“The finest backhand in the world is possessed by Vivian McGrath. However, the shot is one that I cannot recommend as a model, for he uses two hands on the racket to make it. I doubt if one person in a thousand could learn to make such as stroke more efficiently with two hands than with one.”
— Wilmer Allison, 1935 U.S. champion, in the instruction book, How to Play Lawn Tennis
“If I had advice to give a youngster today, I would say play your backhand with two hands. You cannot have a very good backhand with one hand; you need a strong wrist, a strong arm.”
— Rene Lacoste, then 82, one of France’s famed “Four Musketeers” during the late 1920s and early 1930s, in a 1987 interview in World Tennis magazine
These are good times for the oft-criticised one-handed backhand. For the sport’s first 100 years, the one-hander was the predominant weapon of choice for players at all levels. That changed dramatically after superstars Bjorn Borg, Jimmy Connors, and Chris Evert popularised the two-handed backhand in the 1970s. Recently, a surprising late-bloomer ignited the traditional one-hander’s unexpected resurgence.
Stan Wawrinka, now 31, won the 2014 Australian Open, the 2015 French Open, and the 2016 U.S. Open. In fact, in the last 13 majors, only Novak Djokovic has captured more men’s Grand Slam titles, six, than Wawrinka. At the 2017 Australian Open, even more surprisingly, the one-hander was featured by three of the four singles semifinalists: champion Roger Federer, who won a record 18th major title, Grigor Dimitrov, and Wawrinka.
Whether this resurgence constitutes a modest trend or the last gasp for a stroke that will become a dinosaur, fans of the stylish one-hander are enjoying it immensely. Some former pros and leading coaches even see a bright future for it, predicting that either No. 8 Dominic Thiem or No. 13 Dimitrov will be the next one-handed backhand Grand Slam winner. If 23-year-old Thiem or 25-year-old Dimitrov doesn’t keep the flame alive, then Stefanos Tsitsipas, the 18-year-old current world No. 1 junior player, or Denis Shapovalov, the 17-year-old Wimbledon junior titlist last year, could.
In the women’s game, however, the verdict is clear: two hands are better than one. The last one-handed Grand Slam champion, Francesca Schiavone at the 2010 French Open, now 36 years old, ranks a lowly No. 97. The only other one-handed backhands in the top 100 are swung by No. 14 Carla Suarez Navarro (28), No. 25 Roberta Vinci (34), and No. 62 Viktorija Golubic (24).
For an analysis of the merits of both strokes and a perspective about the fate of the one-handed backhand, I consulted Gene Mayer. Using two hands on both forehand and backhand, Mayer ranked No. 4 in singles in 1980 and No. 2 in doubles in 1980−82 and helped the U.S. win the Davis Cup in 1982. He also captured two French Open doubles titles, one with his brother Sandy in 1979. After Mayer retired from pro competition, he became president of Two Handed Enterprises, a sports marketing and consultancy firm, and coached several prominent players, including Fabrice Santoro and doubles star Leander Paes.
Question: Your father, Alex Mayer, Sr., was a Davis Cup player from Hungary and Yugoslavia and a leading coach after immigrating to the U.S. In the 1960s, he taught Sandy a classic one-handed backhand, and he taught you a two-handed backhand and two-handed forehand. Why did he do that? What did other coaches and players think about the Mayer brothers, who served as an early experiment in two-handedness versus one-handedness?
Answer: One of the greatest attributes of my dad as a coach was his willingness to work with what was internal to his students, rather than merely imposing his perception of an external ideal. My brother Sandy was an all-round player with no major weapons, but possessed a real knack for getting to net and finishing the point with his volley. Like me, Sandy started at two years old with two hands off both sides, but my dad weaned him off the two-hands as his straightforward approach and propensity to come forward to the net became apparent.
My game revolved around my two-handed forehand. It was my source of confidence and really made me the player I became. Since I already had a two-handed forehand, it made logical sense to keep the two-handed backhand too. Two hands very well suited my feel for the ball and variety of shot.
