Beautiful Backhands

By Jane Voigt

November 7, 2013 -- Roger Federer and Richard Gasquet played a beautiful match today at the World Tour Finals. 

Federer won, 64 63, which is good news for Federer fans. He is now 1-1 in round-robin play. Additionally, he can continue to say that he has never lost two consecutive matches at this prestigious year-end gathering.

Wonderful news … yes. But did you see those backhands? Those one-handed backhands flying high? 

Of the eight singles players in London, three hit one-handed backhands. They are Federer, Gasquet, and Stanislaus Wawrinka. 

Grabbing the racquet handle with two hands was ushered in by Jimmy Connors and Bjorn Borg in the 1970s. The styles made famous by Don Budge and Rod Laver, and their one-handed backhands, was soon to dwindle. 

Their wooden racquets gave way to metal ones. Connors used his Wilson T-2000 and two hands to bludgeon backhands, his favorite shot being down the line. Borg deftly moved the ball, hit after hit, but released one hand on the follow through. No matter. Each man had planted seeds for a changing game. It was the dawn of power tennis. 

Fast forward to 2013. The two-handed backhand dominates both the women’s and men’s games. It gives players more control, more power, more spin, and more deceptive possibilities because the racquet's face is normally hidden from an opponent. The two-handed backhand is the perfect professional pill for power tennis. Couple the stroke with polyester strings, frames that wiggle and bend to the beat of a well-timed shot, and you have a dance for the courts of this young millennium.

But Federer, Gasquet, and Wawrinka use one hand and are 38% of the draw this week. Seems as if one hand is just as good as two. But, the game is in the hand of the player whether one or two hands master the shots. 

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Roger Federer follows through on a one-handed backhand at the U. S. Open this year. Photo credit tennisclix.com

Federer is smooth with impeccable timing. It is not the fastest of the the three, but he does produce gobs of topspin. His placement ranks number one, along with his ability to create angles and drop shots. 

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Richard Gasquet connects with a backhand shot in his win over David Ferrer at this year's U. S. Open. Photo credit tennisclix.com

Gasquet is a flamboyant Frenchman on court. There is a flourish to his racquet at the end of his backhand stroke, as if he is wielding a sword. He can lasso it around his head, too, which resembles the way Nadal finishes his forehand. 

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Stanislaus Wawrinka defeats Marcos Baghdatis in New York this fall.
Photo credit tennisclix.com

Wawrinka's backhand is a weapon. When he connects on his down-the-line winner, it whizzes through the air. Wawrinka may not be the number-one Swiss player. However, he is number one when clocking a backhand. No one hits it harder than Stan.

One-handed backhands take more talent and more time to learn. They need precise timing. Because of the muscles groups in the upper arm, a one-handed backhand cannot be muscled around a court. Players must get to the ball, bend their knees, and simultaneously step to the ball remembering to hit way out in front. These mechanics are not necessary using two hands. That’s why it can be disguised, another benefit of a two-hander. Thus, the ones using one hand need strong upper bodies and a strong set of core muscles.

Roger Federer’s upper back is wide, as seen walking behind him on the way to press conferences.

Gasquet is hefty all around, but, again, strong across the chest.

Wawrinka is thick across the chest. If you sit court side as he strikes a backhand, chills would creep up your neck. His shot is an amazing show of power and finesse. He finishes the shot looking proud, his chest opened. 

So what are the benefits of a one-handed backhand in a land of power tennis? 

With a trend toward slower courts, which produce greater bounce, a two-handed player is limited in reach if he receives a serve that kicks up high to the backhand side. However, if the player is a lefty, let's take Nadal, and kicks a serve to, let's say, Federer's backhand, the same problem is created because an enormous amount of strength is needed to return a worthy shot time after time. Running backhands can be tricky with two hands, too, because of the balance players need the moment a ball's struck. Throw in an acute angle and the player better be as fleet of foot as Wile E Coyote, or have the anticipation of a successful Wall Street broker.

Although we can watch three beautiful backhands in London, the writing is on the wall. It is a dying breed. 

According to The New York Times, the age of players in the top thirty using one hand is 26. That's pushing the envelope for a tennis career. It also says that not many, if any, newcomers are depending on the technique. The exception is Grigor Dimitrov from Bulgaria. His game is a mirror image of Roger Federer's game. 

Coaches almost entirely rely on a two-handed approach to tennis teaching these days. Therefore in years to come, the chances of witnessing the effortless elegance of a one-handed backhand is slim. There were exceptions on tour this year, though. Eight of the last sixteen men at Roland Garros used a single-handed backhand. Richard Gasquet was the youngest, though. He is 27. 

© Jane Voigt Tennis 2013