BIRDS DO IT, BEES DO IT: SPINS
Kids, send the grownups out of the court. This is something they should
have learned a long time ago. Spin separates the men and women from the
boys and girls. This is an egghead article, but spin's useful on every
shot. Let's first look at the basics.
There are three possible axes about which a sphere like the racquetball can
rotate. Think of them as skewers through an orange: 1) Vertical, or
spinning about an axis that runs from the center bottom to top of the ball.
2) Horizontal, or for our purpose, an axis that goes through the ball's
center from sidewall to sidewall. 3) Front-to-back, or an axis that runs
through the center ball from front wall to back wall. Of course, there are
various blends of these basic three axes, but lets keep it simple.
Realizing the three axes, the ball may rotate in one of two directions
around each, giving a total of possible six spins. These are: 1) For the
vertical axis - in-spin or out-spin. In-spin is where the ball's
inside-front edge leads the twirl. That is, for the righty forehand,
in-spin when viewed from the top goes clockwise. Out-spin rotates in the
opposite direction. 2) For the horizontal axis - topspin or bottom spin
(also called under-spin). Top-spin is where the top-front edge of the ball
leads the twirl, and bottom-spin goes in the reverse direction. 3) For the
front-to-back axis -outside corkscrew or an inside corkscrew. The ball
rotates as if looking at the south end of a chicken on a rotisserie spit.
An outside corkscrew for the righty forehand when viewed from behind is
clockwise, and the inside corkscrew is counterclockwise.
If you're new to this game, stick with the basic six for a while. If you're
eager after the six, continue to assay combinations of these, per the
specific shot chart below, or others. For example, an out-spin combined
with a top-spin produces an out-top spin that's useful on the cross-court
We've defined 'interface' in a different article as the miniature frame of
space/time when the ball's on the strings. This may last for a couple
inches, or in terms of time, a split-second. The interface is where the
ball takes the spin. Understand also that the ball has spin coming into the
racquet, and it will pick up slight english in the 'wind' to the front wall.
Yet, spin is best studied at the interface. Traditionalists will further
argue that back swing, follow-through and chewing gum affect spin, but I
think the focus should be on the interface per the discussion in 'Horizontal
Fences and Telephone Poles'.
There's an interesting trade-off of velocity and spin that, I believe, leads
many players to conceive they hit the ball hard because they hit it flat and
spin-less. The idea is that a given force can be imparted to the ball as
either spin or forward velocity. There are as many arguments against as for
this. For example, I think a spinning ball 'cuts' through the air to reduce
residence hence boost speed, and I know that a rotating top or sphere has
greater stability due to angular momentum. Nonetheless, the general safe
assumption is that spin takes some pace off ball while gaining control since
it stays on the strings longer. I relish it. The delayed release off the
face also allows the foe to commit to the wrong direction before you commit
the shot. In contrast, the hardest hitter to date (180 mph clocked, about
twice as fast as a baseball fastball), Cliff Swain, tries to get the ball
off the strings as quickly as possible for greater boom and less reaction
time by the opponent.
Early in the stroke training, one must mix accuracy into the salad with spin
and velocity. My thought is that the more spin to a degree, the more
accuracy. The more excessive velocity, the less accuracy. My advice is to
experiment systematically with spin, velocity and accuracy to arrive at your
personal best, and keep the counsel of master Bud Muehleisen, 'When you take
just 10% off the ball through a slightly less intense swing, you'll avoid
over-hitting and change the complexion of the match; and when you add just
10% speed to the ball through slightly increased intensity on the setup, you
can quicken the pace and turn the match.' A little goes a long ways in the
trilogy trade-offs of spin, velocity and accuracy.
The most telling change in racquetball teaching methods since day one has
been the turnabout in stroke emphasis from accuracy to power. From the 70's
to mid-eighties, my instruction was to hit the ball with control and
accuracy at a front wall bulls-eye, then add increments of velocity over
time. From the mid-80's to present, the beginner is probably rightly taught
to hit initially with raw power into the front wall, and gradually hone in
on the bulls-eye. The adjustment, certainly, is a reflection of the
equipment. If you've got a big gun and a high-caliber bullet - why not
shoot it, and later install accuracy slowly. I don't like the game's
status-quo, but have coped, as has my teaching style. Let's jump back to
spins in a big way.
SHOT AND SPIN CHART: Examples of spin on specific shots:
1) Down-line pass or killshots - Out-spin. Top-spin or bottom-spin works
on passes but lacks the requisite horizontal accuracy for kills. Outside
corkscrew provides an effective 'wallpaper' down-line pass, but is
contraindicated for kills.
2) 'Feathered' ceiling shots - A bottom-spin from a full-overhand stroke
that 'feathers' the bottom backside of the ball causes it to carry deeper
in the court and along the sidewall alleys.
