Top 10 Tennis Strokes of the Decade

by Ben Pronin | December 23rd, 2009, 5:08 pm

With everyone doing top 10 lists of the decade or the year, I decided to take a slightly different approach. I still made a top 10 list but not of any matches or any particular stats. This is the list of the best single strokes in the last 10 years. ADHEREL

This list was harder to make than I thought. I brainstormed with a lot of different players and looked at all of their strokes. The way I determined the list was based on how incredible, effective, and absolutely lethal these shots were. The way I ranked the strokes was based on how far the stroke was able to carry the player:

10. Ivo Karlovic’s serve: 78 aces in a single match on clay and this guy is nearing 30. His motion is a little unorthodox but how much does one really need to do when they serve out of a tree? The Karlovic serve falls at number 10 only because Karlovic is not that accomplished of a player. He was never able to translate the greatness of his serve into the rest of his game the way the players on the rest of this list do. Those 78 aces still weren’t enough for the win.

9. David Nalbandian’s backhand: How often do you hear the number one player in the world say they fear a shot? What about two number ones? Both Rafael Nadal and Roger Federer have expressed fear of David Nalbandian at some point in their respective careers. Nadal even specified it was Nalbandian’s backhand he was afraid of. This stroke was as smooth as silk and was a big factor in helping Nalbandian make several slam semifinals and win two MS titles and the TMC.

8. Patrick Rafter’s volleys: It’s pretty incredible to be on this list for volleying during the decade of baseline domination. But Rafter made two Wimbledon finals and played great in both despite coming up short. He was genuine serve and volleyer with incredible hands and he made the most of them. His two slam wins came in the last decade but he still showed off his skills against the baseline bashers of today.

7. Juan Martin del Potro’s forehand: If you’ve never seen this guy play, you are missing out. No matter what you think the reason is for Federer’s loss in this year’s US Open final, del Potro’s forehand was the deciding factor. He arguably hits the hardest forehand in history and he’s only 20 years old. The great thing about del Potro is that his serve and backhand are great, too, and they will all help him win several slams in the future. But the forehand is his money shot.

6. Marat Safin’s backhand: I almost put this at number four but I had to be fair to Roddick and Sampras. It’s no secret I love Safin and I may have put this shot a little too high on the list, but then again he did win more slams this decade than anyone I’ve already mentioned. And that’s why his backhand is on here. Despite his inconsistency throughout the years, the way he could fire this shot during his two slam victories (2000 US Open and 2005 Australian Open) was absolutely incredible. He was smacking winners down the line, cross court, in the middle, in the air, you name it. Not convincing enough? Safin’s backhand brought the great Roger Federer to his knees.

5. Pete Sampras’s serve: That’s right, Pistol Pete is on the list for this decade. Despite playing his best stuff in the 90s, he managed to win two slams in 2000 and 2002, both of his record breaking slams. And while he was slower and not as fit as he was during the 90s, his serve was always the greatest shot in the game. The reason this shot isn’t higher is because it did not help him much beyond those two slams and a couple of other finals.

4. Andy Roddick’s serve: Seven straight years finishing in the top 10 is why Roddick is above Sampras. It’s also why he’s above Safin despite my obvious favoritism. Roddick has tinkered with his style for years now. He’s played super aggressive, super defensive, a bit of both, a bit of nothing, but he’s always had that serve. An anomaly of epic proportions but quite a sight to behold. A lot of players say they want Karlovic’s serve, but Roddick has backed his serve up a lot better. Five slam finals with a win, not the greatest outside his serving but still pretty darn great.

3. Andre Agassi’s return of serve: This is more or less two strokes but it still fits on this list. Agassi had one of the greatest returns of all time because he was always aggressive and was able to make the greatest servers get nervous. He won three slams this decade and made a few other finals and was also the oldest number one in history. It’s all thanks to his incredible returns. A 34 year old limping Agassi withstood 51 aces from Joachim Johansson. Most players are always fairly in control when they’re serving, but Agassi was in control when he was serving and returning.

2. Rafael Nadal’s forehand: I love this shot. When Nadal is playing his best, his forehand cannot be described with the words of the mortals. Six grand slams, two other finals, 15 MS titles, and a world number one ranking. And did I mention he did all of this during Federer’s reign? A lot of players attack Federer backhand but only Nadal can do it so relentlessly and effectively to hold a significant edge in their head to head. For those writing Nadal off, as long as he can hit a forehand, he is never done. While del Potro has the hardest forehand, Nadal has the heaviest. His forehand has more rpm (rotations per minute) than Sampras’s second serve. That is just insane.

