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Tennis Mythbusters: Is The “Wrist Snap” On The Serve Real?

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Welcome to a new segment on TacticalTennis called “Tennis Mythbusters”. Over the coming weeks we will look at some of the commonly held ‘wisdoms’ of tennis teachers and players everywhere and examine them to see if they are in truth fact or fiction! In the first installment of the series we will look at the ‘wrist snap’ on the serve.

I’m a professional coach and I hear it all the time from other coaches when they are teaching their players – “more wrist snap on the serve”. And when I stop and think about this is a phrase I’ve been hearing my entire tennis life – for 30 years now! But is the wrist snap a real phenomenon? Is it something we should be striving for and using in our own technique?

What Exactly Is “Wrist Snap”?

To begin with let’s take a quick look at the proper biomechanical terms to describe wrist movement. For our purposes this simple diagram borrowed from Jeffygolf.com will suffice:

extension vs flexion

The typically held view from most tennis coaches is that the wrist snap on the serve involves taking the wrist from a position of extension, and ‘snapping’ it to a position of flexion as we hit the ball. Ostensibly this is supposed to add power to our serve, and many coaches believe this is the missing piece of the puzzle to get extra ‘pop’ out of your motion. Part of the reason this has caught on and become a part of most tennis instructor’s accepted wisdom is it makes a certain amount of intuitive sense. Surely if I were to add a flick of my wrist at the top of my serve I’d get some more power right?

Let’s take a look at some of the best servers in tennis and see what they do with their wrists around the point of contact shall we?

Milos Raonic

Milos Raonic's wrist position before, during and after contact

Milos Raonic’s wrist position before, during and after contact

Given he has possibly the most potent serve in the history of the sport, Milos Raonic seemed like a good place to start. I mean after all a man who hits aces on 25% of his first serves in the modern game must be doing something right. The image obviously has three frames – in the far left Raonic has externally rotated his shoulder and extended his racket down his back. At this point you can see his wrist is in a position of mild extension. Frame two shows that, at contact, his wrist is in a neutral position. The third picture on the right is the most interesting one however. Where we might expect his wrist to be in flexion at this point, it actually remains in a neutral position. Instead, Roanic has internally rotated the shoulder such that his racquet face is pointing off to the right.

We’ll revisit this shoulder rotation later in another article, but the important thing to note for now is this: Raonic has no flexion of his wrist through contact with the ball, and as such we can safely say he does not ‘snap’ his wrist when he serves.

 

Roger Federer

Federer's wrist position before, during and after contact on the serve

Federer’s wrist position before, during and after contact on the serve

The Swiss Maestro’s serve tells a similar tale. Extension during the early phases of acceleration, to a neutral position at contact. And then following contact the wrist remains neutral with internal rotation of the shoulder occurring. Again we see no flexion, and no evidence of a ‘snap’ of the wrist. Rather as the player reaches up to the ball, the wrist naturally moves from a position of extension to a strong neutral position where it remains until well after contact.

Conclusion

We could certainly examine a multitude of servers at the elite level but the results are consistent. Nadal, Wawrinka, Monfils… every top professional male player examined shows that not a single one of them showed evidence of wrist snap on their serve. The reality is that the wrist simply isn’t as active of a component of the service motion as the vast majority of coaches and players believe. It undergoes extension during the acceleration phase as a means to allow continued, smooth acceleration of the racquet head. However once it reaches a neutral position (which occurs prior to contact), the wrist stabilizes and merely makes minor adjustments for the purposes of aiming the serve.

The verdict? Myth Busted!

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10 Comments
  1. you are right about the wrist but wrong about the primacy of the shoulder rotation. The rotation comes from the ulnar muscle (forearm) and the shoulder is along for the ride. That forearm pronation is the last and essential ingredient to a powerful serve. Just rotate your forearm muscle as fast as you can – can we move any muscle as quick as we can move that one. Man was meant to throw and pronation is essential to throwing- ask a baseball pitcher and especially a QB. Actually don’t ask them because they probably don’t know that is what they are doing. But please try this little experiment. Raise your arm and try rotating your shoulder without rotating the forearm. Hard to do and doesn’t feel like a powerful move, does it? Now from the same position, rotate the forearm – pretty powerful, huh? and the Shoulder goes along for the ride. Forearm pronation is not something to be debated. Man was meant to throw – for 100s of thousands of years on the African Savannah, it was key to our acquiring food, and the super rotational shoulder and the fast-firing forearm muscles are there for our survival. I know it from study but also from having a great serve, being a former pitcher and throwing footballs. It’s amazing that’s its not better understood.

    • Hi MJ. As it turns out, biomechanically internal rotation of the shoulder happens more quickly than pronation of the forearm. Also as a larger and more powerful motion, it undoubtedly adds more racquet head velocity to the service motion than pronation does. The shoulder is not along for the ride – it is a primary driver. The forearm pronation is actually the secondary element in this instance.

  2. Looking forward to some Australian Open analysis GH!

    • Sorry to disappoint Brandon! I watched some, but didn’t get the opportunity to really write. My college team started matches earlier this year and things were hectic!

      Glen

  3. Hi Glen, I just stopped to inform your readers about eTennis league – flex tennis leagues. Get info on spring leagues at https://www.etennisleague.com/en/register

  4. So I’d been for awhile wondering how Federer/Sampras/Raonic et al got that arm position after ball contact…thanks, this article, plus a video linked on reddit on forearm pronation, has made sense of it, and has changed my serve. I thought I already had a good bit of easy power on my serve, but adding forearm pronation has really taken it up a notch.

    But now I’m wondering about my 2nd serve. I’m still new to this forearm pronation, so I have to rely on my 2nd serve a good bit. I’ve never been able to reliably hit a kick serve; traditionally I’ve just re-hit my 1st serve but added more spin. But I’m finding that a little more challenging now, because I don’t get that 1st “practice” serve. What I’m wondering is whether forearm pronation should come into play on a 2nd serve, or is just for 1st serves?

    • An edit to the above: after some more reading, it seems that I used “forearm pronation” incorrectly above. What I should have said is “internal shoulder rotation”. I need to watch some 2nd serve videos to see if it happens on the 2nd serve.

      • It does happy on the second serve also. In reality the differences between first and second serves are quite subtle given the vast difference in type of ball that can come from them.

  5. Hi

    So should one consciously tell oneself to rotate their shoulders whilst serving or would it occur naturally as the arm would have to end up to the left side of the body anyway?

    Thanks

    • This is actually a good question. For many people that internal rotation occurs naturally – it really wasn’t until I wrote the article that I went back and looked at videos of my own serve and saw that I internally rotated without realizing it. This doesn’t happen for everyone though – some people’s brains just don’t make that connection intuitively. So were I you I’d first take video and check and see what I’m actually doing, then start focusing on it if needed to correct a lack of rotation.