Whip Action Tennis

First up in a new series of posts about Art’s tools: The Whip.

“However far the stream flows, it never forgets its source” — Nigerian Proverb

“From a pure source, pure water comes” — Latin Proverb

Anyone who’s been around Art knows that he loves his tools. Whether it’s ribbons, poi, bo staff, nunchakus or maracas, there’s always something cooking court-side involving rhythm, flow, circular movement, coordination, and concentration . . . and everyone gets involved: no idle bystanders are tolerated. Players, parents, fellow coaches, passers by; before long all are hooked on the fun of swinging, spinning, flexing, and rotating these implements. Compelling as these activities are in themselves, for Art they’re always a means to refine skills, coordination, and alignment relevant to tennis.

Among all the implements Art uses, the whip holds pride of place as a teaching tool. Nothing else so effectively clarifies the full process of collection, storage, transmission, and release of energy that underlies every action in tennis. The whip beautifully simplifies things because it very tangibly connects theoretical notions of energy transmission with the physical reality of — explosive, unforgettable — energy transmission. So, it seems only fitting to start off this series with a look at how it works.

A whip cracking is pure energy. When the whip moves through its arc, it gathers energy up, creating a loop or fold that moves along the whip and eventually releases as the whip straightens out at full extension. This turns out to have great application to a tennis swing.

The “crack” of a whip occurs when a section of the whip moves faster than the speed of sound, creating a small sonic boom. It’s tempting to think the cracker at the end of the whip that moves so fast is the part that causes the sound, but some curious and intrepid math researchers at the University of Arizona recently discovered that it’s actually the movement of the loop itself through the whip itself that causes the sonic boom: “The crack of a whip comes from a loop traveling along the whip, gaining speed until it reaches the speed of sound and creates a sonic boom.” (Read Tyler McMillen and Alain Goriely’s whole paper, which is full of awesome diagrams, here.) 

If you’ve ever cracked a whip, you know how concretely you feel that collection and release of energy. And this is exactly why Art loves the whip — it leads you into the motion; you can’t help but follow the wave of contraction followed by expansion that you’ve initiated, and this same collection and release of energy is the key to a smooth and powerful tennis stroke. The perfect alignment and timing that makes for a satisfying “crack” is the same alignment and timing, the same attention to the gathering and release of energy, that makes for perfectly satisfying contact with the ball.

Of course the energy that moves along the whip starts in you, the whip-wielder. Moving up from your foot, through your ankle, your hip, along your twisting torso, through your shoulder, down your arm to your hand and fingers and into the whip, moving from a big place (your body) to a very small place (the whip’s cracker). Energy that starts in a big place and funnels along an increasingly narrower channel increases the velocity of movement and the concentration of energy. Assuming alignment and posture are just right with no added wiggles or inefficiency of motion . . . CRACK.

It much easier to understand the power of the whip for tennis when you see it in action, so here for your enjoyment are some slow-motion demo videos. 

* Special Thanks to Blake Bruning of Trinity Whip Co, who makes Art’s favorite whips. You can check out the Carrington Series here.

What do you think? Are you a whip cracker? Have you experienced the whip action connection in your own tennis practice? Let us know in the comments below.

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