1. Roger Federer’s forehand: We all know about the world number one streaks and the slam record and the whole “dominating the tour like no one ever has” thing, but Federer’s forehand is probably the greatest AND most beautiful shot in the history of the sport. At his best, there is nothing Federer can’t do with his forehand. More spin? No problem. More power? No problem. More angle? No problem. Federer even has one of the greatest forehand drop shots I’ve ever seen. Federer also plays his best tennis when his forehand is clicking. And we’ve all seen Federer at his best, unbeatable. Even when he’s not at his best, it was an inside-out forehand that saved him against Haas at the French Open. Federer’s forehand has it all and its greatness translates into the rest of his game better than any of these other players.

Honorable Mentions: Novak Djokovic, Andy Murray, and Richard Gasquet backhands, Tim Henman slice, Taylor Dent and Radek Stepanek volleys, Guillermo Coria and Fabrice Santoro drop shot, Lleyton Hewitt return, Fernando Gonzalez and Robin Soderling forehand.

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42 Comments for Top 10 Tennis Strokes of the Decade

Tennisozzy Says:

Federer´s forehand over Nadal´s? What are you smoking?

Ben Pronin Says:

…The paper that says Federer has almost 2.5 times as many slams as Nadal…

tenniscrazy Says:

good list. However not a single stroke from a women player.
Justine Henin’s backhand would figure in all time best strokes.
and Serena Williams’ serve is not too bad a choice either!!

tenisbebe Says:

“3. Andre Agassi’s return of serve” Apparently it is his incredible eyesight that inspired fear with the server.

“1. Roger Federer’s forehand: Federer even has one of the greatest forehand drop shots I’ve ever seen.” Hmmm interesting since he’s only really used it in the past 6 months. Dropshotting should be it’s own category imo as it’s become an increasingly important weapon.

Voicemale1 Says:

The full beauty of the Federer Forehand is best appreciated when you watch the High Def Slow Motion. Technically, you’d have to say it’s flawless. Just watching how he goes from closed face on the take back to open with a flawless wrist movement is stunning. He rarely ever gets that motion wrong. Today other guys can probably rush him more on that side than they used to, but even with that, it’s tough to argue that is is, in fact the Shot of the Decade.

It’s funny that Nadal is the only guy in the Top 5 who doesn’t take his racquet back in the Straight Up position on his Forehand and leave it there to begin his forward swing. He actually levels the racquet parallel to the groud from the Straight Up position and THEN begins his forward swing. And both Nadal & Federer hit more Straight Arm on the Forehand than the Double Bend. Nadal hits almost all of his this way; Federer hits every one of his Inside Outs that way, and a fair bit of the rest of them.

I’d have put the Sampras Serve above the Roddick Serve for the obvious reason that Sampras had a lot more career success with his than Roddick did with his. Roddick’s First Serve serve is largely flat, which is why Federer (and more guys today) have success getting the serve back in play. Sampras had a much heavier serve, and thus more difficult to get back into play with any kind hope to win the point. He pronated his wrist much more than Roddick. And the Sampras 2nd Serve is far and away the best 2nd Serve ever. So since a Serve isn’t just about the First Serve, you’d have to say the Sampras Serve overall is much more effective than the Roddick Serve.

tenisbebe Says:

Yes, Sampras’ 2nd serve was by far the best in the business, better than many players first serve.

tenisbebe Says:

tenniscrazy Says:”good list. However not a single stroke from a women player. Justine Henin’s backhand would figure in all time best strokes.
and Serena Williams’ serve is not too bad a choice either!!”

To be fair, the women’s list could be separate. I would vote for Justin’s and Amelie’s one-handed backhands, Kim’s 2-handed backhand and Serena’s 1st serve.

Miguel Seabra Says:

Two quick notes:

Nadal’s forehand — yes, it’s damn good when he has the time for his loop backswing and extreme grip; his high bouncing forehand down the line is lethal…but Nadal’s forehand is exactly his flaw on faster courts and players are going after his forehand with deep, heavy, flat shots (the way Soderling does, the way Blake used to and the way everybody starts doing in now). When he doesn’t have the time and things go too fast, Nadal’s forehand becomes a… liability!