We were part of the decision process to play with either one or two hands and never looked back. Our playing style even suited our personalities. My dad consulted extensively with Pancho Segura [a former pro star with an outstanding two-handed forehand and later a renowned coach] about the path forward. Coaches were also amazed to find out that we grew up in the same house, ate the same food, were taught by the same coach, but could not have been any more different in approach to hitting the ball or constructing our points.
In the 1973 ATP rankings, only one top 10 player, Jimmy Connors, used a two-handed backhand, and in the 1975 WTA top 10 rankings, only Chris Evert did. Conversely, in the season-ending 2016 ATP rankings, only Wawrinka and Thiem made the top 10, while no single-handed woman has finished in the top 10 for the past six years. Why has the double-handed backhand gradually replaced the one-hander over the years?
There are numerous reasons for the current dominance of the two-handed backhand. Learning this stroke is far easier and quicker to master than the single hander. Having a second hand on the racket simplifies the unit turn whereby the shoulders and hips rotate during the backswing. Enhanced body utilisation translates into a more regular, consistent, and precise stroke. The amplified shoulder turn creates disguise. Two hands on the racket stabilise the racket face and reduce torque caused by high-speed, heavily spun shots from your opponent. Returning blistering serves, which is one of the most difficult feats in sports, is an enormous additional benefit. A final reason is simply that coaches and teaching pros around the world have increasingly taught boys and girls the two-handed backhand as their basic stroke for the past 30 years.
In the 40 years since you joined the pro tour, which men and women had the best two-handed backhands? And what has been most impressive about each backhand?
There have been quite a few outstanding two-handed backhands in the past four decades. Narrowing the list is not an easy task. For the men, Andre Agassi rates No. 1 due to his combination of power and accuracy. Novak Djokovic’s ability to absorb power and spin so effectively ranks him No. 2. Jimmy Connors’ consistent depth and terrific power put him in third place. Jimmy kept me pinned deeper in the court than anyone else. Yevgeny Kafelnikov’s rounds out the top 4 as a result of his ability to hit down the line well, regardless of the direction and spin of the oncoming ball. My honourable mentions go to Marat Safin and David Nalbandian.
Among the women, Serena Williams’ early preparation and tremendous power put her in the top spot. Monica Seles’s pinpoint accuracy put her at No. 2. Lindsay Davenport’s clean contact and efficient power got her the next spot. Chris Evert comes in fourth since her rock-solid backhand resembled a ball machine. My honourable mentions go to Venus Williams and Maria Sharapova.
During the same period, who had the best one-handed backhands? And what was special about them?
Stan Wawrinka takes the top spot. Djokovic often laments the difficulty of handling Wawrinka’s brute power. Bounding topspin and deep slices provide tremendous variety, which makes his backhand even more effective. Guga Kuerten’s explosive backhand comes in second. He could hit winners from four or five feet behind the baseline on clay. Richard Gasquet is highly effective due to his precision topspin that creates uncanny angles. Johan Kriek, on his best days, was a human highlight film. Johan was the only player of my time that could go through sprees of knocking off nearly every backhand.
Justine Henin’s versatility earns her the top spot. In her prime, Henin was like a Federer clone. She combined power, topspin, slice, angles, and drop shots. Gaby Sabatini had excellent racket head speed that helped her produce vicious topspin like her compatriot Guillermo Vilas. Amelie Mauresmo, like Henin, had an extreme backhand grip and combined power with finesse. Hana Mandlikova was a shot-maker extraordinaire. When she was on, even Navratilova and Evert were in trouble.
What are your criteria for evaluating the effectiveness of various backhands?
My primary criteria for evaluating backhands are consistency, accuracy, power, depth, variety, and overall effectiveness.
How has the evolution of rackets and strings impacted the evolution of backhands?
With the advent of modern rackets and strings, the backhand almost inevitably evolved to take advantage of these changes. For example, it is far easier to generate power and spin than it was 40 years ago. Two-handers have had quite a few advantages. The second hand keeps the racket far more stable at contact against a high-speed, high-revolution ball. Strike zones have expanded upward to handle high-bouncing topspin. Returning 140-mph serves is a less daunting task using two hands.
