Tennis Instruction: Is the One-Handed Backhand a Thing of the Past?
by TennisOne | March 16th, 2009, 5:15 pm
  • 22 Comments

One needs only to head out to the Southern California desert area of Indian Wells to see how a major transformation in tennis has become nearly complete. This significant change is the proliferation of the two-handed backhand among nearly all men and women on the pro tours.


Few sports have gone through such significant evolutionary change as tennis: from equipment to playing strategies, from player physical development to stroke technique and methodology change, tennis has arguably changed more in the last thirty-five years than in the previous 100 years of the sport.

But, the most noteworthy change from the conventional has to be the development of the two-handed backhand over the last thirty years. (Is the two-handed forehand far behind? More and more players are using this stroke and now it’s on the rise even at the professional level.)

Consider that tennis had been played competitively for almost 100 years before the two-handed backhand began making significant inroads! What makes it even more extraordinary is that many other sports that have been around for essentially the same amount of time use two-handed swing patterns, like cricket, baseball, golf, and hockey. So, it strikes me as odd that so few of the top players emerged using two-handed strokes during that era.

Historically, we can surmise why the stroke did not make its appearance for so long. While I will discuss this aspect further later on, we can look at the predominant style of play that prevailed back in the day — serve and volley. And, the slice backhand was the stroke of choice for almost all players, both from the baseline and as an approach shot.

As a young player, I remember the two-handed backhand as a shot thought of as weak and limiting. Paul Fein, in his book Tennis Confidential, reported that after Bjorn Borg won the 1974 French Open, reporters would frequently ask him when he was going to start using a one-handed backhand. Jack Kramer wrote in 1949: “The use of two hands not only weakens your strokes but robs you of confidence and gives your opponent a psychological advantage.” With such a distinguished opponent of the shot, it is little wonder why so few explored hitting — or considered teaching — the two-handed backhand!

Consider, too, that from 1884 to 1996, over 110 years, only one woman player using a two-handed backhand ever won a Wimbledon singles title (Chris Evert). How much dominance has the two-handed backhand established on the women’s tour since then? Well, since 1997, only one women’s Wimbledon title has been won by a single-handed backhand player (Amelie Mauresmo, 2006).

Not everyone, however, avoided the two-handed backhand in the early years. In the 1930′s and 1940′s there were two Australians, John Bromwich and Geoff Brown, both champions of the sport, who used the two-hander. After seeing these two play the game, renowned Aussie Davis Cup Captain Harry Hopman glimpsed the future when he was reported saying in 1951, in Sporting Life magazine: “I believe that we have not seen the last of the two-handed players.”

And, of course, Mr. Hopman was so right!

The Two-Handed Backhand: A Nearly Complete Transformation

Consider that prior to 1968, not one professional, man or woman, ranked in the Top 50 used a two-handed backhand. Of today’s Top 10 men, nine use two-handed backhands (Federer being the lone one-hander). On the women’s side, only one woman in the Top 30 uses a one-handed backhand, Mauresmo, ranked at 25. These statistics reveal the extent of this remarkable revolution. Perhaps the only other sport I can think of that has witnessed such a radical and nearly complete transformation is the high jump, where with one giant leap, so to speak, Dick Fosbury literally turned the sport upside-down in 1968 by going over the bar backwards and taking the Olympic Medal and the entire sport with him.

As we continue to watch the game of tennis evolve, it will be interesting to see if the one-handed backhand makes a significant comeback, or if it will become the true ‘exception to the rule’ much as the two-handed backhand was prior to 1970.

I am not going too far out on a limb here but I predict there will be less than a total of three combined one-handed backhanders on the men’s and women’s tour that make the quarterfinals at Indian Wells this year. That is three out of 16. And, even though it might be a stretch, I’ll bet there will be less than five one-handers through to the round of 16 of the combined 32 players in both draws.

In about eight days, we will find out!

David W. Smith is a Senior Editor at TennisOne, read more at TennisOne.com.


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22 Comments for Tennis Instruction: Is the One-Handed Backhand a Thing of the Past?