Federer’s… dropshot is elegant? Since 2005 I’ve been saying Federer needs a dropshot to complement his terrific forehand and get opponents off-guard; I’ve even discussed it with him in 2006 and he told me then that he didn’t need it because he could «open the court pretty well with the drive forehand». I stubbornly kept writing and saying it on my TV commentary; finally he seemed to get it this year on the clay court season and use it at the French Open (Peter Bodo even wrote a story with the title ‘Federer like Mikey’, or something like that, because of me insisting on it for years). But his forehand dropshot still looks a bit clumsy most of the times, he’s still far from a Nalbandian’s or a Moya’s forehand dropshot. So, I don’t really think his forehand dropshot is THAT elegant…

Nina Says:

Wait, no Djokovic? In my opinion the kid has the best backhand with two hands amongst the Top 10. Impressive.

Kimmi Says:

Great list ben.
Maybe Nalbandian will be inspired by Delpo GS success and make use of his backhand when he gets back. So much talent but very weak mentally.

Voicemale1 Says:


Regarding Nadal: I’d say his problem on fast surfaces will always be the Indoor circuit. Those courts are make-shift souped up sheets of glass that offer power hitters the chance to hit through the Nadal Forehand. And thoise tournaments come at the end of the year when he’s wond down from his front loaded season in the spring. But it’s worth remembering Nadal has won Indian Wells twice, the ATP 1000 of Canada twice, and the Australian Open. And he’s been to the Final of Miami twice also. People like Blake, Soderling, Berdych, Youzhny, etc., have nowhere near such a record on a hard court.

And agree that Federer’s Drop Shot is often clumsy like his Forehand Volley. Too often on the volley he lets his wrist buckle, and he dumps the shot into the net; and his drop shot has a tendency to bounce high on the other side. He still prefers to let his Forehand do his bidding from the back court, and when it’s on it’s always enough. He makes more errors off that wing than he used too a couple of years ago, and that’s why his results aren’t what they were in 2007. But when you win 2 Majors in a year and that’s one of your slower years, well, you’re still doin OK :)

blah Says:

Gasquet’s backhand! That’s all.

blah Says:

ss or dd or ben, nice to see you writing for the site!

Sean Randall Says:

Ben, interesting list you’ve compiled.

I agree on Fed’s forehand. Granted it’s been breaking down of late, but that shot got him to 15 Slams. Nadal’s FH is worthy, but that shot doesn’t have Fed’s resume.

I would probably put Roddick’s serve #3.

The only suspect shot for me is Agassi’s return. Agassi had a great return, but that shot wasn’t the difference maker in him winning titles.

Other shots I liked that are not on your list: Hewitt backhand. Roddick forehand. Blake return. Gaudio backhand. Kuerten backhand. Philippoussis serve.

Jeffery Nielsen Says:

I am surprised someone would call Agassi’s return of serve suspect…Remember Wimbledon, Ivanisevic…this title was won by return of serve.

I would give James Blake a nomination for forehand. Wicked…when he is on.

Ben Pronin Says:

Yeah I forgot Blake. He had a great forehand and his returns were pretty beastly when he used to be good. I put Agassi above Roddick because Agassi won 3 slams to Roddick’s 1. Roddick’s forehand USED to be great but it’s not particularly amazing anymore.

Kimo Says:

Jeffery Nielsen, you are absolutely right about Agassi’s return. It’s simply the best there ever was. And like you mentioned, the 1992 Wimbledon title which he won when grass was still crazy fast is a testament to the quality of his return of serve.

And I think the list misses the guy with the most accomplished backhand: Kuerten. His backhand imho is the most insane. How does a guy with a single-handed backhand win RG three times??? It was just that good.

Joe Says:

Nalbandian has the best BH any day of the week.

Comparing success to determine a shot is silly; you need to look a lot deeper than that.

Dan Martin Says:

Ben good to have you on board.

Looking at the title I thought this was going to be about trick shots, but this subject is more important even if on balance I like Fed’s smash lob better than the between the legs shot.

