Reflections on Using a One-Handed Backhand

Jon Wertheim has recently mentioned how rare it is to see juniors at Grand Slam events using one-handed backhands.  I started learning to play tennis in 1985 and put serious time on my tennis game starting in 1989. In 1985 3 of the 4 Grand Slam titles were won by men with one-handed backhands.  In 1986 and 1987 all of the Grand Slam crowns were won by men with one-handed backhands.  1988 saw Mats Wilander win 3 of 4 majors, but 1989 once again saw players with one-handed backhands win 3 of 4 majors.  During the mid and late 1980s, Martina Navratilova and Steffi Graf controlled the women’s tour and used one-handed backhands. Despite all of the success pros with one-handed backhands had, no one seemed to be using one-handed backhands in the junior ranks of Kentucky in the early 1990s.  I saw just two other players in Kentucky junior tennis using one-handed backhands.

The Impact of Using a One-Handed Backhand on my Junior Days

I was never going to be a star junior player.  I had a strong serve, an above average net game, and a streaky forehand.  My foot speed was never a strength.  However, my biggest weakness was my backhand.  Hitting a solid one-handed backhand required more strength and coordination than a two-handed backhand did at that age.  My backhand turned into a weak slice with the exception of my ability to hit a nice slice approach shot up the line.  I chopped and blocked a lot of balls during rallies.  If an opponent could get a bead on my serve, I would be in trouble because my backhand was not going to trouble many opponents.  I won some matches as a junior, but I would not call that period the high point of my tennis playing days.

The Benefit I Passed Up

Had I used a two-handed backhand from 1985 0r 1989 forward, I would have had a better return of serve and been able to play with greater consistency during rallies.  This probably would have helped add consistency to my forehand as well.  I would have won more matches and had a higher ranking at the state level.  In an honest assessment of things, I would not have benefitted so much as to move to regional or national junior tournaments.  I would have probably been in the middle 3rd of the junior rankings in Kentucky instead of the bottom 3rd.

Why did I pick a One-Handed Backhand

My first tennis clinic in 1985 I remember the instructor only showing the students how to hit a two-handed backhand despite using a one-handed backhand himself.  I got interested in tennis because of Boris Becker winning Wimbledon and my father playing tennis on weekends with his friends.  My father and Becker both still use one-handed backhands with different degrees of success.  No one told me to hit a one-handed backhand, but I wanted to get to the net (and dive!) like Becker.  During the second session of the clinic, I asked the instructor, “How do I hit a one-handed backhand?”  That was that.  Future instructors never tried to get me to change to a two-handed backhand. They worked with me on how to hit an approach shot because they saw I wanted to move forward.  They worked largely unsuccessfully on me being able to also consistently come over the ball and hit topspin backhands.

12th Grade and College: 20/20 and Strength

In 12th grade, I was frustrated with the slow progress I was making in tennis.  I decided not to play on my high school team because I did not want to cause a 9th grade player to be cut from the team so I could play half-heartedly.  Two weeks after the tennis season started I got an eye exam and my first pair of glasses. Suddenly, the net looked half as high as it had, and I was playing better tennis than I had at any point in high school despite not playing on my school team.

I was lucky enough to be randomly paired with a college roommate who was a highly successful junior tennis player.  He and I hit tennis balls far less frequently than we probably should have, but when we did I noticed that I could slice my backhand in a manner that was not a chop or a block.  Amazingly, I could also come over the ball and hit the topspin backhand that I had struggled with so mightily as a junior.  I remember my roommate telling a friend of ours that I “had a backhand like Stefan Edberg.”  He was joking, but at 19 my backhand was more versatile and more consistent than my forehand.  I took his comment as a nice compliment and wondered why didn’t I have the strength at 13-17 as a junior player that I had at 19 when I played tennis far more rarely.  I was still no speed demon, but I had a strong serve, good hands at the net, a lot of versatility on my backhand and that streaky forehand.  I had a pretty complete game right as I was moving out of tennis for a few years.

