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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