3) Down-line drive serve - Topspin, or bottom spin. The former keeps the
ball low off the front wall and floor. An outside corkscrew is good for a
softer drive or lob.
4) To lower drive serves - Topspin, when the shot's hit hard.
5) Cross-court drive serve - A blend of top and out-spin imparted by coming
over the top-outside of the ball. An outside corkscrew works for a
6) Straight-in kills - I like out-spin with a fast ball, and in-spin with a
slow one, but other players find success with different blends. In-spin
gives good kill accuracy, but should the ball rise before or after front
wall reflection, it adversely hops into the sidewall.
7) Pinch kills - In-spin causes the ball favorably to hurry without
dropping along the side to front walls.
8) Down-line pass - Out-spin, outside corkscrew, top-spin or bottom-spin.
9) Cross-court pass - Out-spin or outside corkscrew. (Note that in-spin on
a down-line or cross- court pass is normally disastrous in causing the ball
to hop into rather slide along the near side wall.)
10) Overhead pass - Topspin is preferred, though a mix of top and out-spin
11) Overhead kill - ¾ overhand stroke with a natural top and out-spin is
12) 'Duck wings over a pond' - (Read notes below.) In-spin, or out-spin.
13) 'Toy top gyroscopic effect' - (Read notes below.) In-spin, or out-spin.
14) Mid-court overhead rise (Described in 'The Rise and Fall of Your Game'.)
- ¾ overhand stroke with a spin mix of top and out-spin.
Players into even the pros ranks protest collectively, 'I hit the ball
'flat'!', or without spin. I think otherwise, and you'll decide only by
watching them through a glass-walled court. When one of their tours comes
to your neighborhood, reserve a spot on the carpet outside the back or side
glass wall. Crouch low so the eyes are at a level with the mean killshot
racquet contact, about a foot off the floor. From the sidewall glass, look
for the ball rises and falls en route to the front wall due to spin; and
from the back glass, look for curves side-to-side due to spin. One day the
manufacturers will mold a 'Zebra', 'Neapolitan', or 'Dalmatian' ball to aid
spin observation. You can paint your own balls back at home with a spray
can, typewriter correction fluid, or magic marker to delve into spins.
I'll touch lightly on the esoteric topic of harnessing the cosmos via spin
to advantage on the court. Of the many, I like three paths: 1) Ball curve
due to 'wind' on the lead edge. This in-flight push against the ball's
leading surface causes it to curve, hop or dip. It's analogous to the
baseball or ping-pong ball swerves, but is too tricky here to state whether
the racquetball acts as a non-textured ping-pong, or a seamed baseball, or
both. 2) 'Duck wings over a pond surface.' This is a favorable little hop
of the killed ball (I think not imagined) near the floor just before the
front wall which helps prevent skips. If you misshape the ball on impact,
and spin it in flight to build pressure underneath, it should 'hover' rather
than touch when nearing the floor. When a duck takes off from a still lake
with wings flapping and feet touching the water for a distance, the duck
stays low to the surface for building air pressure between the wings and
water. 3) 'Toy top gyroscopic effect'. This is a vertical hop, or drop, of
the ball within the realm of gravity that has no bearing on air. It can
happen in a space bound court as long as you know the direction of the pull
of gravity. If you've ever seen a toy top climb a string, the possible
effect on the racquetball is easier to swallow. In summary, you can combine
the above three agencies for some bizarre stuff on the ball. The paragraph
also begs many questions that won't be answered in one narrow article, so
please be content with a taste to explore.