The Impact of Using a One-Handed Backhand as an Adult

Before parenthood, I played a lot of both singles and doubles.  I have cut back on playing over the past 5 years. Still, many people my age hit one-handed backhands, and my guess is that many of them used two-handed backhands as junior players if they played as a junior.  One’s footwork does not need to be quite as precise with a one-handed backhand, and as players get into their 30s, 40s and beyond one-handed backhands seem to be en vogue.  If I have any advantage it is that my movement and timing for my backhand have a 15 year head start.  I think my ability to hit approaches is perhaps a bit better than most of the guys I play with who hit two-handers before switching over.  By today’s standards my topspin backhand is pretty flat, but my timing hitting a one-hander generally allows for this stroke production.  I also like my ability to move forward because at 38 I am not overly interested in long rallies.

Was It Worth It?

I think I am a better player today than I would have been if I had hit a two-handed backhand growing up, but I also think tennis can be tricky for an adolescent because losses are not easily rationalized.  If one loses in singles, one of two reasons are almost always the explanation: 1. the opponent was just better or 2. one played below his/her abilities.  In team sports, blame for a loss can be shared by coaches and teammates. In tennis, a loss has to be owned.  Winning more often from 1989-1993 would have been nice.  Realistically, teens have the opportunity to play tennis more frequently than most adults.  So the tradeoff might be me being better today, but being plagued by a weaker wing when I was able to play tennis the most frequently.

In retrospect, those losses don’t amount to a hill of beans.  I am not a great player, but I think I have a good foundation that many coaches and pros helped me to acquire.  My form is solid, and I have a good basis in tennis that will be with me for the next 25+ years.  I can’t and won’t complain about that, but I also think the physical demands of having a one-handed backhand that will hold up in rallies and in matches is not likely to ever make one-handed backhands popular among junior players.  Telling someone “you won’t really be able to hit this shot well until you are closer to your adult physique” is not something that will typically go over well with a player learning the game. Still, the number of guys over 30 at parks and clubs hitting two-handed backhands is almost as low as the number of juniors I saw hitting one-handed backhands in the 1990s.  I was just ahead of my time.




2 Comments Add yours

  1. Mike Swanquis says:

    I was switched away from a (admittedly rather poor) one-hander to a double-fister at age ~13 by my coaches, but by 16 was already big enough physically where I think most neutral observers wished I was using a one-hander. Now even the Berdychs and Soderlings are two-handers so it might seem weird, but at the time (early 90s) it was still accepted that if one possessed sufficient size and power the single wing was the preferred option, which goes along with what you were saying about your coming into your own with the shot as you developed physically.

    As fate would have it, three (non-tennis) injuries to the same tendon in my left wrist forced me to (re)learn a one-hander about 17 years after I abandoned it, and while I don’t play regularly enough these days to do a comparison justice, I like the feel of a well-cracked, flat one-hander but really miss the ease with which I came over the ball for a truly dipping topspin shot when having that left arm to guide the lift. Plus, I find my arm is more tired after an hour or so, which inevitably steals a bit of pace from my serve.

    Among the pros, I do find that all things being equal I do tend to prefer the aesthetics of a one-hander…but maybe that’s also correlated to me rooting for the old/odd cats of the tour…

    1. Dan Martin says:

      I think there may be some advantages even today for a one-hander given how few juniors used one-handers even when we were younger Mike. Federer at #3, Wawrinka at #4, & Dimitrov at #9 means 30% of the top 10 is one-handed. 8 of the top 25 players use one-handed backhands for 40%. Those percentages are way higher than the percentages of juniors using one-handers. Now a lot of these players are either over 30 or over 25, but these percentages could/should be around 1-2%.

      By the way, when I say I had a solid serve it was solid and strong for state level matches. Mike played Midwestern events and had a bigger serve, bigger net game, better movement …. than I had. I know this first hand.

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