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A Scientific Analysis of the Backhand Stroke in Tennis

The backhand stroke is one of the principal strokes of tennis. It is used frequently during all stages of a tennis match or a practice, and is therefore an extremely important skill for any tennis player to master. The stroke’s aim is to hit the ball over the net and inside the lines of the opponent’s side of the court. For the athlete to achieve this he or she will need to generate both high racket speed, good eye to hand coordination and precision in placing the ball. Ergo, delivering maximum speed to the ball, and at the same time, placing it with accuracy are major skills that a tennis player seeks to always improve upon.

The force of impact, or the force at the contact point, which results in ball speed, is determined by the speed of the racket at the moment of contact with the ball. At the same time maximum velocity can only be obtained when maximum distance is used for accelerating. That in simpler terms can be described as the backswing. The objective of the backswing is to prepare a longer pathway for the racket to travel and to build up as much momentum as needed in that specific stroke. There are two types of backstrokes commonly used by most advanced tennis players; the straight and the circular. The circular backswing gives the player more power in the stroke by lengthening the racket’s path to the ball; therefore, giving the ball a higher momentum at impact. However, a circular backswing might not always be beneficial. When the opponent hits the ball with great amount of force and speed, there might not be enough time for the player to return the ball with a full circular backswing. In trying to do so one might hit the ball in an unfavorable position, due to being late with the racket, causing the ball to go in an unintended direction. In that case a straight backswing might be more appropriate, since that type of swing requires less time. However, a straight backswing will never generate as much velocity as a full circular one. An advanced skillful player will be able to evaluate the right amount of backswing for each and every ball they hit and will adapt the backhand stroke thereafter.

The backhand can be broken down into a large amount of different phases depending on how advanced the player is, this essay, however, will focus on the backhand of a beginner to an intermediate player, which will be broken down into four phases: The preparation phase, the execution/backswing phase, the contact phase, and the follow through.

The preparation phase begins with the player facing the net with his or her feet shoulder width apart and the weight of the body on the forefoot. Knees are slightly bent, and the racket is held by both hands in front of the body in line with the pelvis.

In the second phase, called the backswing phase, the player’s whole body turns to the left, having the right shoulder facing the net. At the same time, the racket is taken back at shoulder level in either a straight or a circular motion, while the weight of the body is over the left foot.

In the contact phase the pelvis and the spine rotates from facing the side of the court so that the trunk and upper body now faces the net, and the whole body’s weight is shifted to the right foot as the racket is swung forward and slightly up, hitting the ball in front of the body. As an extra producer of velocity, the knees start to extend at the end of this phase and continue to extend in the following and finishing phase.

In the final phase of the tennis backhand the racket face is parallel to the court at ball impact point, thus impairing topspin to the ball as it continues to swing forward and up. The arms continue up and forward until that motion is no longer possible. The arms then turn toward the right shoulder where the movement ends with the racket resting on the player’s right shoulder. As a final touch, the knees will extend maximally, giving the backhand stroke both more power and topspin.

Anatomical Analysis

The first phase to analyze is the preparation phase. In the preparation phase the player faces the net with the racket in both hands in front of the body. The player stands with his or her legs shoulder with apart, knees slightly bend and body weight forward. In the sagittal plane and bilateral axis, the hamstring group (Biceps Femoris, Semitendinosus, Semimembranosus) causes the knee joint to flex in a concentric contraction. The player stands on the balls of his feet, meaning that a slight plantar flexion of the ankles occur in this position. The agonists of plantar flexion are the Gastrocnemius and the Soleus, who are performing the concentric contraction in the same plane of motion and axis as the flexion of the knee. In the upper body the elbows are flexed by the Biceps Femoris and the Brachioradialis in a concentric contraction as they are placed in front of the body facing the net. This also occurs in a sagittal plane and bilateral axis. The other major joints in the body stay in an anatomical position during this phase.

The second phase is called the execution or the backswing phase. In this phase the racket is taken back at shoulder level and the entire body is turned to the side, preparing for the incoming ball. In this phase horizontal adduction of the right shoulder occurs at the same time as horizontal abduction of the left shoulder occurs. This is all happening in the transverse plane of motion on the longitudinal axis, and it is the concentric contraction of the Anterior Deltoid and Pectoralis Major that allows the horizontal adduction to happen, and the Posterior Deltoid and Infraspinatus that creates the horizontal abduction. This action causes a twisting motion in the upper body which helps bring the racquet back. The next major joint movement occurs in the elbow. The flexion of the elbow occurs in the sagittal plane on the bilateral axis. The concentric contraction of the Biceps Brachii, and Brachioradialis causes this action. This action allows the racquet to be brought across the body. From there we go from the upper extremity joints to the joints of the lower extremities. Internal rotation of the right hip occurs when the left foot takes a step back to position the body in a sideway state, with the right shoulder facing the net. The rotation of the hip occurs in the transverse plane and the vertical axis and is moved in a concentric contraction by the Tensor Fascia Latae and the Gluteus Medius. This motion brings the twist of the lower body, and also prepares the body to strike the incoming tennis ball. The next joints to talk about in this phase are the knee joints. The knee joints neither flex nor extend during, they stay in an isometric contraction during this whole phase. Last but not least are the ankles, which are plantar flexed in the sagittal plane and transverse axis. The Gastrocnemius and Soleus are the muscles that are contracting concentrically to allow this to happen.

