Roger Federer
Roger Federer executing one of his sublime single-handed backhands at the 2019 Dubai Duty Free Tennis Championships. The Swiss, who won 20 grand slam titles, is one of the finest exponents of the shot. Image Credit: Gulf News Archives

It’s Wimbledon time. A time for strawberries and cream. There will be plenty of it, but not much serve and volley action. That’s hard to come by. Much like the single-handed backhand — a majestic shot when executed by an artist like Roger Federer.

Have you seen a single-handed backhand lately? The chances are very slim. One fine exponent Richard Gasquet retired recently. Denis Shapovalov and Stefanos Tsitsipas continue to be torchbearers of the stroke that’s headed for oblivion.

The double-handed shot has become the backhand of choice ever since Bjorn Borg, Jimmy Connors and Chris Evert showed that it works even on the grass courts of Wimbledon. Rafael Nadal, Serena Williams, Novak Djokovic and others reaped the power and precision of the two-handed shot to win grand slam titles, even if it lacks the aura of the single-hander.

Stefanos Tsitsipas
Stefanos Tsitsipas in action in the 2019 Dubai Duty Free Tennis Championships. The Greek is one of the handful of players in the ATP circuit, who employs the single-handed backhand. Image Credit: Gulf News Archives

The waning popularity of single-handers

The allure of a single-handed backhand is undeniable. It is impressive. So impressive that it draws gasps from the spectators. Federer of Switzerland elevated it to an art form, Belgian Justin Henin was adept at stringing winners down the line with panache, and Stan Wawrinka of Switzerland could let rip ferocious crosscourt shots at will. There’s something romantic about the shot: the ease and elegance make for a brilliant spectacle.

Sadly, it’s become an endangered shot. On February 19, 2024, no top-10 men’s player deployed a single-handed backhand. That’s never happened since the ATP (Association of Tennis Professionals) rankings came into being in 1973. Look at the top 150 ATP players; you may find 12 who play the one-handed backhand and only 4.3% of the top 1000 use it — the lowest in years.

It’s worse in women’s tennis. In the WTA (Women’s Tennis Association) rankings, No. 57 Tatjana Maria of Germany is the only Top 100 player who banks on it. Only 17 (1.7%) prefer it among the top 1000.

Rod Laver
Rod Laver returns the ball during the 1968 Wimbledon final against Tony Roche. Laver is the only player to have won the grand slam twice. The single-handed backhand was his signature shot. Image Credit: AFP file

The single-hander has become an anachronism in tennis. A shot from another time and age, it defined grand slam champions. It was Rod Laver’s signature stroke. John McEnroe employed a deft touch. Ivan Lendl whipped it for a clinical finish. Stefan Edberg, Boris Becker and Pete Sampras played it with power and precision. That’s the single-handed backhand. The shot of swashbucklers.

Women played it with equal felicity as Billie Jean King of the United States led the way. Czech-American Martina Navratilova packed a lot of power in her backhand, German Steffi Graf sliced it, and Australian Ashleigh Barty was the last of the women who found success with a single-hander.

What made the single-hander a rarity? It’s the rise of the double-handed backhand. The power, heavy topspin and consistency of a two-fisted backhand made it a weapon of choice for the new generation of players thirsty for success. There’s plenty to like about it. The margin for error is less, and it’s a workhorse.

Backhand Box - 2

In the seventies, Swede Borg used it to win five Wimbledon and seven French Open titles. American Connors too employed it with plenty of success. Yet it didn’t catch on. McEnroe, Lendl, Edberg, Becker and Sampras proved in the eighties and nineties that a single-hand backhand can win majors.

Ironically, the double-handed backhand gained currency in the era of one of the greatest tennis players with a single-handed backhand. Federer dislodged Sampras as the king of tennis and reigned supreme. The Swiss flicked his topspin backhands like a magician, threading winners down the line and across the court. A connoisseur’s delight, it brought him 103 titles, including 20 grand slam wins.

How Rafael Nadal weaponised the double-handed stroke

Federer remained undisputed until Nadal showed up. With a game nurtured of clay, the Spaniard unleashed double-fisted backhands with heavy topspin, making the balls bounce high into Federer’s backhand. At that height, the single-handed backhand is no match for the double-handed one. The Swiss backhand was neutralised, and the two traded grand slam titles.

Then came Djokovic and Andy Murray, showing off their double-handed backhands to win majors in the era of Federer and Nadal. Murray may be on a farewell tour, but Djokovic continues to run the gamut of grand slam events, winning three of the four last year.

Carlos Alcaraz of Spain seems to have taken over the baton from Djokovic with three grand slam titles. Jannik Sinner is his closest rival. Further away is Daniil Medvedev. All of them prefer the double-handed shot. Tsitsipas of Greece, Grigor Dimitrov of Bulgaria, Lorenzo Musetti of Italy and Shapovalov of Canada play with a single-hander. None of them have shown to be genuine grand slam contenders.

So, the double-handed backhand is here to stay.

Backhand box

The rise of the double-handed shot coincided with the decline of serve-and-volley game. Even Federer, who went toe-to-toe with Sampras serving and volleying, honed his backcourt game to adapt to the changing times when courts slowed down. Even the grasscourts became slower, and baseliners from Andre Agassi to Alcaraz found success at Wimbledon. The single-hander no longer produced enough winners on slow courts, and its appeal waned.

Dr. Jack Groppel, a founder of Johnson & Johnson’s Human Performance Institute, analysed the biomechanics of tennis shots in the late 1970s. He found that while the two-hander required coordination between the hips, legs, trunk and arms, the one-hander demanded synchronisation between the hips, legs, trunk, upper arm, forearm and hand. In short, the two-hander is easier to master.

Why coaches prefer double-handed shot for beginners

So when children start to play tennis, coaches teach them the double-fisted shot. Not only do they learn it fast, but they can also pack power into the shot. Once they grow up playing the double-hander, they never even try to learn the single-hander. It’s like: Why bother if the double-hander works for you?

David Nainkin, who heads ATP player development for the USTA, told the New York Times that he asks the young talents to get rid of the one-handed backhand since the two-handed backhand is more stable and has a simpler motion. “It’s almost impossible to make it with a one-handed backhand now,” he told the newspaper.

Martina Navratilova
Martina Navratilova in action at the 2003 Dubai Duty Free Women's Open Championships. She won 59 grand slam titles with a one-handed backhand but advocates the double-hander for young players. Image Credit: Gulf News Archives

Navratilova won 344 titles, including 59 grand slam titles, with a one-handed backhand but admits that it’s better for young players to use two hands because it’s difficult to keep up with the pace and spin of modern racquets. “Work on the one-handed slice and volley,” she added.

Slice and volley, that’s the lifeline for a one-handed backhand. Even players with the two-handed shot will need a one-handed backhand to hit their slices and drop shots. So, the single-hander will never vanish from tennis.

The one-handed backhand is beautiful to watch. A shot that won grand slams over the years has become so vulnerable that few players opt to practice it, let alone use it. Therein lies the great contradiction.