger is still my man…

    Interesting article – I think I’m too old to change my grip but enjoyed finding out the origins of the grips.

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