In 1974, three of the Grand Slam events were played on grass and one on clay. Now only Wimbledon is played on grass, albeit a slower version, but the Australian and U.S. Opens are contested on hard courts. How have these changes in court surfaces influenced the evolution of backhands?
As the courts and balls have slowed down, there has been a huge premium placed on consistency and solidity. Withstanding a barrage of heavy groundstrokes has now become the norm. These are situations where the two-hander shines. Long gone are the days at Wimbledon of bad-bouncing grass courts, short points, and chip-and- charge fever.
A 2007 analysis in Tennis magazine (U.S.) of the greatest shots in tennis history quoted journalist Joel Drucker asserting: “Dare not impose the same demands on the backhand as forehand. A forehand can end a point, but a backhand is almost always less about closure and more about creation.” Do you agree?
Joel Drucker got it right as to the general rule. Backhands are normally consistent and accurate, but rarely become weapons. Even Djokovic, Wawrinka, Murray, and Nishikori run around their backhands to hit more potent forehands. Having said that, there are exceptions to this general rule. Connors, Agassi, and Djokovic hit plenty of winners and forcing shots.
On the women’s side, there are more exceptions to this guideline. The Williams sisters and Lindsay Davenport ushered in this new world. Pliskova, Keys, and Muguruza appear to be following in their footsteps.
Should every boy and girl who starts playing tennis at the age of 14 or younger start playing with a two-handed backhand?
Most young players will benefit from learning to hit a two-hander at a young age. This encourages enhanced movement, early preparation, and body utilisation. Additional footwork is required since the contact point with a two-hander is nearer the body. Shoulder rotation is a natural consequence of using the second hand. Two-handers tend to be more compact and ready earlier. That said, the rare exceptions are players of unusual strength, tremendous height, or great natural aptitude that could make a one-hander the more suitable option. Experimenting with both two hands and one hand is the only way to get a handle on this often difficult question.
The conventional wisdom is that the single-handed backhand is elegant and graceful, while the double-handed backhand is utilitarian. The one-handed practitioner is the artist, while his two-handed counterpart is the artisan. How accurate is this view? Do esthetics even matter?
There is quite a bit of truth in that generalisation. Fans “ooh” and “ah” more about Federer’s beautiful stroke than they do about Djokovic’s. If given the choice of which backhand to have, I would choose Djokovic’s two-hander every day. Although there is something magical about a gifted one-hander that is hard to reproduce with two hands, at the end of the day, tennis is not a beauty contest.
If nearly every two-handed backhand player can also hit slice backhands these days, but one-handed backhand players can’t hit two-handed backhands, why should anyone hit one-handed backhands?
There are body types, playing styles, and exceptional talents that occasionally can favour a one-handed backhand. Super-tall and strong players like 6’11” Ivo Karlovic and 6’10” John Isner may be better served by one-handers. Their backhand slices are generally superior. Super-talented and aggressive players, like Roger Federer and Justine Henin, who approach net often, can also benefit from a one-handed backhand.
If a teenager tells his coach that “I feel more comfortable hitting a one-handed backhand,” should the coach allow him to switch to or stick with a one-handed backhand even if the coach believes he would be a better player with a two-handed backhand?
Coaching requires an open mind. If a student desires a one-hander, it is worthwhile to experiment. After giving it a try, most of my students have been cured of that notion. Overall effectiveness, not comfort, needs to govern the ultimate decision. If you explain that to doubting or ambivalent students, and in some cases also to their parents, that helps pave the way for a positive attitude and ultimate success.
This century, many world-class American men, with the exception of Mardy Fish, Robby Ginepri, Brian Baker, and Taylor Fritz have had average or mediocre two-handed backhands. I’m referring to Andy Roddick, John Isner, Sam Querrey, Jack Sock, Steve Johnson, Ryan Harrison, and Donald Young. Why can’t American men develop highly effective and reliable two-handed backhands like the Europeans, and especially the Russians, do?