MMT Says:

The game has changed tremendously since the permeation of the 2-handed backhand in the early 80’s as a predominant stroke.

First, power from the baseline has become as important as any other element in the game, including the juniors and few young players have the patience for results to wait for a 1-handed technique to catch up to their physical development. Second, the lighter racquet heads and open stance on the forehand allows players to run around the backhand and hit somewhat off balance, but not nearly to the detriment that such technique would have in the wooden era. Furthermore, lighter racquet heads have made returns of serve and passing shots far easier than they were in the past, making it far more difficult for a net rusher to rely on the challenge of a deep sliced approach. On the other side of that equation, lighter racquets and bigger racquet heads have allowed many players to bypass the need to come to net to finish off points, relying almost entirely on winners from the baseline, or their opponents errors. Finally, the mental approach of learning to defend in points is almost completely lost to this generation, and as a result even players with 1-handed backhands rarely use the slice effectively either from a defensive or transitional standpoint, and as such one of the main advantages of using a 1-handed backhand (the transition to a defensive slice) is lost on modern players anyway.

One correction to your historical background – it was Jack Kramer who really perfected the all-out serve and volley approach to tennis. Up until he came into prominence, even players who used a 1-handed backhand did most of their work from the baseline. It’s true they approached the net more often, but few did so on 1st and 2nd serves until Kramer. In fact, the serve-and-volley game was often cited as a draw-back of the touring professional, who were long gone as a species by the open era. While the 1-handed backhand can certainly facilitate serve and volley, the two are not joined at the hip – John Isner, Radek Stepanek and the a good portion of doubles specialists also play with 2-hands on the backhand.

One advantage of the 2-handed backhand that is, in my opinion, not fully appreciated, is the diminished footwork it requires. Because the 1-handed backhand releases more built up potential energy, it does present an opportunity for a player with less strength in the torso, arms and shoulders to hit with MORE power than a 2-handed stroke, but they must do so at a cost. The footwork required for a powerful 1-handed backhand is superior to that of a two-hander, which can be hit like a weak-handed forehand, and as such allows for things like an open stance and sliding through the stroke which are much harder to do if you let go of the second hand.

I don’t think we’ll see too many 1-handed backhands as long as the athletes who play tennis lack the footwork required to get around on that stroke consistently, and also lack the agility to play either an all-court game or a serve-and-volley game, both of which lend themselves to a 1-handed stroke.


tennisontherocks Says:

‘One advantage of the 2-handed backhand that is, in my opinion, not fully appreciated, is the diminished footwork it requires. Because the 1-handed backhand releases more built up potential energy, it does present an opportunity for a player with less strength in the torso, arms and shoulders to hit with MORE power than a 2-handed stroke, but they must do so at a cost. The footwork required for a powerful 1-handed backhand is superior to that of a two-hander, which can be hit like a weak-handed forehand, and as such allows for things like an open stance and sliding through the stroke which are much harder to do if you let go of the second hand.’

MMT, you are spot on there. I have 2 handed BH and was experimenting with 1 handed for while. If I was out of position, 1 handed BH was too hard to control, while on 2 handed BH I use my left hand to get more control. That was most noticeable on return of serve, where I struggled a lot with 1 handed BH.

I think we will keep seeing 1 handed at top level as you really can’t reach the top with lousy footwork (even slow players like Davenport still had great balance and footwork). But 1 handed BH takes bit more time to develop and not sure how many crazy parents/coaches have that much time and patience to let a junior player develop that stroke.


tenisbebe Says:

MMT:

“One advantage of the 2-handed backhand that is, in my opinion, not fully appreciated, is the diminished footwork it requires. Because the 1-handed backhand releases more built up potential energy, it does present an opportunity for a player with less strength in the torso, arms and shoulders to hit with MORE power than a 2-handed stroke, but they must do so at a cost. The footwork required for a powerful 1-handed backhand is superior to that of a two-hander”

Right on – I have a 1HBH & if I tire, my footwork begins to suffer & that shot is the first one to go array. I have experimented with a 2-hander but although it allows me more room for error where positioning is concerned, I do not like the fact that I give up the power that my 1-hander wields.


