Debating Kel Round 3 – Is the One-Handed Backhand an Endangered Species?

First, I should say Kel’s site has gotten a new name – Tennisense.  Both of our readers seem to be enjoying these exchanges before Wimbledon.  Here come round 3 on the future of the one-handed backhand.  As someone who uses a one-handed backhand, I hope the shot is more than an outlier on tour in the years to come.

Dan – Hi Kel,

The one-handed backhand has certainly declined since the 1990s.  Ivan Lendl, Stefan Edberg, Boris Becker, Pete Sampras, Michael Stich, Richard Krajicek, Gustavo Kuerten, Patrick Rafter, Andres Gomez, and Petr Korda all won major titles.  In 1990 and 1991 7 of the 8 Grand Sam champions used a one-handed backhand.  It is sad to think that the one-handed top spin backhand might disappear.  I believe juniors can get a jump start with a two-handed backhand and then later develop a one-handed slice backhand to use for extra reach/defense.  Roger Federer, Stan Wawrinka, Dominic Thiem, and a few others still use the shot, but unless junior players use one-handed backhands in increasing numbers the shot will continue to decline beyond its already low levels.

Kel – Hey Dan,

I agree that the number of major champions who wield the one-handed backhand has significantly dropped since the 90’s but to be honest, there have been and are still quite a number of very good one-handed backhand practitioners playing the game at the very highest level.  Before I get to that, let me backtrack a bit.  It’s not like back in the 70’s 80’s and 90’s, there weren’t a good number of two-handed backhand champions around.  I could run off a decent list; Jimmy Connors, Bjorn Borg, Michael Chang, Andre Agassi, Jim Courier, Bruguera and the like, come to mind.
I believe that tennis more than any other sport, really reflects the evolution of sport.  Over the years, with the advancement of string technology and the homogenizing of court surface speeds, the two-handed backhand has become more of a force, hence more two-handed backhand champions.  However, I’d like to point out that two of the three dominant eras in tennis, since 1993 have been ruled by Single-handed Champions.  Sampras and Federer.  Expanding from that, there have been a number of single-handed champions and top level players that have passed through the game since then.  Sampras, Rafter, Kuerten, Federer, Haas, Henman, Wawrinka, Gonzalez, Joachim Johansson (anyone remember him?), Gaudio, Gasquet and so on.  So while the number of champions (actually winning the majors has reduced), I feel the presence is still very much there.

Dan – Hello Kel,

While Sampras and Federer have combined for 31 majors and 11 years spent at number one, that has not resulted in a lot of younger players emulating either of them.  I do think string technologies have made a two-handed backhand more effective than it was in the past.  That is saying something because Jimmy Connors, Bjorn Borg, Mats Wilander, and Agassi among others had success with a two-handed backhand prior to today’s strings.  It is possible to look at dominant players from both camps of backhands and see some parity.  Borg, Djokovic, and Nadal all have over 10 majors and Connors, Agassi, and Wilander combine for another 23 majors.
The intriguing issue in my mind is that most players on tour use two-handed backhands as their primary backhand and then add a one handed slice as a defensive/change of pace option.  Despite this majority of players using two-handed backhands 1/2 of the Roland Garros semifinalists used a one-handed backhand.  Nowhere near 64 players entered the Roland Garros draw using a one-handed backhand.  So it is possible that a comparative advantage still exists for a player with a one-handed backhand, but because no such advantage exists for young junior players this ground stroke is underutilized. Consider that Australian Open semifinalists.  Murray and Djokovic both seem to be using the right backhand as their two-handed backhands are excellent.   Roger Federer’s backhand, despite being victimized at times by Rafael Nadal, has been a key component to how he sets up points and succeeds.  Milos Raonic is 6’5″/1.96M and has a huge serve.  While a few tall players in the 1990s were big servers who used two-handed such as Goran Ivanisevic and Marc Rosset, an argument could be made that too many of today’s taller players use a two-handed backhand despite it requiring more precise footwork to execute.  Would Milos Raonic, John Isner, Jerzy Janowicz, and some of the other taller players on tour have benefitted from switching to a one-handed backhand as a junior?  That is impossible to answer with accuracy, but what can be accurately stated is that such players coming up in the 1970s-1990s would have been encouraged to switch to a one-handed backhand.  Taller players tend to have a harder time with their footwork.  Learning and adopting a shot that would in theory make footwork easier is an option too few juniors seem to consider let alone make.

Kel – Hi Dan,

I was going to point out what you just said.  A lot of players who utilize the two-handed backhand have evolved – there’s that word again – a sort of hybrid backhand.  They incorporate the best of both worlds, even if they use two hands on the drive swing.  Take Andy Murray for example.  He’s got one of the best defensive slices in the game.  In the past, that was practically unheard of for a player who wielded a two-handed backhand.  Mastery of the slice also gives him an edge in the forecourt.  He can hit volleys almost as naturally as a player who uses one hand on the backhand swing.  He’s not the only one, in that regard.  Djokovic, under the tutelage of Boris Becker, has also improved his net game considerably.  These are characteristics most two handed players weren’t associated with in the past.  I think the best example of the hybrid game today, is Jo Wilfred Tsonga.  He flat out switches to a one handed drive from time to time, especially on the backhand pass.  He used it to good effect in his upset of Roger Federer, in 2011.  I never fail to see the irony in that.
But what’s got this hybrid fever going?  I’ve pondered that for a while, and I believe the answer is simple.  These guys were influenced by Sampras and probably Federer.  It is well known that the two handed backhand is an easier shot to master than the one handed backhand, even if it requires better footwork.  Truth is footwork forms the basis for good tennis anyway, so if you are thinking of going professional, you probably have good enough footwork to master either.  The one handed backhand takes time, patience and practice to master.  Pete Sampras famously had a two handed backhand, before switching to one hand.  He was the first to admit that his results dipped dramatically at the beginning of that change.  But he had one goal, Wimbledon.  By extension, I think the quest for that goal made him a better champion than he would have been with two hands on the backhand.  It gave him the edge over his main rival, Agassi.  Not all up and comers today have that sort of patience and I don’t think their coaches do either.  In a sense, the modern game has become even more expensive to compete in and player/coach teams want to develop quickly.  So they go with the hybrid.  However, a few players do go the extra mile, even in the up and coming generation and it appears to be paying off.  The highest ranked player of the younger generation right now, is Thiem at no 8.  He is one position behind Raonic who is fast becoming alumni of that generation.  Oh and get this, there are four one handed backhand players in the top 10 today, all plying their beautiful trade.
3. Federer
5. Wawrinka
8. Thiem
10. Gasquet.
I think the beautiful stroke is in it for the long haul.
Thanks Dan

2 Comments Add yours

  1. Mike Swanquis says:

    The one-handed backhand just requires such tremendous triceps strength these days to handle to uber-topspin coming at it (at should height). James Blake, hardly the most aesthetically pleasing of one-handers but a powerful dude, handled Rafa’s topspin much better than most others (including Federer) mainly because he wasn’t wearing down as quickly as most. So maybe with sufficient weight training there is a place for the one-hander in the future of men’s tennis, but I do think we are unlikely to ever see it rise to prominence again.

    1. Dan Martin says:

      2004 Gaudio won the French and Fed swept the other 3 – that may be the final year of one-handed supremacy

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