Quality stroke production requires intensive repetition. With the combination of quality technique and needed reps, backhands are not the most difficult part of the game. Foreign players have often been more willing to invest the hours to achieve backhand mastery. American juniors have often graduated to playing points and competing prematurely. With an Eastern European father-coach, I did heavy reps between the age of 2-8. So by the time I was 13 or 14, my strokes were correctly grooved.
In 2010, Martina Navratilova, the greatest female serve-and- volleyer in history, told the New York Times , “I think for a serve-and-volleyer it’s better to have a one-handed backhand.” Do you agree?
Serve-and-volleyers can benefit from hitting a one-handed backhand. Hitting exclusively one-handed ground-strokes often produces a firmer, more comfortable volleyer. Low balls that require an approach shot can be more natural for one-handers. Still, the vast majority of serve-and-volleyers would be better players overall with a two-handed backhand. In the past, two-handed backhand players who volleyed well included Connors, Jonas Bjorkman, Todd Martin, and Mark Woodforde.
Among active players, Rafael Nadal, Radek Stepanek, Petra Kvitova, Sloane Stephens, and doubles standouts Daniel Nestor, Jamie Murray, and Bruno Soares also fit that mould.
Is there a cause-and-effect relationship, and even a connection, between the steady decrease of one-handed backhands and the near extinction of serve-and-volleyers?
When I started out on the ATP Tour in 1975, the vast majority of backhands were one-handed. These backhands were usually sliced in conjunction with chipped serve returns. Serving-and- volleying was the predominant playing style and quite successful then because it was a rarity that someone could belt a backhand past you. It was a very rude awakening for serve-and-volleyers when Connors and Borg changed all of that. The two-handed backhand, coupled with the modern rackets, spin-inducing strings, and slower courts and balls, eventually made serving and volleying all but extinct.
While serve-and-volleyers are an endangered species, groundstroke-and-volleyers like Federer, Dimitrov, and Jo-Wilfried Tsonga have fared well. Is the grip change to volley more of a problem for Western and Semi-Western forehand players than it is for two-handed backhand players when they approach the net?
Extreme grips both on the forehand and the two-handed backhand can present problems at the net. Extreme grips can make it difficult to find the Continental grip and impart mild slice to the forehand volley. Two-handers are often weak on their backhand volley and need to learn to maintain a firm wrist with a single hand.
You had marvelous touch and executed wicked drop shots. What are the keys to hitting a drop shot with a two-handed backhand?
Drop shots are inherently a feel stroke. Practice at a young age builds an early sense of the string movement on the ball. For most players, a one-handed drop shot is more natural, so this is a developmental process. The first step is hitting a slice backhand with two hands. The next is learning to create backspin. The final phase involves having the ball stop its forward movement after landing.
Not everyone has the natural ability required to hit touch shots, though. Even at the pro level, some players never or rarely try drop shots and drop volleys. And some, like Serena, try but clearly lack touch and usually make errors or hit poor drop shots.
You excelled at both singles and doubles. In what ways is the two-handed backhand an advantage and a disadvantage in doubles?
Two-handed backhands tend to shine in doubles. Returning and breaking serves is a huge hurdle in doubles. This is a clear advantage for two-handers. The ability to hit sharply angled and topspin lobs are additional benefits. A disadvantage is that some two-handers are a little less natural at net, particularly in rapid-fire net duels.
With first serves increasingly exceeding 130 mph and second serves kicking higher and farther than ever in men’s tennis, does a one-handed backhand have a chance to return them, particularly against servers 6’9” or taller?
Returning big serves is even more difficult with one hand. Most one-handers tend to be “contact returners” that make a lot of returns, but do not neutralise the server. They can attempt to make use of their extended reach and their ability to return and come in. Federer and Wawrinka fall in this category. Two-handers can actually punish big serve returns. Agassi, Djokovic, Serena, and Sharapova are a tremendous threat in this regard.
Which backhand has more disguise?
Two-handed strokes have great disguise for several reasons. The big shoulder turn shields the racket quite a bit from the opponent’s view. The non-dominant hand also allows for last-minute improvisation. Balls contacted late can still be handled effectively.