Looking forward to OZ

huh Says:

Nice to see discussions, interesting ones too, great! Merry Christmas to all btw!

huh Says:

madmax, where are ya?

huh Says:

Again a —— of the decade discussion here. Previous dicussion was interesting too about Athlete of the Decade. But in all honesty, it’s really difficult to determine who’s achieved more in their respective sports: Roger/Lance Armstrong/Woods/Phelps/anyone else, not to mntion Michael Schumi. It’s impossible to call one of them, whoever he may be, as ATHLETE of the DECADE. Sorry, but that’s it!

Diego Says:

Where’s Hewitt’s topspin lob?

sheila Says:

federers forehand, of late, has not been as consistent, but when its on, its on. when federer is playing his very best tennis, i still think he can beat anyone, but, once again, of late, his doesn’t have the consistency anymore. he should have one the “grand slam” in 2009, but blew australian open & us open with inconsistent serving & inconsistent forehand errors. i hope 2010 he can win @ least 1 major although speculation has it that murray & delpo will fight for #1 ranking.

matt Says:

diego is right
the lleyton hewitt lob should be in the top 5 at least. one of the best and most skillful shots.

oh, and any shot from fabrice santoro

Will Navarro Says:

I guess women don’t play this game. My mistake.

madmax Says:

huh Says:
madmax, where are ya?

December 24th, 2009 at 3:08 pm


I’m here!

Had last minute christmas shopping to do!

Shot of the decade? Gotta be fed’s inside out forehand – it’s UNBEATABLE.


have more faith in the fed! He is working hard (today will have off to enjoy christmas micro training lunch), but other than that, the man is gonna come good in 2010. Recent interview says: “I am working hard. I know what I have to do to stay at the top and I am going to work very hard in order to achieve my goals”.

Fed has got another 3 years at the top – I cannot wait until 31 December. Go fed go!

Diego Says:

Ok, this is how my Top 10 would look like:
1- Federer’s forehand
2- Nadal’s forehand
3- Hewitt’s topspin lob
4- Agassi’s return of serve
5- Roddick’s serve

Kind of funny that this is the exact Top 5 that the ATP picked as Players of the Decade.

6- Safin’s backhand
7- Sampras’ serve
8- Djokovic’s backhand
9- Nalbandian’s backhand
10- Karlovic’s serve

I think is a little too early to put Del Potro on a Best of the Decade Strokes list and Rafter did most of his damage in the 90’s, so I wouldn’t put them in. Also, if I were to pick more than 1 stroke per player, the Federer serve would definitely be there, probably in the Top 5. If we were considering overall weapons as opposed to just strokes then I think Juan Carlos Ferrero would be in the Top 10 for his speed. Federer, and Nadal, and Hewitt would also have to be considered for their speed and movement.

Ben Pronin Says:

Del Potro has won just as many slams as Djokovic and Roddick have and he beat Federer and Nadal to do it. So I do think he belongs there.

Hewitt’s topspin lob wasn’t a shot that he hit nearly as often as his forehand, backhand, or serve. It’s more or less a trick shot. Rafter did a good amount of damage in the beginning of the decade and he did have the best volleys nonetheless.

I kept speed out of this list for this very reason, too many fast guys. Speed needs it’s own list.

My only regret about this list is that I forgot about Kuerten’s backhand. I’ll admit that it should definitely be in the top 10.

Diego Says:

Well, let me see if I can change your mind here. Hewitt uses his topspin lob in matches as often or perhaps even more than Guillermo Coria or Fabrice Santoro used their drop shots. Perhaps for a lot players it’s a trick shot because like you said, they don’t use it as much. But for Hewitt it is definitely a weapon, one that helped him win matches and finish 2 years in row on Top on the Tennis Rankings.

You’re right that Del Potro has won as many Slams as Djokovic or Roddick, but I guess the difference for me is that Djokovic and Roddick did it for a good part of the Decade, where as Del Potro has only been a factor for 1 1/2 years. So it’s difficult for me to give him a place on a Best of the Decade list. Rafter is sort of in the same boat in my opinion. He retired after the 2001 season, so he didn’t play for most of the Decade. Yes, he did get to 2 Wimbledon Finals, but he only won 2 minor Titles in those 2 years. Someone like Sampras for example, only played until 2002, but he reached 4 Slam Finals and won 2 of them, so he’s a little more deserving in my opinion.

