Left Out

Where have all the southpaws gone? Once a major force in tennis, they were barely in evidence at the U.S. Open
September 12, 2004

During a week in which thousands of Republicans convened in New York City, it was only fitting that Queens was overrun with players leaning to the right. Of the 256 players in the two singles draws of the U.S. Open, only 21 (13 men and eight women) were lefthanded. By the end of Labor Day just one southpaw, unseeded Michael Llodra of France, was, well, left in the tournament.

At first blush it's not a complete statistical aberration, given that lefthanders represent barely 10% of the population. But in tennis being lefthanded has always been thought to confer a decided advantage. Consider the success of such A-list southpaws as Rod Laver, Jimmy Connors, John McEnroe, Martina Navratilova and Monica Seles. Lefties have an easier time cutting serves out wide to the ad court, where most of the crucial points begin. The spin on a portsider's shot makes the ball break at unexpected angles. Above all, as in boxing, facing a southpaw messes with a righty's mind. "I always thought the psych-out factor was the biggest advantage--that and the fact that lefties are naturally smarter," says McEnroe. "It's a different look, so it takes [righthanders] a set or two to adjust: Hey, wait, a down-the-line forehand approach shot is going to his forehand side. That can get in some guys' heads."

Despite these benefits, lefthanders have joined serve-and-volleyers as the rarest of tennis fauna. At the end of 1975 half of the Top 10 male players were lefthanded. Now the highest-ranked lefty is No. 32 Feliciano López of Spain, who has never won an ATP tournament. Since McEnroe won his last U.S. Open in 1984--capping an 11-year stretch of lefty champions in Queens--only four of the 79 men's Grand Slam tournaments have been won by southpaws.

Among the women, the highest-seeded lefty last week was No. 15 Patty Schnyder. The last lefthanded woman to have won a Grand Slam singles title? Seles, nearly nine years ago. "It's pretty stunning," says McEnroe. "It's a big change that no one talks about that much."

So what's up with the vanishing left? Stanley Coren, a professor of psychology at the University of British Columbia and author of The Left-Hander Syndrome, argues that a quarter century ago lefties had a hard time finding customized equipment to play golf, for example, and as that and other sports have become more lefty-friendly, they have lured away young athletes who once gravitated to tennis. Another school of thought: The athleticism and power required to play tennis at the top level today overwhelm any lefty advantage--thus the proportion of lefthanded players ought to reflect that of the general population. McEnroe thinks that the drop-off might simply be "a fluke" and that eventually the trend will reverse itself.

If he is correct, look for Rafael Nadal to lead the leftist resurgence. The 18year-old Spaniard is an emerging star, a cocksure all-court player who earlier this year beat No. 1--ranked Roger Federer. A nephew of Spanish League soccer star Miguel Angel Nadal, Rafael is an exceptional athlete whose baby face is at odds with his hulking physique.

Yet his lefthandedness has been almost incidental to his success. Losing to Andy Roddick in the second round at the U.S. Open, Nadal had his serve broken seven times in three sets. And if he presented Roddick with a new set of angles, the defending champ had little trouble adjusting. "Lefties gave me some problems early in my career, but I've started playing them pretty well," Roddick says.

Nadal, too, dismisses his supposed advantage. "Being lefthanded," he says, "is not something I think about."

COLOR PHOTOMANNY MILLAN MAC POINT Someday Nadal may be as lofty a lefty as McEnroe (inset) was. COLOR PHOTOELISE AMENDOLA/AP (MCENROE) MAC POINT Someday Nadal may be as lofty a lefty as McEnroe (inset) was.

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