No backhand!


DURING the course of her second-round match at the French Open, Evgenia Koulikovskaya did not make a single backhand error. So why was such accuracy and consistency not rewarded with a better result than a 6-3, 6-2 defeat at the hands of Magdalena Maleeva?

The answer is that Koulikovskaya does not have a backhand. Never has. When she started playing the game at age seven in her home city of Moscow, the first shot she learned was the forehand. But unlike the dozen or more youngsters in her class, she did not stop hitting tennis balls when her left hand got tired. Instead, the ambidextrous Koulikovskaya simply switched the racket to her right hand and kept on hitting forehands.

"My coach saw that, and he made a little experiment," she said with a laugh. "He never taught me to play a backhand." Seventeen years later, the experiment continues, and though Koulikovskaya may never be a Grand Slam winner or a threat to the high-powered, more orthodox likes of Serena Williams and Kim Clijsters, her unconventional game has put her among the top 100 women in the world.

No one at this level plays like her: not on the women's tour, not on the men's tour. Most people have never seen anyone play like her, and that can be both an ice breaker and a burden. "I feel like a horse in the circus: running and people are looking at you do stuff," she said. "Sometimes, I'm getting crazy, because people come and see me, and they point their finger at me: `Look! Look! Look, how she plays!' I understand it's different, and people will react, but sometimes I can't stand it."

If Koulikovskaya sounds bitter, she is not. She is an upbeat extrovert who can also see the lighter side of her condition, such as the time the coach of Olga Barabanschikova took an acquaintance to watch Koulikovskaya play and promised him 10 pounds for every backhand she hit. "There are players teasing me; `How is your backhand now? I heard you never missed it,'" she said. "And I tell them, `Yeah, backhand is my strongest side.'"

Koulikovskaya does have predecessors. As the journalist and tennis historian Bud Collins recounts in Bud Collins' Tennis Encyclopedia, the most prominent players with two forehands were Giorgio de Stefani of Italy and Beverly Baker Fleitz of the United States. De Stefani beat the Briton Fred Perry at Roland Garros in 1934, and that eventually separated Perry from a Grand Slam, as he won the other three major events that year. Fleitz lost in the 1955 Wimbledon final to Louise Brough of the United States.

At Wimbledon in 1972, two forehand-only players, Lita Liem of Indonesia and Marijke Schaar of the Netherlands, actually faced each other in the first round, with Liem winning.

Koulikovskaya can hit overheads with either hand, but she serves with her left, which she concedes is probably her stronger hand, even though she writes and holds a knife with the other. She finds it handy to refer to her groundstrokes as "right" and "left" instead of "forehand" and "forehand." The idea is to make practicing with others hassle-free. In Koulikovskaya's case, asking someone to hit to your forehand only creates confusion, but then perhaps confusion is inevitable.

Is Koulikovskaya a trendsetter or an anomaly? After all, the idea of having two forehands sounds like a goal worth pursuing, considering that the forehand is customarily a player's most forceful shot. The consensus is that it looks better on paper than on clay, grass or cement. The problem is the grip. Switching hands takes time, and time is an increasingly precious commodity in the modern game. "Two forehands is the dream," said the veteran coach Michael De Jong, who used to work with Mary Pierce. "Ten to 15 years ago, when the game was slower, you might have had time to make it work, but these days, the girls hit so much harder."

Koulikovskaya waits for the ball with both hands on her grip: the left hand at the bottom and the right hand above it. As the ball approaches, she drops the hand that does not apply, but if the shot comes to her right, she hits that forehand with her right hand nearly halfway up the grip, and though she believes that allows her more control and finesse on that forehand, it also leaves her with less reach and less leverage.

"One side is much weaker," Maleeva said. "It's very weird to play against her, but you get used to it."

In tennis, perhaps even more so than in life, it is difficult to break old habits, and though the man she is dating, Andrei Yuzhny, brother of the tour player Mikhail Yuzhny, recently tried to get her working on a backhand in practice, he soon realised it was not worth the effort. She might not ever reach the second week of a major tournament, but she will always have her forehands, and so long as tennis styles are converging instead of diversifying, that is something to point a finger at and savour.

New York Times News Service