In modern-day men’s tennis, no pattern of play is as prevalent as the serve & forehand scheme. Back in the day, it would have been serve & volley, but given the technological changes in racquet technology and surface composition, serves and forehands reign supreme.
By contrast, women’s tennis is much less static in patterns of play. The diversity in styles and strokes is truly part of why the WTA entertains fans day in and day out – particularly next to their generally big-serving, big-forehanding male counterparts.
The number of top WTA players who prefer their forehands to their backhands is much slimmer than on the ATP. The few lefties in the Top 25 thrive on the unique spin afforded to their forehands, and a few clay court connoisseurs look to their forehanded weapons for greater effect – yet for the most part, the women’s game is a game of backhands.
It is fitting, then, that the subject of this week’s #SaturdayNightShots is one of the most identifiable and devastating shots in women’s tennis – spoiler alert: it’s a forehand! – and arguably the best one in the game.
Ana Ivanovic burst onto the scene in 2005 when, as a 17-year-old qualifier representing the former Yugoslavia, she won her maiden title during the Australian swing. She followed it up with several other strong results and a run to the quarterfinals of the French Open, where she and her massive forehand were introduced to the world on an international stage.
If little girls are indeed made of sugar and spice, Ana’s bubbly off-court personality is the sugar and her forehand the spice. Both have earned her millions of dollars and fans over the years, but it’s her signature shot alone that helped her make history. By winning the 2008 French Open in a flurry of groundstroke winners, she became one of just 41 different women in the Open Era to win a Grand Slam singles title.
Ivanovic has attempted many changes in her career, from fitness to service toss to coaches to trainers, yet her forehand is the one thing (apart from her Adidas dresses) that has remained the same. The technique has remained relatively static over more than a decade of professional competition, and it continues to be one of the most feared weapons in a game largely dominated by backhands.
The Serb’s forehand is characterized by impeccable timing and explosive forward movement. The former No. 1 has a large backswing, and uses the momentum to rapidly accelerate through the ball, where her contact point is often in the dead centered. She can manipulate the trajectory of the ball and her follow-through adds a deceptively high amount of spin, making the shot difficult to deal with, even for the opponent who can manage to reach it.
Ivanovic’s forehand is best when on the attack; she often runs around her significantly weaker backhand to hit powerful shots both inside-out and inside-in. Both trajectories have similar preparation, which make it difficult to read. However, the Brisbane finalist has also been able to use the shot defensively to great effect.
Whether it’s a miracle forehand pass from outside the court, or a defensive slice squash shot – it’s generally a wing most players tend to avoid at all costs.
After rising to World No. 1 with the claiming of her maiden Slam title, Ivanovic’s results (and ranking) began to tumble for many years. The “it’s a process” narrative had been frequently – and somewhat cynically – quoted by her legions of passionate fans. Each time she seemed close to making a return to form (“she’s back!!”), another poor result would follow. Her forehand may have remained consistent, but she proved that a weapon is only as strong as the person behind them. More than anything, it was her mental strength above anything that needed work.
At the beginning of last season, her run to the title in Auckland was the beginning of Ivanovic’s remarkable resurgence and the return of her fearsome forehand – but this time, more fearless. A year later, ranked back inside the Top 10, strong results in Australia may mark the beginning of an even greater year for the ever-popular Serb.
The following is a list of the pros and cons – or hits and misses – for Ivanovic’s forehand.
-Ivanovic’s forehand is a powerful, high paced shot with safe (but not floaty) margin above the net. It is also laced with deceptive topspin, making it spring up off the court with extra intensity.
-Due to the similar preparation for parallel and cross-court shots, it is incredibly difficult to read.
-A very technically sound, it provides exceptional accuracy and is less tendency to break down under pressure.
-It can also be an effective defensive shot; her forehands on the run are just as powerful and accurate as the more offensive variation, and a chip forehand further contributes to defensive endeavors.
-Unlike many forehands with large backswings, Ivanovic can take the ball extremely early without compromising placement or power.
-As mentioned before, a weapons is only as strong as the person behind it; when Ivanovic’s mental focus (and, as evidenced by 2009-2013, confidence) wavers, the forehand can spray errors as easily as it can fire winners.
-The large backswing can be problematic on faster surfaces with lower bounces like grass, despite the enhanced effectiveness of the shot itself. The fast court and low bounce can take away the time needed to produce the shot better afforded to her on clay and hard courts.