I started in paddleball and switched to racquetball with little change in
stroke for many years. In racquetball mid-career. I adjusted my stroke to
suit the equipment 'advances'. Paddleball uses a wood paddle and slower
ball that can be misshaped and spun to buffet against the win to produce
in-flight hooks and jumps. This is harnessing the air pressure. A sidearm
in-spin stroke levered greatest rotational speed to attack the air, plus
provided a gyroscopic Frisbee rise near the front wall to help prevent
skips. When I transitioned within racquetball, I found that the faster
speed somewhat negated the air effect on the ball, so I learned to use
out-spin to enjoy the gyroscopic toy top effect from gravity rather than
air. That isn't to say that you can't use a racquetball in-spin stroke for
similar fruit, but in racquetball I prefer the fringe benefits of out-spin
(or a combination out and top-spin) that include: A faster swing, deeper
contact in the stance, less interface time, ability to 'crack the whip' on
the stroke, and down-line serves and shots that run the alleys. This has
been a motivational paragraph for you to try everything you can think of; as
Let's make a visionary quest to answer exactly where on the court does spin
most affect the ball? Knowing these spots helps you to spin, stabilize and
curve your own balls auspiciously and often, until the day you arrive as a
spin-master and everyone calls you 'Lucky' over and over. I'll list the
typical places with little comment: 1) Off the strings - This is where the
ball rotation is fastest for the most vigor against air and gravity. 2) In
flight to the front wall - The ball can alter course due to a change in air
pressure at the surfaces. Try to have the ball curve away from the
opponent, and/or away from the near sidewall. 3) Within the final three
feet of the front wall - this is sticky to explain, but try to bend the
flight path to keep the ball from slipping, and to control the angle of
incidence into the front wall. 4) Reflection off front wall - Consider that
the front wall 'hits' the ball back at you, hence is a big racquet. The
angle of reflection should be away from the opponent, while more importantly
sliding along the side alley if hit down-line, or clinging low if hit
cross-court. 5) In flight from the front wall - Certainly the returning
ball's path, albeit traveling slower, is affected by the air, and the idea
is to continue the ball's swerve as in the previous #4 so that it slides
along the sidewall, stays low to the floor, and keeps distant from the
opponent's reaching racquet. 6) Floor bounce - This overlooked intersection
is where the ball scoot low to prevent it coming off the back wall, and
should either hop away from the rival's racquet or more generally along a
sidewall alley. 7) Finally, as handball players know, you can impart a
lasting ball spin that makes the opponent's stroke awkward. Q.E.D?
I acknowledge the head shakes in the reading audience, and the wonder at
what's coming next. All I can say, is that the foregoing points are true,
because I've seen various players utilize each of the listed seven spots,
and one player whom I'll introduce shortly as Mr. Q.E.D, that used at least
five of them every rally. In the meantime, if the preceding paragraph is
'Quite Easily Done' by you on the court, please drop a line for a one-way
ticket here to coach me.
Let's take a quick tour of today's spin-masters. The most recognizable and
easily observed is Marty Hogan whose fantastic sidespins (in-spins and
out-spins) earn flat kills and wall-hugging passes. Cliff Swain uses an
expert top and out-side combo on cross-court kills and service cross-court
aces with such consistency that one suspect he's aware of what makes spin
work. Sudsy Monchik has a grand gyration spin on his backhand that some deem
the best stroke in the game. Jason Manino just won five straight pro stops
using predominantly soft serves with a gathering angular momentum at the
ball's bottom to keep them low and difficult to short-hop. Dave Peck has a
wicked array of twirls that strand competitors with the ball always just out
of reach. Ruben Gonzales has the best mid-court overhead pass on the rise,
one of the sports more difficult shots, by applying a snappy three-quarter
pitcher's motion. Mike Ray claims that spin varies with balls and courts,
so he comes early to practice shots with spins to know what to use in an
upcoming match. As for me, one summer I spent 30 days at 10 hours a day on
and off the court studying just spin, and those notes of twenty years ago
fill a barrel.
It's safe to say that the only player to employ and fully understand spin at
top-level racquetball is Mr. Q.E.D., Vctor Niederhoffer. He's played in
over 10,000 refereed racquet matches, so spin comes naturally. His
inaugural racquetball win over a young Marty Hogan with a third game 20-20
'super-pinch' that hit both sidewalls and rolled out on the front for match
point has been called 'the most memorable shot in history'. I still play
midnight 'Moth Ball' with Victor on his outdoor, ceiling-less, four-wall
court set deep in the Connecticut woods whose lights attract thousands of
moths and we chase shots with closed mouths. I owe so much of my english
fluency to being frustrated by his. His racquet seems a wand that
customizes shots for each court situation. Once in frustration, I picked up
another missed ball to palpate to learn something. The sphere was oddly
warm, misshapen like an egg, with hard dimples, and spun in my hand as to
give a blister. I fell in love with spin that night while holding it.
Niederhoffer spooked all the pro players for a year while on circuit,
despite an inability to kill the ball. The blessing in witnessing or
knowing that such a spin-master exists is that it gives everyone a
confidence of what's possible and a standard to shoot for.
The goal in any racquetballer's life is to find and marry one stroke with
just one or two spin for all the serves and shots. You'll feel like you can
conquer the world. There is more than one proper stroke, which is to say
there is not a universal spouse. 'Racquetball for Smarties' offers five
stroke choices via rapid-sequence photos and text: 1) Cliff Swain's
controlled blasts hinge on racquet preparation. 2) Sudsy Monchik explodes
with strokes close to the body. 3) Marty Hogan's power smashes utilize a
raised racquet and pendulum swing. 4) Mike Ray offers the paragon control
strokes with level swings and hits. 5) The 'Smarty Stroke' is a composite
built from the assets of the four other strokes for the 'ideal' swings. One
stroke, one spin.
In wrap-up, these four champions with diverse strokes and spins have won 21
total world championships, one for every point of the game. Then along