In the third phase of the backhand movement the upper body rotates while the lower body shifts its weight to the right leg and foot. For the body to be able to apply these movements, a number of joints in the body must move, giving them motion. Starting from the top going down; the infraspinatus and teres minor performs a concentric contraction, resulting in an external rotation of the right shoulder joint in a transverse plane and vertical axis. At the same time the left shoulder joint, moved by Pectoralis major, Deltoids, Subscapularis and Latissimus Dorsi in a concentric contraction, performs an internal rotation in the same plane and axis at the right shoulder joint. Both elbows in the third phase extend until reaching the ball contact point, the prime mover of this action is the Triceps Trachii, who contracts concentrically in a sagittal plane and vertical axis. Another muscle that assists in this movement is the Anconeus, located just as the Triceps Brachii on the posterior side of the arm. Moving the lower body and shifting the weight to the right leg is a response of movements in the hip joints. Externally rotating the right hip is the Iliopsoas, Sartorius and the Gluteus Maximus in a concentric contraction. And internally rotating the left hip joint is the Gluteus Mimimus in a concentric contraction. Both hip rotations occur in the transverse plane and vertical axis. Going further down the body in the movement we encounter the knees. Both the knee joints extend in the contact phase giving the backhand more power and topspin. The prime mover of this motion is the Rectus Femoris, located on the anterior part of the upper leg between the knee and the hip joint. The Rectus Femoris performs a concentric contraction in the sagittal plane and the bilateral axis. Last but not least in the third phase is the ankle joint, or specifically the left ankle joint where the Gastrochnemius and the Soleus contracts concentrically resulting in plantar flexion of the ankle in the sagittal plane and bilateral axis while the weight of the player is shifted to the right foot and leg.

In the fourth and final phase of the backhand stroke little movement occur in the lower part of the body. The only joints that have primary roles are the knee joints, who performs extension. This action is executed by the Rectus Femoris in a concentric contraction in a sagittal plane and bilateral axis. In the upper body however motion is conducted in multiple joints. Starting with flexion of the elbows, the Biceps Brachii, assisted by Brachioradialis, contracts concentrically in a sagittal plane and bilateral axis. The shoulder joints both continue their motion from the previous phase, internal and external rotation, as the arms hit the ball and continues toward their ending position resting at the right shoulder. The wrists are the last joints among this list. At the same time as the right wrist is hyperextending, the left wrist performs radial deviation. Both of these movements are caused by the Extensor Carpi Radialis Longus and the Extensor Carpi Brevis in a concentric contraction.

Like every movement performed in sport, the backhand swing also has a number of safety concerns. There are a number of mechanical errors that can be done during the motion, which in return can throw of the speed and accuracy of the ball. One of the most common errors is having the wrong grip when changing between the forehand grip to the backhand grip. To fix this there is a grip you can use that sits in between forehand and backhand grip that makes it easier for beginners to learn the basics, this grip however is not recommended for players beyond the beginning stage. Some other common errors would be dropping the racket head on contact. When dropping the racket head it allows the ball to float more, allowing your opponent more time to react, and it can also cause the ball to drag toward the bottom of the net. To fix this the player should focus on holding the racket at a 90 degree angle and follow through the swing all the way up to rest at the top of the right shoulder. Another common mistake in the backhand swing is when the player makes contact with the ball when it’s to late. This is often a result of a too big swing or lack of footwork, and when the player does this it limits the direction that they can send the ball.

Just like in any other sport, there are numbers of injuries that can occur during a tennis match. The constant repetition and overuse of the muscles in the wrist and forearm cause the most common injury in tennis, which is called ’tennis elbow.’ Along with tennis elbow, shoulder injuries are common in tennis, especially rotator cuff injuries. The rotator cuff easily becomes fatigued and allows more movement of the joint, which can lead to dislocation or ligaments being stretched beyond their limits. Stress fractures and muscle strains are two other common injuries in tennis. They are caused by quick jerky movements that happen quicker than the muscle and bone can respond, causing breaks and sprains. However, if the player stretches properly and exercises to strengthen muscles daily and also warms up properly before competition or practice most of these injuries can be avoided. While injuries do happen in sport and it is inevitable, preparing your body is a key element in avoiding injury.

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