Passing shots are the second most difficult shots to hit for a backhand after returning first serves. Which backhand is better at hitting passing shots?
Passing shots share some of the difficulties of returning serve in that the ball normally comes with a great deal of pace and spin at the defender. The most reliable passers have normally been two-handers. Some of the more gifted one-handers pass well too, but they have a greater need to find an early and ideal contact point.
Which backhand has more versatility?
Two-handed backhands have become more versatile, but the one-hander still wins the versatility crown by a slight margin. It’s easier for one-handed players to adapt to and ultimately develop the slice shot. Tracking down low balls is more natural. And drop shots are mastered more quickly.
What kinds of injuries typically afflict one-handed and two-handed players?
One-handers often suffer from shoulder, elbow, and wrist injuries. Tennis elbow is also common. Improper technique and late ball contact are often the culprits. Two-handers can experience lower back and hip injuries due to the stress from rotating the body. This decade wrist injuries have become more common for two-handers, often on the non-dominant hand, and victims include Juan Martin del Potro, Nadal, Djokovic, and some female pros, such as Madison Keys.
All things considered, which backhand is safer in terms of avoiding major injuries?
Overall, two-handers seem to experience fewer injuries. One-handers often switch to two hands as a means of avoiding injury. Even if the goal is to return to hitting with one hand, two hands are often utilised as a means of physical therapy during the recovery period.
Players over age 40 with one-handed backhands have built up years of muscle memory grooving this stroke and using tactics based on it. Is it too late for players with weak one-handed backhands to switch to a two-handed backhand? And what are the keys to making this major change a success?
Senior players can also benefit from the use of the two-handed backhand stroke. They can also become more solid, consistent, and accurate with a two-hander. I have been part of a number of successful transitions.
Before making this change, a few key questions have to be asked. Does the player have the speed and conditioning to regularly get in position for the two-hander? One-handers can more easily adapt to less than ideal positioning. Is there sufficient flexibility to fully rotate the upper body? This rotation is essential to execute the shot correctly. If these questions can be answered affirmatively, many students see vast improvement in a relatively short time.
In 2011, Tennis Channel analyst Justin Gimelstob told Tennis Life magazine, “A great one-hander is still an excellent shot.” If that is true and Wawrinka, Thiem, and Gasquet have great one-handers, why do these players often run around their one-handed backhands in order to hit forehands?
Forehands generally prove to be the more offensive weapon, even if the backhand is more fundamentally sound. Forehands normally produce higher spin RPMs. This translates into greater net clearance and higher bounces. The greater spin also affords more acute angles. Finally, power and penetration are ordinarily easier to produce with forehands.
The best two-handed players, such as Djokovic, Connors, and Agassi, plus Grand Slam finalists David Nalbandian and Guillermo Coria, had outstanding down-the-line backhands. But the top one-handed backhand players seldom hit down the line. Is this yet another advantage the two-handed backhand has?
One of the big differences between one- and two-handed backhands is the player’s ability to keep the racket stable when impacted by a ball at high velocity. The second hand provides enormous help in this regard. Going down the line often requires a redirection of the backhand. Two-handers have a far simpler task in executing this precision shot.
The one-handed-only backhand style is clearly an endangered species. Is there any chance it can make a long-term comeback? If it does die out, what are your thoughts about its place in tennis history, and what will its absence mean for tennis for the rest of the century?
Upcoming players often mimic the current stars. The success of Federer, Wawrinka, Thiem, and Dimitrov has done some superb marketing for one-handed backhands. Wise coaches also realise the benefits of going against the grain to not just become one of the crowd. All of these factors would indicate a short-term resurgence of this stroke.
Tennis has always been a game that thrives on compelling rivalries and contrasting playing styles. McEnroe versus Borg, Evert versus Navratilova, Sampras versus Agassi, and Federer versus Nadal immediately come to mind. One of the players in each of these great rivalries has a one-hander. Tennis would sorely miss the beauty, variety, and fluidity of the one-handed backhand if it disappeared or slowly faded away.
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