New York Times: The Evolution of Tennis in Four Grips

There seems to be no end to the arguments about which players use which forehand grips. And the small adjustments that players make with their hand positions make it tricky to lump them into neat categories.

Nevertheless, here is a historical trip around the grip.


When Grass Was King

When Laver placed his left palm on the top bevels of the handle in the 1960s and ’70s, he was using the Continental grip. It was passed down through a game that had been played nearly exclusively on grass. It was the perfect forehand grip for the way the game was played: The grass produced low, skidding shots, and most players’ swings, with wooden rackets, produced little spin.

It was a serve and volley game. When players weren’t exchanging knee-high shots, they were getting to the net to avoid the unreliable grass bounces, and to put away their opponents with sharp-angled volleys. It took only the slightest grip adjustments to hit nearly any shot that came their way.

Players who used the Continental forehand grip

Rod Laver

Margaret Court

Billie Jean King

John McEnroe

Until the mid-1970s, three of the four major tournaments were played on grass, so the Continental grip had a long life as the forehand grip of choice among the game’s players.

The popularity of this grip began to decline in the 1970s but persisted into the ’80s and ’90s with players like John McEnroe, Martina Navratilova and Stefan Edberg. It lives on today as the Swiss Army knife of grips, with most players using it on shots like their serves, overheads, volleys and chip shots.

But as a forehand grip, it is no longer suited to today’s high-speed, high-spin, high-bounce game, and it has gone the way of wooden rackets.


Borg Starts a Revolution

Watch Roger Federer connect on a hip-high forehand, and you are looking at an Eastern grip, although maybe not one as classic as Pete Sampras’s.

“Pete was a true 3, 3,” said John Yandell, explaining that Sampras had both his index knuckle and the heel pad of his palm squarely on Bevel 3.

Federer modifies his by moving his index knuckle a bit more toward Bevel 4, said Yandell, who created and who analyzes high-speed video of the pro game.

Federer’s grip is a bit of a bridge. It looks familiar to those who used the Eastern in the ’70s and ’80s, but it is creeping toward the bottom of the handle enough to look at home in today’s game.

Players who used the Eastern forehand grip

Chris Evert

Pete Sampras

Steffi Graf

Roger Federer

Although Bill Tilden is widely credited with inventing the Eastern grip in the 1920s, it was Bjorn Borg’s use of it in the ’70s that proved to be a game-changer.

Borg slid his hand down from the Continental, and a tennis revolution was underway.

He began imparting far more topspin on the ball than anyone else, hitting harder and harder shots that would dive down inside the opponent’s baseline instead of going long.

According to Yandell, Borg introduced the notion that a player could win by playing almost exclusively from the backcourt with hard, topspin shots — a familiar sight in today’s game.

Bjorn Borg used an Eastern grip and an upward swing path to create topspin.

There was so much topspin that many believed he was using an even more severe grip, like the Semi-Western. (Battles still rage in chat rooms about it.)

“You could say the slide underneath the handle started with Borg. He just didn’t slide it very far,” Yandell said.

Instead, Borg paired the Eastern grip with an upward, arcing swing path to create all that topspin.


Topspin Wins the Day

The generation of players in this year’s United States Open have been using modern racket and string technology since their youth. The quest for more power and topspin is in their D.N.A.

What was once a slow evolution of grips became a race toward the bottom of the handle.

“It was like a domino fall,” Yandell said. “One guy slides his grip underneath the handle and starts hitting loopier, heavier topspin. And then the ball bounces up to the other guy’s shoulder. And, you know, he just does the same.”

Serena Williams’s Semi-Western forehand.

The Semi-Western grip moves the hand another notch clockwise from the Eastern (or counterclockwise for left-handers).

The farther the grip is under the racket, the more the hand and arm naturally work together to create the arc of the swing that was so evident with Borg.

That arc, commonly known as the “windshield wiper” because of the shape it makes, paired with the Semi-Western grip, creates tremendous topspin.

The “windshield wiper” arc of Novak Djokovic’s forehand.

Where Federer creates about 2,500 r.p.m.s of topspin with his modified Eastern grip, Nadal’s severe Semi-Western grip (almost a Western) creates nearly 4,000, Yandell said.

The Semi-Western is well suited for today’s shoulder-high bounces, allowing a player to more easily get the racket up and over the ball at contact to impart the spin.

But the grip and path of the swing also mean the contact point needs to be in front of the players. This forces players to stand deep behind the baseline to give them enough reaction time.

What the Continental was to Laver and generations before him, the Semi-Western is to today’s players. From Serena Williams to Novak Djokovic, the Semi-Western grip and its subtle variations hit the sweet spot on the handle that matches the demands of today’s game.


Tennis Reaches the Bottom

This brings us back to Khachanov, the ninth-ranked player in the world.

The 23-year-old Russian used his big serve and powerful Western-grip forehand to get to the quarterfinals of this year’s French Open and to beat Djokovic in the 2018 Paris Masters.

Khachanov is among only a few current players — Kyle Edmund and Jack Sock among them — who use the Western grip, placing their palm under the racket, creating even greater topspin shots hit with immense power.

Karen Khachanov

Kyle Edmund

Jack Sock

And as topspin increases, so does the height of the bounces, making this not only an optimal grip for high bounces but a cause of them as well.

But today’s Western grip also has its limitations. Players are constantly shifting their forehand grip to react to other shots coming their way: a backhand, a volley, an ankle-high chip.

The Western grip doesn’t always work so well on those other shots, so what might be micro-adjustments from an Eastern or Semi-Western grip, become larger adjustments from the Western.

The polar opposite grips of Laver and Khachanov speak to the ever-changing nuances of tennis.

It’s unclear whether this is the end of the line for tennis’s grip migration, but so far, you could say the forehand grip has come half circle.