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The unbearable lightness of the one-handed backhand

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The unbearable lightness of the one-handed backhand

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For the first time in the history of modern tennis, i.e. since 1968, there is not a single male or female tennis player who plays the one-handed backhand in the top 10 of the men’s and women’s world rankings. It is a historic event for many reasons, but those who know tennis well know that it is nothing particularly surprising: there are fewer and fewer high-level tennis players who play the one-handed backhand and will probably continue to decrease, because as As the game has evolved in recent decades it has become a much more attackable and difficult to control shot than its alternative, the two-handed backhand.

At the same time, the one-handed backhand is still considered one of the most representative and fascinating shots in tennis, which more than others is associated with the elegance of this sport: a somewhat ineffable concept that is best understood by watching the execution of a one-handed backhand and comparing it to that of a two-handed backhand. Following a tennis match, it is not uncommon to hear comments on commentary that speak of “class”, “elegance” or “elasticity of movement” in reference to a player executing a one-handed backhand. More concretely, it is the shot in which it is most necessary to mix extreme technical precision of movements and physical strength, but also the one that allows greater variety and unpredictability of the shots.

In ancient times, backhands were only played with one hand in tennis. Some Australians began to show two-handed backhands in the 1930s, but tennis players who played this way only really became widespread in the 1950s and 1960s, although they remained in the minority. Anyone who played a two-handed backhand was seen as an impure player, uncouth and unsuitable for tennis, which is a sport in which innovations have always been accepted with some difficulty and viewed with distrust. Starting from the Seventies, this narrative was undermined by tennis players such as the Swede Bjorn Borg and the American Jimmy Connors, who played the two-handed backhand and began to win a lot, and therefore also to be supported by many people and imitated by other tennis players: in 1974 Connors was the first tennis player ever with a two-handed backhand to become number 1 in the world rankings.

From then on the decline of the one-handed backhand was slow but inexorable. In the following decades, rackets evolved, the stringbed got bigger and the material went from wood to metal and then to graphite. All this has made shots increasingly faster and more powerful, and at the same time tennis players have become increasingly stronger and more athletic, in a way that has made it much more difficult for those using a one-handed backhand to withstand the greater impact of shots.

Today, tennis players who use the one-handed backhand are so rare that those who follow tennis usually know well who are among the top 50 in the world: Stefanos Tsitsipas, Grigor Dimitrov, Lorenzo Musetti, Christopher Eubanks and Daniel Evans among the men; the only Tatjana Maria among women. By expanding the sample, the decline of the one-handed backhand is understood even better: male tennis players who use it are 11 in the top 100, but only 48 in the top 1,000. Women with one-handed backhands are 3 in the top 100 and 18 in the top 1,000. This is why when a young man with a one-handed backhand reaches high levels it is always news, videos with enthusiastic comments begin to circulate, people interview him even just to ask: “Why?”.

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The last one-handed backhand player remaining in the top ten of the rankings until a few weeks ago was the Greek Stefanos Tsitsipas, who is currently 11th in the world. His exit from the top 10 is more than anything symbolic, Tsitsipas remains one of the strongest tennis players on the circuit and could return soon. But as he summarized effectively tennis journalist Allen McDuffee in the magazine RacquetTsitsipas has such a high level Despite its reverse. To put it simply, all the major experts agree that in modern tennis you can still be a high-level player with a one-handed backhand, but it is practically impossible to be one. Thank you to a one-handed backhand.

At the same time, however, the one-handed backhand somehow resists also because it allows those who use it to make spectacular shots and in some cases very difficult to defend, or to get out of particularly intricate situations, with exciting results that would not be possible with a two-handed backhand. A good example is this one-handed backhand in a match two years ago by Matteo Berrettini, who usually uses a two-handed backhand:

One of the major advantages of the one-handed backhand is its unpredictability: to make the most of it, however, you have to make the most of all its possible variations and alternate them frequently, which is complicated and expensive. Most of the time the one-handed backhand is played in “top-spin”, that is, with a movement of the racket from bottom to top, which gives the ball a forward rotation, accentuating its bounces. Other times you can play “dish“, that is, with a sharper stroke and less rotation of the wrist and arm, to give more force to the ball, make it bounce less and directly try to score a point (it is the type of one-handed backhand often used in winning shots by the Swiss Stan Wawrinka).

The other most frequent way of using it is the so-called slice, that is, cutting, moving the racket from top to bottom to reduce the speed of the ball and make it bounce with a backward effect. It is a defensive shot, which slows down the pace of the rally and forces the opponent to bend over and make a greater effort to get the ball over the net without exposing himself too much to a counterattack. One slice effectively it can practically only be done with one hand, and in fact even tennis players who usually use the backhand with two hands do it this way, some better (Berrettini and Novak Djokovic, for example) and some worse. Another variation that works best with the one-handed backhand are the short, or muffled, balls, which are executed in a similar way to the slice but giving much more spin to the ball. Furthermore, the one-handed backhand requires a wider movement of the arm and at the same time a rotation of the wrist such as to produce more angled shots even from the baseline.