I like Kuerten’s backhand on clay but on a surface like grass it was a bit of a weakness. Djokovic, Nalbandian, Safin, and even Gasquet can do damage with their backhand on all surfaces.

Tennis Vagabond Says:

Great list Ben. My only major beef is, like others, the omission of Kuerten’s backhand. Not only was it devastating, it was as artistically beautiful as Fed’s forehand!

Ben Pronin Says:

Again, I admit it was my mistake and Kuerten’s backhand belongs there.

As for the Hewitt lob, well I’m still not convinced. Hewitt maybe uses it more than someone else uses a drop shot, but that’s not saying much. And it definitely wasn’t the topspin lob that let him finish number 1, it was mainly his speed and his great return of serve.

Nina Says:

Well Djokovic is sorely missing from that list but all his strokes are brilliant, specially his backhand, but he’s also got a phenomenal forehand and serve. He’s probably the most complete player out there with Federer. And he’s been nº 3 in the world for a long time now, how come he’s not on that list?

Tony Says:

The list is not too bad, but definitely far from complete. Lops, drop shots, forehand chips and even shots between legs. A list including these strokes will be more interesting.

Skorocel Says:

Very balanced and well thought article. Pretty much agree with everything…

Btw, when you mentioned that Karlovic’s serve, I would also dare to put Ivanisevic’s on that list. Granted, he won „just“ one single tournament in this decade (Wimby 2001, of course), but boy, what a serving demonstration it was! 210 aces in 7 matches – that’s 30 aces per match! Absolutely brutal! Personally, I would put Goran’s serve among the 3 best serves of the Open Era (along with Sampras’s and Becker’s).

Also, as many already pointed out, I would also like to see Kuerten’s BH on this list, as it was a VERY aggressive shot. A shot which more or less won him those 3 FOs. I would love to see a match between prime Kuerten and prime Nadal on clay. Of course, this is only hypothetical, but I could clearly imagine him being a lot tougher matchup for the Spaniard on clay than Fed or others, last but not least because his onehanded BH seemed to handle those high topspin shots better that the BH of the Swiss.

Skorocel Says:

Voicemale1: „And the Sampras 2nd Serve is far and away the best 2nd Serve ever.“


Skorocel Says:

Sean Randall: „The only suspect shot for me is Agassi’s return. Agassi had a great return, but that shot wasn’t the difference maker in him winning titles.“

Agree. It wasn’t just Agassi’s return, but overall his excellent baseline game + mental & physical’s improvement under Gilbert’s and Reyes’s tutelage which won him so many titles later in his career.

Skorocel Says:

tenisbebe: „Yes, Sampras’ 2nd serve was by far the best in the business, better than many players first serve.“

Well, as strange as it may sound, it’s true.

Skorocel Says:

Ben Pronin: „Hewitt’s topspin lob wasn’t a shot that he hit nearly as often as his forehand, backhand, or serve. It’s more or less a trick shot.“

Exactly my thoughts. It was maybe beautiful, but only a „sporadic“ one. But the same can be also said about that Fed’s FH dropshot. I don’t think it’s THAT great + the fact is, he didn’t use it as often in the past either. It’s just a „complementary“ kind of shot, not one which will win you thousands of matches.

„Rafter did a good amount of damage in the beginning of the decade and he did have the best volleys nonetheless.“

Pretty much agree, but the same can be said about Sampras’s volleys (which, in my opinion, were even better).

Ben Pronin Says:

I don’t know why people got so hung up on Fed’s drop shot, I simply mentioned it, it’s not an official part of the list.

The reason I picked Rafter above Sampras in the volleys department is because Rafter didn’t have Sampras’s serve to help him volley easily.

Lenny Says:

My picks:

Forehand: Del Potro, Federer, Gonzalez, Nadal, Soderling. Berdych

Backhand: Nalbandian, Gaudio, Safin, Agassi, Kuerten, Gasquet

Return of Serve: Agassi, Nalbandian, Nadal, Coria, Hewitt, Murray

Serve: Karlovic, Sampras, Roddick, Del Potro

Volley: Rafter, Henman, Sampras

Best Serving Game: Roddick, Karlovic, Del Potro, Federer

Best Return Serving Game: Agassi, Nalbandian, Nadal, Coria, Murray, Del Potro, Hewitt


The worst list:

Roddick’s volley
Gonzalez’s backhand
Coria’s serve after surgery

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