A letter to lefties

Us left-handers' unusualness and unorthodoxy befuddle opponents, while we blissfully carry on against righty styles we’re thoroughly accustomed to.

Rafael Nadal stands only 18 inches to the left of the centre strip when serving in the ad court and then quickly moves to his right.   -  Getty Images

"When I’m shaking hands, sometimes I put my left hand out. It’s tough for me to shake right-handed.” — Jimmy Connors, the 1970s-’80s tennis champion.

“You have a left- and a right-brain hemisphere. The left side controls the right half of your body, and the right side controls the left half. Therefore, left-handers are the only people in their right mind.” — Former baseball pitcher Bill Lee.

“If I was right-handed, I wouldn’t be where I am today.” – Basketball superstar James Harden.

“They ought to outlaw southpaws!” — Mickey, Rocky’s trainer, in the film Rocky II.

Fellow lefties:

I know what you’re thinking. You’re as certain as can be that sport — specifically tennis — is that divine retribution where the oppressed left-handed minority finally gets even with the right-handed world. Not only do you gloat over your preferred status, but you may even see it as your ticket to Trophy City. After all, some of the greatest players in tennis history, such as Rafael Nadal, Martina Navratilova, Monica Seles, John McEnroe, Bob Bryan and Jimmy Connors — not to mention Rod Laver, the only double calendar-year Grand Slammer — whack away from the left side.

Yes, there are plenty of honest-to-goodness advantages. Odds are, you’re probably blessed with a beautiful topspin forehand and a mean, swerving serve. Our unusualness (most studies reveal we make up only 10 percent of the world’s population) and unorthodoxy befuddle opponents, while we blissfully carry on against righty styles we’re thoroughly accustomed to. The game’s scoring system favours us as well. We serve — and return serve — on those crucial ad points in the left court just where the vast majority of port-siders shine.

From Norman Brookes, the first lefty to win Wimbledon in 1907, to Nadal, the current lefty superstar, the best southpaws have capitalised on their sinistrality to the maximum. Nicknamed “The Wizard,” Brookes confounded opponents with a dazzling array of serves — flat, slice, twist and even reverse-twist wide in the deuce court, prompting Bill Tilden to call Brookes “the greatest tennis brain.”

Seven decades later, Navratilova and McEnroe, serve-and-volleyers like Brookes, pulled foes outside the ad-court alley with wicked slice serves. That enabled these left-handers to regularly punch volleys into the open court for winners. McEnroe and Nadal added slice to their kick serve to make their second serve especially effective in the ad court. When serve returners positioned themselves closer to the alley, smart lefties also adjusted by powering flat serves up the centre service line. They frequently piled up aces there as rivals, intimidated by ferocious wide serves, were caught leaning the wrong way. And when serve returners were positioned more centrally, all of these crafty lefties used the slice to handcuff opponents with swerving body serves.

If you serve and volley on occasion, do it when the odds favour you. Nadal uses this tactic chiefly when he first-serves in the ad court for the aforementioned reasons. You also have a better chance of winning the point when the wind and the sun are behind you.

The bread-and-butter shot for nearly every lefty is the cross-court forehand. Nadal, in fact, bases much of his game on creating as many cross-court forehand opportunities as possible and then hitting them aggressively. To do that, he stands only 18 inches to the left of the centre strip when serving in the ad court and then quickly moves to his right. That reduces his backhand hitting area and forces opponents to try to direct low-percentage down-the-line backhands off his wide slice serves. In most tournaments, Nadal hits his first ground stroke with a forehand at least 80 percent of the time on his service games. This tactic allows him to dictate most of the rallies, as his terrific forehand frequently forces errors or weak shots and wears down opponents physically and mentally. Former No. 1 Andy Roddick likened facing the Nadal forehand to “Chinese water torture.”

Some of the best lefties of yesteryear, such as Jaroslav Drobny, suffered from weak one-handed backhands that they usually sliced.   -  Getty Images

 

After Nadal trounced Frances Tiafoe 6-3, 6-4, 6-2 in the 2019 Australian Open quarterfinals, he explained the tactical reason he won a whopping 84 percent of his first-serve points. “I’ve been practising during the whole off season the serve and first shot, and during this event I’ve probably done it more times than ever — serve and winner with the first forehand,” Nadal said. “That’s something that is very important for me, both today and if I want to keep playing for a few years. That gives me a lot of free points, and that’s so important at this stage of my career.”