In short, at the single point, the one-handed backhand can still be an effective weapon, as well as beautiful and fun to look at. The problem is that in the long run it gives many more disadvantages than advantages. In fact, today tennis is played mainly from the baseline and with powerful shots, due to the evolution of the rackets and the greater athleticism of the players. The volleys near the net (the so-called stolen) are instead less and less important, yet they are a part of the game in which the tennis players who use the one-handed backhand are generally strong: the shorter time available to hit in fact requires using only one hand even with the backhand, and for controlling a ball before it hits the ground, i.e. as it goes faster, requires a sensitivity that tennis players with one-handed backhands tend to have more.

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Giving force to the ball or hitting powerfully with a two-handed backhand is much easier, precisely because the thrust of two arms is used, and it is therefore also easier to respond to the powerful shots of modern tennis. In recent decades the speed of the serve, i.e. the stroke with which the point is started, has increased enormously: just to give an example, at the men’s Australian Open tournament in 1999 the average speed of the serves was 170 kilometers per hour, while at last tournament in Dubai at the end of February was 196 kilometers per hour (both are played on hard courts).

The serve has become the shot around which everything revolves both for the server and for the returner, and returning with a one-handed backhand is a big weak point: because on average a more defensive, weaker and shorter shot is played, which it often gives the opponent time to enter the court by getting closer to the net, which is always an advantage: in fact, the further you are inside your own half of the court, the more you can angle a shot and make it more difficult for the opponent to reach the ball.

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In order for the one-handed backhand not to become a weak point, the movement must always be executed perfectly, without mistakes, while the two-handed backhand can be effective and maintain a certain power even if it is more “dirty”. The movement to be done is much quicker and simpler. In a tennis where the rallies are increasingly longer this makes the difference: if at one point you are forced to use the one-handed backhand several consecutive times it is much easier to make mistakes.

The two-handed backhand of the Russian Daniil Medvedev: one of the best on the circuit, despite the cumbersome coordination (AP Photo/Asanka Brendon Ratnayake)

For all these reasons, today it is almost impossible to find a coach who encourages beginners to use the one-handed backhand. Now the only reason why there are still tennis players who do it, by their own admission, is the emulation of the great champions of the past, and for the current generation in particular the Swiss Roger Federer. Federer not only had one of the best one-handed backhands in history, but he has long been the dominator of the circuit and the most loved thanks to his backhand. Already in the 1990s and 2000s, tennis players with a one-handed backhand were the minority, but the strongest and most successful of those two decades were respectively Pete Sampras and then Federer, both with a one-handed backhand: in short, there was the belief that that was the shot of the strongest, despite (or precisely because) it was more difficult to use. From the 1910s onwards this is no longer true either.

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Christopher Eubanks, who is 27 years old and 34th in the world ranking, said he switched to one-handed backhand at 14 and that if he could go back he wouldn’t do it again: «I wanted to do it because I loved Federer. Now I go to my father and tell him ‘why did you let me do this?'”. Eubanks explained that one of the biggest difficulties for him is returning shots with his backhand top-spin which have very high rebounds, because they force you to move back a lot to hit them at the right height and therefore more strength is needed to send a shot to the other side that puts the opponent in difficulty. When you decide to use a one-handed backhand as a kid, Eubanks said, “you have no idea that there are going to be guys hitting balls over your shoulder your whole career.”

A player like Rafael Nadal, who is considered the pioneer of top-spin exasperated and is left-handed, he has always been the worst possible opponent for those who are right-handed (almost everyone on the circuit) and use a one-handed backhand, because he can play diagonal shots (the simplest ones for anyone and therefore more frequent) on the side weakness of the opponent, constantly putting him in difficulty. It’s one of the reasons Nadal has a historic and oft-cited record of 19-0 against Frenchman Richard Gasquet, one of the best single-handed backhands to hit the circuit in decades.

The greater adaptability of the two-handed backhand to modern tennis does not mean that tennis players with the one-handed backhand will disappear completely, but that they will certainly continue to be very rare, and that to reach the highest levels they will have to work on the power of the shot and other physical measures (a little as he had done Austrian Dominic Thiem at the peak of his career). However, the one-handed backhand is still very suitable for clay, where the ball travels slower and there is more time to coordinate, and if the variations are used well it is very effective on grass, where the ball bounces lower and splashes irregularly (lo slice for example it is one of the most effective shots on grass). Today, however, 70 percent of the points on the circuit are awarded in tournaments played on hard courts.

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