Once in the majority, the one-handed backhand is almost anachronistic today. If it still persists, thanks to players like Federer, it’s no longer fashionable. However, it still has some defenders and arguments in its...
Once in the majority, the one-handed backhand is almost anachronistic today. If it still persists, thanks to players like Federer, it’s no longer fashionable. However, it still has some defenders and arguments in its favour. A has-been? Maybe not...
"His backhand was strange, he was only doing it with one hand, which was new. Someone had tampered with his backhand, and it was obvious that it would cost him his career." That's how Andre Agassi described in his autobiography "Open" his encounter with the brand new one-handed backhand of this "Pete what's his name Sampras." The future fraternal enemies of the 90s tennis were then just 17 years old and the Las Vegas Kid felt almost sorry for this Californian he had just dismantled in two sets in Rome: "He looks like a good guy . But I don't expect to see him again on the tour."
"The two-handed backhand is easier to learn"
Following the advice of his first coach, Peter Fischer, an American paediatrician without any knowledge of tennis but fascinated by Rod Laver, the teenage Sampras abandoned his two-handed backhand at 15 years old. A heresy? Not even four years later, Pistol Pete humiliated Agassi in the final of the 1990 U.S. Open - a victory for the one-handed backhand over the two-handed variety from the Bollettieri academy. We know what happened next. In 1991, of the top 10 in the world, there were eight using one-handed backhands: Stefan Edberg, Boris Becker, Michael Stich, Ivan Lendl, Pete Sampras, Guy Forget, Karel Novacek and Petr Korda. Twenty-two years later, Roger Federer and Richard Gasquet are the last men standing. The two-handed backhand has won the day. It even appears to be a dictatorship amongst women where you have to go down to the 24th spot and the Spaniard Carla Suarez-Navarro to see another backhand in the style of Hénin or Mauresmo.
The first traces of this shot in official competition date back to the 30s. A time when the Australians Bromwich and McGrath were seen as outliers with this gesture seemingly borrowed from baseball. Since, Connors, Evert and especially Borg walked this path. At the French Tennis Federation (FFT), coach Alain Solvès wrote an essay on the subject. According to him, the evolution of the equipment partly explains this revolution: “As the children have been starting tennis younger and younger in the last few years, the racquets weren’t adapted, so they naturally started to hold it with both hands to have more strength in their backhand.” But the former coach of Arnaud Di Pasquale also puts forward another explanation: "It’s clear that tennis instructors prefer to teach the two-hand backhand. First, because it’s easier to learn, and second because kids have faster results with it.”
"Roger pisses me off with his backhand chop!’
A short-term vision prevails, most often to the detriment of the long-term game. It must be said that the two-handed backhand has its arguments. It has suddenly transformed a shot once considered purely defensive to a weapon of offensive destruction. But the one-handed backhand hasn’t been wholly overwhelmed just yet. It remains popular with the nostalgic and the purist, and also has some arguments to counter the invasion of Djokovic, Murray, Nadal or Williams. "With the wrist action that gives a higher execution speed, says Alain solves, it can find more closed angles. It’s also easier to volley when you have a one hand backhand.”
Paradoxically, in becoming a minority, using a one-handed backhand has become disconcerting to the opponents. How many are they to hate the little jabbed backhand of Roger Federer? After his defeat in the Roland Garros quarter-final against the Swiss in 2009, Monfils has even forgotten to restrain his words: “Roger pisses me off with his backhand chop!” He might piss people off, but he’s winning. Like Sampras, Federer was able to drop the other hand. Rather than having a two-handed backhand just like everybody, he preferred to keep his one-handed backhand for himself. "At the highest level in men’s tennis, there’s no weak one-handed backhand. It’s even a strength. You just need to look at the rankings to see it" says Alain Solvès. Except that Federer is not eternal. When the man with 17 Grand Slams decides to walk away to take care of his family and his winnings, who will take over? Almagro, Gasquet, or the erratic Dimitrov? At first sight, it looks like the dominance of two-handed backhand might become overwhelming. Alain Solvès somehow refuses to believe in this fate. These last years, he has observed "a resurgence of the one-handed backhand" in the various training centres of the French Federation. Still, it remains to find the next “what’s his name Sampras”.
By Alexandre Pedro