Nadal sets the gold standard for lefties, technically as well as tactically. His Western forehand bounds very high and, when directed cross court, careens away from bedevilled opponents. This devastating weapon, far more than any other shot, has carried the rugged Spaniard to a record 12 French Open titles and a 24-16 record against Roger Federer in their classic rivalry. “I play the shot that’s easier for me, and he plays the one that’s harder for him,” wrote Nadal about “the plan” in his autobiography, RAFA.

Indeed, righties, especially with a one-handed backhand like Federer, struggled mightily to time the wickedly spinning Nadal forehand and then to strike the ball cleanly on the racquet’s “sweet spot.” (In 2015, Hawk-Eye technology found that Nadal’s forehand averaged a Tour-high 3,391 revolutions per minute.)

Norman Brookes confounded opponents with a dazzling array of serves — flat, slice, twist and even reverse-twist wide in the deuce court.   -  Getty Images

 

You likely can’t match Nadal’s strength or skill, but you can learn from his predilections and patterns. Like his cross-court topspin forehand, yours should have three variations based mainly on depth.

The first and most basic variation is very deep and accurate, landing about five feet inside both the baseline and the sideline. This shot often elicits a weak return, and that sets up five offensive options for you. First, you can stroke your next shot into the other corner to keep your scrambling opponent on the defensive. Second, you can wrong-foot him by hitting your next shot on the rise and into the same area while your opponent is sprinting back toward the middle of the baseline. Third, you can hit an approach shot followed by a volley or an overhead. Fourth, you can hit a sharply angled ground stroke to pull your opponent off the court. Fifth, you can hit a disguised drop shot near his forehand sideline and the net.

The second cross-court topspin forehand variation lands about three feet both past the service line and inside the sideline. It forces your opponent to execute a difficult shot from, or just outside, the alley and often leaves him in a difficult position — uncomfortably far from both the baseline and the net.

The third variation on this geometric theme is the most extreme. From well inside your baseline and ideally closer to your forehand sideline than the middle of the court, go for a severely angled cross-court topspin forehand. It should land about halfway between the net and the service line, about two feet from the sideline. This super angle is intended to win the point outright and torture your opponent. Seles, best known for her relentless power, expertly executed this deadly weapon off both double-handed wings. If you have the racquet talent and a streak of sadism, this finesse shot is for you. Use this shot judiciously, though, because a speedy, talented opponent can out-angle you with an even more acute angle or conjure a jaw-dropping winner around the net post.

Some of the best lefties of yesteryear, such as Neale Fraser, Mervyn Rose, Roscoe Tanner and Jaroslav Drobny, suffered from weak one-handed backhands that they usually sliced. These days, single-handers are almost extinct in the women’s game and increasingly uncommon among the men. The only top up-and-coming male lefty, the 20-year-old Canadian Denis Shapovalov, boasts an excellent serve and potent topspin forehand, but an error-prone, one-handed backhand. One can imagine how much more effective Shapovalov’s offence would be if he had a two-handed backhand like Nadal’s that consistently generates effortless power.

Many of the greatest doubles teams in history featured a lefty-righty combination, such as Mark Woodforde (right) and Todd Woodbridge and (below) Martina Navratilova (left) and Pam Shriver.   -  Getty Images

 

Lefties with two-handed backhands should use this more powerful shot as often as possible, as Nadal does when he’s at his confident best, and limit one-handed backhands to some approach shots, lunging serve returns, drop shots and occasional change-of-pace shots during rallies. Players with only one-handed backhands should try to develop both power and topspin.

Unfortunately, my sinistral friends, we can be an unbalanced lot with some bête noires that conspire to undo us. Some of these seem to be inborn, others the result of competing predominantly against righties. The following four left-handed flaws, in technique and tactics, must be ironed out before they demoralise and defeat you.

Slicing your backhand too often is a disease that can weaken your game and strip it of its offensiveness. So, if you’re a one-hander, use a full Eastern backhand grip. For both one-handers and two-handers, remember to split step, start your back swing as early as possible, and think aggressively. Drive the ball, preferably with some topspin, and don’t lose your nerve. Your goal should be not to slice unless you really have to — mainly against bullet serves and ground strokes, high and deep shots, and balls that force you to lunge and reach forward or wide. You’ll need a strong, solid backhand during rallies and, even more so, for serve returns and passing shots. Remember, too, that your potent forehand won’t help much if opponents rarely hit to that side of the court.