Mina Says:

Spot on everyone. I also notice that the first thing that goes when my footwork starts to bottom out is the 1-handed backhand. I love the power with it versus the 2-hander, but if the footwork is lacking that day or I’m slower than usual, my 1-hander really suffers.

Obviously, I’m not a pro – but if I notice these changes as an amateur, I can’t even imagine how tough it is for the pros who rely on pinpoint accuracy and any minute change to their game can really affect it. I can totally see how this generation of players would sacrifice some power in exchange for a greater margin for error by opting for the 2-hander.

I think that most of us can tell how Federer’s footwork is doing based on how he is hitting his backhand. If he’s shanking a lot of balls early, you know it’s not going to be a good game for him (by his standards at least).


;o Says:

How about the western grip forehand? It seems like every top player on both tours use it now


tenisbebe Says:

;o:

Good point – the use of the western FH is much more prevalent on tour the past decade. Have you ever tried to use it? It’s so awkward & requires a lot of energy to be executed properly imo.


Twocents Says:

My own game was kind of ruined by this 1H or 2H thing. Inspired by the successes of Monica Seles and Andre Agassi, I switched from 1H to 2H. Yes, the savings on footwork and whole body control were no doubt good relief. However, I am not a natural 2H-er. I just don’t have the confidence and touch with 2H. When it gets tight, I’d prefer to go back to 1H. It got to the point that whenever I was to hit a BH, I’d ponder about hitting this one with 1H or 2H? My whole game went own the drain, as you can expect.


tenisbebe Says:

Two Cents:

It sounds like you’re no longer playing. I hope that’s not the case. For myself, I have decided to stick with my 1-hander come what may.


Hypnos Says:

When I was a kid I had a two-hander, but as I got older I naturally evolved to a one-hander. Now, I don’t think I could hit a two-hander even if I tried — it feels very unnatural, like when my brother took me to the driving range a few years ago and I swung a golf club for the first time.


Twocents Says:

tenisbebe,

Smart decision to stick to 1H. I used to play twice/week. Now about once/month ;-((. I’ll pick it up someday maybe, with 1H BH!


Lexa - FUZZED - mvn.com/tennisdiary Says:

I can’t let this go. This blog title made me think this was written several yrs ago, when I might’ve agreed. Now I think you’re wrong. Veteran 1-handers: Federer, Gonzales, Blake, F Lopez, Robredo, Ljubicic, Karlovic, Llodra; youngsters: Gasquet, Wawrinka, Kolschreiber, Stakhovsky,and maybe the brightest teen, Grigor Dimitrov, about whom I can really go on. but I already did that if you want to see, at
http://mvn.com/tennisdiary/2009/02/fuzzed-the-new-kid.html
I think these youngsters were inspired by Rogi, and I think we’ll see more of that style. Personally, I started with 1 hand, was talked into using 2, then decided on my own to learn 1 again, for volleys, slice, drop, reach, feel. As you play with better players, you need all that. I use 2 hands to drive returns and often to rally, but with 1 hand, I’ve become a much better and well-rounded player. that’s why almost all 2-handed tour players also develop a 1-hander now. Nadal, Djokies Murray, Roddick, Tsonga, Simon, need I go on?


MMT Says:

I think the author made the point that the 10 ten is 90% 2-handed backhand, but perhaps a more appropriate comparison would have been the top 50, of which 12 use a 1-handed backhand for 24%which is much higher than 40 years ago at the start of the open era, which I believe is his/her point.

There will always be exceptions – just as when 1-handed backhands were the norm there were a few (very effective) 2-handed backhands, but today the trend is definitely towards 2-handed backhands.


