One-hander on its last stand

Double-handed backhand has almost pushed the single-hander off the courts

One-hander on its last stand

With another Wimbledon in full swing, let’s first settle the issue of extinction by reassuring tennis connoisseurs everywhere that there will always be one-handed backhands — one-handed slice backhands.

“That’s true, the slice will never die,” Wally Masur, a former Australian star turned coach, said recently.

The doubts concern the future of the one-handed drive backhand, the long, flowing topspin stroke with the high finish that has helped build the careers and fan bases of players from Suzanne Lenglen and Don Budge to Justine Henin and Roger Federer.
It is the much-beloved, now-bemoaned shot that has turned many contemporary tennis observers into the equivalent of bird watchers: “Look! Over there!”

Yet despite the one-hander’s place on the endangered list, there was suddenly a surplus of exotic sightings at the French Open this year. Eight men in the Round of 16 used the single-handed topspin backhand, and four reached the quarterfinals before running into the double-fisted reality of Rafael Nadal, Novak Djokovic, David Ferrer and Jo-Wilfried Tsonga.

Eight of the top 30 men in the rankings regularly use one-handers, including three of the top 10: Roger Federer, Richard Gasquet and Stanislas Wawrinka. One of the most promising young talents, Grigor Dimitrov, 22, of Bulgaria, uses a one-hander, too, making one wonder whether the tears over the one-hander is a bit premature.

But absolutely not when you consider that only three of the top 50 women regularly use a one-handed drive backhand: the Italians Roberta Vinci and Francesca Schiavone and the Spaniard Carla Suárez Navarro, none of whom is in the top 10. And absolutely not when you consider what appears to be in the pipeline.

“Out of the current top juniors, we haven’t been able to find a boy or girl that plays the backhand with just one hand,” Isabelle Gemmel, the administrator for junior and senior tennis at the International Tennis Federation, said.

Brad Gilbert, a top American coach, frequently visits the Bollettieri Academy in Florida to work with promising junior players. “Every once in a while, when you see a one-handed backhand, you stop and go 'Whoa!'” Gilbert said. “I could be generous and say it’s 20-to-1, but it’s more like 40-to-1. There are a few hundred kids down there playing, and it’s just very few and far between. I think 10 to 15 to 20 years from now, you’ll be shocked to see one.”

Although past stars like Gustavo Kuerten and Pete Sampras abandoned the two-hander as juniors, theirs are now better stories than examples. The leading players who use one hand exclusively today are generally older. In Paris, the average age of the male one-handers in the Round of 16 was 29 years 7 months, compared with 27 years for those without. As for the women, Vinci is 30 and Schiavone is 33.

The one-handed drive has its advantages: extra reach in an era when the game has accelerated; more chance of a successful shot when off-balance; a greater element of surprise when switching to a drop shot; and a capacity - some say - to generate more acute angles. But the reasons for the pre-eminence of the two-hander are clear. In a game of increasing athleticism, two hands offer a more solid platform for countering big power and spin of the sort Nadal can produce with his forehand or Serena Williams can produce with her serve.

“The contact point is a little bit later with a two-hander, so you can hit more open stance,” said Dave Miley, the tennis federation’s director of development. “With a two-hander, you’re basically hitting a forehand with the other hand, and as a result you have a little more time and more strength.”

The stroke’s popularity has also reflected the thirst for junior success. Two tiny hands are often much more effective than one, and the two-hander is generally considered easier to teach.

“If you’re thinking about an 8-year-old and saying, Oh we’re going to build the next Pete Sampras or the next Roger Federer, and go with the one-hander, that’s such a pipe dream,” Gilbert said. “You’re trying to get early success, and it’s just easier. It’s so hard physically to hit a ball when you are 8 or 9 years old with one hand when it’s up above your shoulders. As someone who played with one hand my whole life, the biggest difference for young kids is it’s so much easier to return a serve.”

But the truly intriguing development is the tennis federation’s rule change last year mandating smaller courts and, above all, lighter, slower, lower-bouncing balls for players 10 and under.

The goal is to make the game more accessible and to encourage greater variety. Mini-tennis courts and lighter balls have been used in Europe for more than a decade and were credited with helping the former Belgian star Henin develop her magnificent one-hander. Could the rule change help reverse the tactical tide?

“I would never tell a kid to switch one way or the other,” said Patrick McEnroe, who is in charge of player development at the US Tennis Association. “I think you take what is naturally given to you.”

He added, “I do think, though, that in watching a lot of the kids with the softer balls, etc., that there’s a chance you’ll see more one-handers develop.”

As McEnroe notes, the dearth of one-handed topspin strokes in the juniors comes as the one-handed slice is increasingly critical to success at the top. Federer has long used his as a rhythm shifter. Nadal, Djokovic and Andy Murray are also fine practitioners of the single-handed slice, with Nadal making particularly big improvements.

“He’s actually using a side-spin backhand; it’s become an unbelievable shot,” said Miguel Crespo, the tennis federation’s development research officer.

The question is, will the slice backhand be the only one-hander in tennis’s future?

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