Excessive wrist movement, while beneficial when cracking the serve and smash, produces streaks of wildness from the backcourt that will shatter your confidence. A whippy wrist may add some power to your forehand, but unless your timing is near-perfect — and that requires considerable practice, not to mention talent — you’re bound to sacrifice all-important control and thus consistency. On the backhand, a loose, unlocked wrist invariably causes mishits and a significant loss of both power and control. This technique flaw is most obvious and costly when trying to handle pace, particularly on demanding serve returns and passing shots.

Under-hitting your backhand volley crimps your forecourt threat. Many offenders are left-handers, including Nadal, who occasionally hits backhand volleys with too much underspin. So get the correct volley grip (Continental) and hold it firmly enough so it doesn’t turn when returning powerful passing shots. Avoid excessive backspin that also comes from either swinging down — rather than forward — and from bevelling the racquet face too much. Put a bruise on the oncoming ball, rather than nibble at it. Finally, try not to overdo the touch shots that are so much fun. Work on the drop volleys and severe angles after you learn to put some power in your basic volleys.

The only top up-and-coming male lefty, Denis Shapovalov, boasts an excellent serve and potent topspin forehand, but an error-prone, one-handed backhand.   -  Getty Images

 

Flouting the percentages is never a winning formula, as the flashy but erratic Shapovalov is learning. But perhaps some southpaws are overconfident because they tend to be disproportionately talented in sports. Lefthandersday.com claims, “Their right-brain dominance gives lefties better spatial awareness.” And we think more quickly, according to a 2006 study published in the journal Neuropsychology. Scientists at the Australian National University, who measured the reaction times of left- and right-handed people, found “extreme left-handed” individuals were 43 milliseconds faster at spotting matching letters. The super-fast reflexes of McEnroe, Lionel Messi, Wayne Gretzky, Manny Pacquiao and James Harden attest to this left-handed athletic advantage.

In any event, if you’re one of those gifted but obstinate tennis lefties who like to fire away with delusions of non-stop winners, then consider tempering your game. Change pace on occasion, clear the net more safely, add overspin to your serve, direct plenty of ground strokes cross court, and don’t hesitate to lob when you’re in untenable situations. In other words, give your opponent a chance to make a few errors, to beat himself.

You can, of course, win points and even occasional games with calculated gambles, but defying the tenets of percentage tennis for an entire match is suicidal.

What about playing a fellow lefty? Fortunately, this awkward scenario doesn’t happen often. Although you don’t enjoy the big advantage (over righties) any more, you can take comfort knowing this entirely different and dreaded match-up is the same for both of you.

If you and your lefty opponent have the same forehand strengths, decide whether you want to match those strengths or, instead, match your relative backhand weaknesses, in frequent cross-court exchanges. If you chose the former, be alert for a slightly weaker cross-court forehand and then go for a forehand winner down the line. The same tactic applies to cross-court backhand rallies. Do down-the-line backhand drills in practice, so you can execute this vital shot confidently in tournaments. Generally, spin serves work quite well against lefties because we seldom play lefties and simply aren’t used to the direction and curves. The reverse twist serve wide in the deuce court and the slice serve into the body in the ad court are especially effective. Try different amounts of spin to see which variations throw off their technique and timing the most. Be sure to practise with lefties at least 20 percent of the time so you learn how to adjust your swings, footwork and tactics to their distinctive styles.

Australian National University found “extreme left-handed” individuals were 43 milliseconds faster at spotting matching letters. The super-fast reflexes of Lionel Messi (above) attest to this left-handed athletic advantage.   -  Getty Images

 

The majority of the time, revel in the fact that righties never like playing us devilish lefties, who for centuries actually were associated with the devil. On the other hand, righties court us as doubles partners because we often complement them so well. Indeed, many of the greatest doubles teams in history featured this lefty-righty combination. Think of Bob and Mike Bryan, Mark Woodforde and Todd Woodbridge, McEnroe and Peter Fleming, Tony Roche and John Newcombe, Fraser and Roy Emerson, and Navratilova and Pam Shriver.

If we lefties play our hand right — if you’ll pardon the word — we can beat back the dextral majority. Considering Aristotle, Julius Caesar, Leonardo de Vinci, Albert Einstein, Joan of Arc, Charles Darwin, Marie Curie, Barack Obama, Lady Gaga and Bill Gates come from our ranks, we have a lot to live up to.

Sinistrally yours,

Paul Fein