Why the one-handed backhand is a dying art in tennis
“I would be teaching a two handed topspin and a one-handed slice and volley. It practically takes a genius to hit a single-handed backhand.”
Those are the words of 18-time Grand Slam champion Martina Navratilova. If that is the prerequisite for success, perhaps that is why this majestic shot is fast becoming a dying art. In years to come it might just be consigned to the pages of history.
The three single-handed backhand musketeers—Roger Federer, 34, Stan Wawrinka, 30, and Richard Gasquet, 29—are renowned for wielding this wondrous stroke. Few however, are following in their illustrious footsteps.
Even 17-time Grand Slam champion Federer admitted that he would teach his kids to play with a two-hander due to the rackets being too heavy for up-and-comers—and legendary tennis coach Nick Bolletieri said nobody could ever beat the current World No. 3 if he wielded a two-hander.
A decade ago, there were around 50 one-handers in the men’s top 100 but now only one in five players use it—and just three of them are under the age of 25. For the women, the numbers are dwindling further still, with just four single-handers. As of August 2015 there were a meager six one-handers from the top 100 juniors on both the boys and girls section.
Craig O’Shannessy, also known as the “Brain Game” of tennis and a top tennis strategist, believes slower court speeds and reliance on fitness and string technology are contributing to the lack of junior one-handers today.
“Court speed more than anything else plays a major factor in what style of player is going to succeed,” says O’Shannessy.
“If the court gets slowed down too much, that just makes it harder for the serve and volleyer to be as effective. By manipulating the court speed, you really can dictate what playing style will dominate,” he says.
Rewind to the much faster courts of 1985 and a certain 14-year-old Pete Sampras was being told by his coach, Peter Fischer, that he would only win Wimbledon if he ditched his two-hander. Sampras struggled for years with the shot—the American was losing regularly to players he’d routinely beaten—but he went on to win the tournament seven times in his career.
Nevertheless, it’s hard to imagine he would have been as successful in these non-serve and volley friendly conditions—you can partly thank lighter rackets, polyester strings and a court homogenization slow-down for that.
Martin Weston, the national junior coach manager for British tennis, isn’t surprised by the shot’s dwindling presence, partly due to the its encumbrance. Weston, who ran an academy of his own for 15 years and coached players such as Dan Evans, Jamie Baker and other top British juniors, puts the decline of the one-hander down to several factors.
“There is an understandable emphasis placed on youngsters by parents and coaches to win the race to the top and a double-hander helps with that. Especially on high bouncing balls and returning serve,” says Weston.
“The importance of winning matches from a very young age, having instant success and maintaining it all the way through the ranks is crucial—more important than persisting with a one-hander where initially they may not be as successful.
“There is no obvious weakness for kids learning a two-hander. Unfortunately the one-hander will fade out and that is a real shame as it has aesthetic appeal, it brings variety with the slice, net transition and volleys. The few that do use it tend to reach the top.”
Having two hands on the racket, Weston says, helps child prodigies gain consistency and shot compactness. As the back part of their shoulder isn’t as strong as the front, two hands are needed, whereas just one is required for the forehand.
World No. 1 Novak Djokovic can vouch for that. His beloved former coach Jelena Gencic encouraged the Serb to use a single-hander, but Djokovic admitted he felt “very weak” dealing with high balls to his backhand, so he took up the two-hander instead.
O’Shannessy however, is confident that the shot still has a role in today’s game and that the sport will return to more net play—the ideal vehicle for single-handers.
“The one-handed backhand gets a bad rap as it takes longer out of the box to develop but if it is learned correctly, it can be a devastating all-court shot,” he says. “If coaches knew the exact technique to teach a one handed backhand at an early age [8-12], then we would naturally see a huge resurgence in the shot. I don’t buy that the two-hander is the future of the sport.”
Despite that view, Carlos Rodriguez, a former coach of Justin Henin—who possessed one of the finest one-handers the game has ever seen—says the shot will die out in the next decade. Not because it isn’t effective, but because of impatient coaches and parents, as LTA coach Weston pointed out.
From 1970-90, single-handers won more than 60% of Slams, but in the last 10 years, this has completely reversed. And if you take out Federer, that drops to under 10%.
From a scientific standpoint, 40 years ago Dr. Jack Groppel analyzed the biomechanics of both shots and concluded the single-hander is more difficult to master. It demanded more synchrony between the hips, legs, trunk, upper arm, forearm and hand.
As Weston mentioned, the best returners are two-handers. Case in point Djokovic, Andy Murray, Serena Williams or Maria Sharapova.
Not even in Federer and Wawrinka’s native Switzerland does there seem to be a renascence for the stroke.
“I was in Switzerland last summer at the European Junior Championships and the Swiss No. 1 walked, dressed and played his forehand like Federer. But he had a double-hander,” says Weston. “I know for a fact that no countries are going hell for leather to develop it. We [the LTA] certainly don’t recommend either way, we are there for support.”
Weston believes the shot’s restoration lies with mini tennis.
“Mini tennis, with its lighter rackets and balls, was designed to make the game easier and more accessible to very young kids, and that could lead to more youngsters taking up the one-hander," he says. “It will be interesting to see how it will all turn out.”