Von Says:

What I have observed from the pros who play with a one hand BH, their BH begins to lose its potency, during their late-twenties, and as a result it begins to affect their timing, their entire game and their longevity in the sport. Additionally, their BH is only effective as long as their foot-work is impeccable and they are playing in peak form. Federer, and Tommy Haas are prime examples. The latter has very little power in his BH. The two-handed backhanders seem to last a lot longer, e.g., McEnroe.


tennisontherocks Says:

Von, I guess you meant Connors and not McEnroe in your post? I just cannot imagine JMac with 2 handed BH :)

Navratilova has 1 handed BH and still lasted forever. But her game was never about hitting topspin backhand winners whole day…she used the groundies to get her to net and finish the points there.


Von Says:

tennisonetherocks:

Yes, I meant Connors. Sometimes I get my names and years mixed up, but I know what I mean. It’s a case of something like the hand is faster than the eye, in this case the brain. I suppose it’s a sign of old age? Anyway, look at how long Connors lasted in the sport and his BH was potent until he retired. It’s a case of Nadal v. Federer in potency, except in their case a few years separates them, which makes their match-up somewhat uneven in terms of strength. Oh wow, maybe I’ve just opened a can of worms without thinking.


tenisbebe Says:

Broken ball? Never seen that before.


tenisbebe Says:

ooops – wrong thread.


Kevin Says:

Great article and some good comments as well.

Another aspect, in addition to all the racket design and size changes MMT well notes, is the even more recent evolution of so-called “dead” strings…like those from Luxilon.

With dead threads, a player can swing loose and hard with more dip, whip and power. The ball jumps dramatically—unbelievably so. A ball that looks long, suddenly dips and drops like a stone inside the court.

Dead strings pray for more power. And en mass, the younger generation is accommodating these wishes. It bodes well for the future of the two handed backhand.

Combined Luxilon or similar dead strings with an ultra-light frame, learn how to whip it like a windshield wiper, and spin can now be created that’s nothing short of amazing.

Nadal’s topspin has been laser measured at 3,200 rpm. Compare that with previous 1990’s topspin wizard Agassi: his “gut string” spin was clocked at some 1,900 rpm.

This have changed tennis radically even since the 1990s.

Take Sampras, who played most of his tennis with traditional “lively” gut strings.

He noted the dead string’s ability to turn defensive base liners into forceful counter-punchers. A new string that let yesterday’s defenders became today’s attackers.

Pete dubbed Luxilon “Cheatalon.”

An excellent read called “String Theory” can be found here: http://bleacherreport.com/articles/135894-string-theory/show_full


MMT Says:

Kevin: Great point about the string technology. Big change in the game that I think has made it worse.

One more thing…I’m just a commenter, and I mean this only half in jest and with all due respect but…

If the “Pete” you refer to in “Pete dubbed Luxilon “Cheatalon” is Pete Bodo, please don’t ever mention his name again. That man is the most unprofessional phony in the history of tennis.


tennisontherocks Says:

I agree about the luxilon comments (Thanks for the link, Kevin…nice article there). They do indeed help in getting nasty spins. But it comes at a price: you HAVE to swing big to get them working for you and that gets fairly tiring soon…plus any mishits are painful and touch shots are just useless. So overall they are not a good match for an intermediate, all court player like me. The setup of heavy racket and lively multi/gut works best and is pain-free :)


;o Says:

How about a mix of shot.

Although I know my tennis instructor hates this, I use the 1h, 2h and a 1h backhand slice fairly equally.

I find that I pick up balls easily and find it easier to defend with the 2h, and hit stronger and more flashy winners with a 1h

and, tenisbebe-

I can’t hit a western gripped forehand at all. Its either shanked or super super weak.


Dave Smith Says:

Great comments by all! I think some read too much into the article: the piece was simply a pointing out that today, 9 of the top 10 men and 28 of the top 30 women use two-handed backhands…only a statistice to compare to twenty years ago or so.

My belief is that the one-hander will always be around, (and all two-handers must learn a one-hand slice if they hope to have a well-rounded baseline game), that there will always be a “Fed” like player or a Blake etc.

However, the majority of players today obviously use two hands and that majority seems to be growing.

Many great comments and insights presented here! Good dialogue!

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