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Optimum Performance: Hip rotation and eye contact with the ball are two keys to better tennis

Key Biscayne, Florida – Last Sunday, while sitting in the players’ and coaches’ dining area at the Sony Open, I was struck by a comment that Venus Williams’ assistant made relative to the male and female players on the 2014 ATP / WTA tour. “The women are getting bigger and the men are getting skinny.” I glanced over to the next table where Roger Federer was eating a pre-game meal with his team before a match later in the day.

Having seen Federer up close at major tournaments over my last five years traveling with Serena Williams, he always impressed me as a very lean athlete with an elongated muscle structure, while Rafael Nadal, who I would occasionally share an elevator ride at a tour hotel, is built on a taller, compact frame. I would not characterize either player as “skinny.”


However, returning from dinner last week, I happened to walk into my hotel with Novak Djokovic — rated No. 2 on the men’s ATP tour- who at 6-foot-2 and 176 pounds, I just might call “skinny.”

Looking over the top 10 female tennis pros, the shortest player is Sara Errani (5-4/132), who, as of March 23, was rated No. 10 in the world, while the tallest top-10 female pro is Maria Sharapova (6-2/130), who comes in at No. 7. Serena Williams, rated No. 1, is 5-9 and 155 pounds. In fact, in the top 10 women, there is no player under 123 pounds or over 156 — at least on the statistics list.

Each of these top-10 women, and for that matter, the top 100 female players, hit for power both on serves and ground strokes. Last Saturday, Serena won a tough three-set match against Caroline Garcia. Both women were hitting first serves in excess of 110 miles per hour, with maximum serve speeds clocked at 120 mph.

Last Monday, Serena faced off against CoCo Vandeweghe (rated No. 104 on the WTA tour), who comes in at 6-1 and 154 pounds. Vandeweghe served first with a 122 mph fastball right at Serena’s body. And, she consistently demonstrated her power with first serves not less than 104 mph.

Great players must learn to control their power, which Vandeweghe has not yet mastered. Many of her powerful first serves hit the net. Williams went on to take the match 6-3, 6-1.

During a rain delay in the match, I discussed Vandeweghe’s powerful serve with Serena’s dad, Richard Williams, in the player’s fitness room. His comment was, “(Vandeweghe) is dangerous, because you never know where her serve is going.”

While height and weight are very important factors to leverage in order to increase power on the serve and ground stokes, it has more to do with the “how and where” contact is made with the ball. Contacting the ball in a balanced position (center of gravity), while executing proper torso rotation at the hips is the key to creating power in tennis, especially on the ground strokes.

One of the first comments Richard Williams made to me five years ago was, “when she (Serena) hits the ball, I want her hip pointing to the opposite fence” — referring to the fact that where the hip on the side of ball contact points, so goes the shoulder, arm, and racquet head. It’s a comment that I hear on a regular basis. In fact, last Monday in a pre-match warm up, Williams had me stand facing Serena’s forehand to focus on her hip rotation.

Another important point of reference relative to contact with the ball on return shots from the opponent is to bend your knees and keep your eye on the ball as contact is made. Standing straight before contact will not only create a power leakage, but, on many occasions, send the ball into the net –and add additional frustration to an already frustrating game.

Mackie Shilstone, a regular contributor to | The Times-Picayune, has been involved in the wellness sports performance industry for nearly 40 years. He is currently the fitness coach for Serena Williams, has trained numerous other professional athletes and consulted a litany of professional sports franchises. He is St. Charles Parish Hospital’s Fitness and Wellness expert. Contact him at


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