Why the single hand backhand is still a superior shot

During the recent ATP world tour semifinal, I listened with interest to the radio commentary between Roger Federer and Andy Murray.

Andy Murray came out of the blocks all guns blazing playing aggressively and going after Federer, taking an early break and controlling the match. Federer sounded a bit rattled, not too dissimilar to the start of the Wimbledon final in July. The commentators then got into an interesting discussion where they claimed that Murray was targeting the Federer backhand and Murray thought he could get to it and be almost “dismissive” of it. Federer’s one hander somehow wouldn’t cut it at the very top level they mused.

Roger Federer

My ears pricked up instantly for two reasons, the first was I thought the commentators were taking liberties; and the second was that I have heard it all before. There is no doubt the two hander has major advantages in the modern game, and has done since the 1970s when Jimmy Connnors, Bjorn Borg and Chris Evert changed the game with that stroke. However, the way Federer turned the match around confirmed to me what I thought from the moment the discussion was made by the commentators.

For sure, the pundits will look to Federer’s forehand as to why he came out on top in that particular encounter. After all, the Federer forehand is deadly especially when his feet are moving well. However, what changed the match was Federer’s versatility, and his one hander was a big part of that. Federer changed the tempo of the rallies often, using the one hander when stretched to slice the ball and float it, allowing him to get back into position.
Federer also chipped the backhand return on Murray’s 2nd serve, and on breakpoint in the 1st set, used the old chip and charge tactic to great effect, breaking Murray’s serve in the process. Federer also used the backhand down the line whenever possible to stretch Murray.

These were exactly the same tactics Federer used to turn around the Wimbledon final, on that occasion Federer also drove the backhand return often and took to the net more than he usually does. When those tactics work, the forehand is the icing on the cake. The fact that Murray thought he could win the match by attacking the backhand was a mistake, a mistake many players have made over the last five or six years. Nadal’s lefty topspin has always been a big problem but other opponents hit flatter and into his hitting zone.

Roger Federer

Where have we heard this all before? Turn the clock back exactly 10 to 15 years and these were the same arguments the commentators and analysts said about Pete Sampras. And like Federer, Sampras won more than he lost when he stepped on court. Most of Sampras’ major rivals played with two hands on the backhand side, and Sampras had a convincing win loss record against all of them; Andre Agassi, Jim Courier, Michael Chang, Todd Martin, Yevgeny Kafelnikov to name a few. Agassi and Courier particularly picked on the Sampras backhand over and over again every match. But in the 20 matches Courier played against Sampras, he only had four victories to show for that tactic.

Like Federer, Sampras used the slice, topspin strategy often, using the slice when stretched out wide to give himself time and became the master of the chip and charge in his later years as well as the drive backhand return and backhand down the line, something he used a lot. As with most players with a single hander, Sampras was under pressure when the ball got above his shoulder, especially on a clay court.
However, Pat Rafter also attacked the Sampras backhand with his mule kicker serve and had little to show for it; Sampras hit an incredible array of backhand returns and backhand passing shots against Rafter in their rivalry with Rafter only bagging 4 victories out of 16 matches…..
Besides Federer and Sampras before him, Ivan Lendl rounds off the three players who have been number 1 for the longest stretches in tennis history with all three dominating their respective decades since the 1980s. In each of those 3 decades, there have been many predictions that the two handed backhand would take over and coaches continue to bring through young players with that shot.

Amélie Mauresmo

And in the womens game, the dearth of players with a one hand backhand is even more pronounced with none currently in the top 10. However, the two most successful players in history both had single handers; Martina Navratilova and Steffi Graf.
And more recently, Amelie Mauresmo and Justine Henin in particular both showed that it was possible to dominate much bigger and stronger opponents with court craft, versatility and volleying skills that the single hander brings. In 2007, Justine Henin defeated Serena Williams in 3 major quarterfinals in a row, Henin found strategies to win. In the 2010 French Open final, Francesca Schiavone totally outwitted the muscular kick serving Sam Stosur with court craft and versatility.
The two handed backhand is certainly the dominant shot in the game today and that will continue to be the case as more and more juniors come through with that shot in the years to come. But the last 3 decades have proved that a player with a one hand backhand and superior talent and athleticism will often dominate opponents with two hand backhands in both the mens and womens game. If a player with the talent of a Henin or Federer comes through again in future, the single hander can once again dominate the tour and prove its versatility at the very top level.

Article by Laurie B

Of course, this article would not be complete without a pic of the most elegant backhand ever:

Stefan Edberg

Photos by Tennis Buzz (Roger Federer French Open 2012, Amélie Mauresmo French Open 2011, Stefan Edberg Lagardere Trophy 2010).

6 Responses
  1. Chris says:

    Hi Laurie,

    Great article! I tend to believe that the single-handed backhand will soon be lost for good. I just can’t see another player getting to the top 5 with one, and I think the sport will be poorer for it. But, as you say, people have thought this before. I hope you are right and I am wrong!


  2. João Pedro says:

    Richard Gasquet not pass in this post, why?

    He have the best one handed backhand of ALL TIME!

    (Sorry about my English, i’m brazilian)

  3. ludmilla says:

    Hi Joo,
    Gasquet has a good backhand, but the best of all time no way!
    I’m not a fan at all of Gasquet (even though I’m French) and honestly he never won a big title.

  4. jarek says:

    Nice article. I would like to pose a question. Does Federer single backhand survive thanks to his talent or has his talent developed due to his single hander. It is a tougher shot to make but has a broader spectrum of shots available to it, with some known drawbacks of course.
    As an off comment, I don’t consider Björn Borg to hit a two hander in the modern sense. It is a single hander with initial left hand support. The modern two-handers don’t release the racquet with their non-dominant hand. Björn did.
    Anyhow, I think it is often overlooked how much timing and and posture (lacking a better work) is needed to hit a single backhand but when you do that as a kid you develop concentration, learn to watch the ball and so on, be aware of your body in stressful situations. Is there anybody on the tour that eyeballs the ball more than Federer. I can’t think of anybody.

  5. Cristi C says:

    @jarek, I watched Borg’s backhand on the web. It is a two-hander. I have what you say. I start my backhand swing with both hands on the handle but at the contact point, I have only one, the right one. Borg had both hands on the handle at contact point. He only switched hands after the contact point, releasing the handle from his left hand.

  6. LJ says:

    The single-handed backhand enhances a players variety of weapons/choices –

    Competition is a pervasive theme in sports – and this conversation is no exception. So we tend to think in terms of “which shot is BETTER” or “superior”.

    But the two backhands need not be mutually exclusive.

    Nadal is considered one of the greatest players of all time for good reason: And his game includes his well-known 2-handed backhand shots, but also a flurry of one-handed backhands that he utilizes on his colleagues. One handed approach shots, one-handed defensive shots – slice shots etc.

    And in that sense he and other masters of tennis utilize 1-handers and 2-handers like different spices and flavors of a chef, different tones of a painter.

    Djokovic has a powerful, tremendous 2-hander. But he also demonstrates graceful touch with the 1-handed backhand volleys etc.

    I encourage my players to develop both one-handed shots and two-handed shots – and to use them instinctively whenever one shot simply feels more comfortable and seems most opportune at the moment.

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