The backhand is a tennis shot in which one swings the racquet around one's body in the direction where one wants the ball to go, usually performed from the baseline or as an approach shot. The term is also used in other racquet sports, and other areas where a similar motion is employed (for example while throwing a sport disc). For a right-handed player, this means that a backhand begins on the left side of the body, continues across the body as contact is made with the ball, and ends on the right side of the body, with the racquet over the left shoulder. The backhand can be a one-handed or two-handed stroke.
Because the player's dominant hand "pulls" into the shot, the backhand generally lacks the power and consistency of the forehand, and is usually considered more difficult to master. However, the two-handed backhand provides more stability and power for the shot, and is increasingly used in the modern game. Beginner and club-level players often have difficulty hitting a backhand, and junior players may have trouble making the shot if they are not strong enough to hit it. Many advanced players still have a significantly better forehand than backhand, and many strategies in tennis aim to exploit this weakness.
For most of the 20th century, the backhand was hit with one hand using either an eastern or continental grip. The first notable players to use a two-handed backhand were the 1930s Australians Vivian McGrath and John Bromwich. Beginning with Mike Belkin who was the first two-handed backhand player in the United States and Chris Evert in the 1960s, many players began to use a two-handed grip for the backhand. Pete Sampras and Stefan Edberg notably switched from the two-handed to the one-handed backhand late in their development.
Strengths and weaknesses
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- Often players choose their backhand type based on their handedness—if the player is somewhat ambidextrous, the two-handed backhand might be best.
- Starting from the 1970s, many of the greatest players used the two-handed backhand and it has become more popular on the pro tour, especially on the women's side. Two-handed backhands have some important advantages over one-handed backhands:
- The backhands are generally more accurate because having two hands on the racquet makes the contact more stable. This also makes it somewhat easier to impart topspin on the ball allowing for more control of the shot, while one-handed backhands generally require finer motor skills to generate topspin and are less consistent in longer rallies.
- Two-handed backhands can more easily hit higher balls.
- Two-handed backhands have a chance to be consistently closer in power and/or accuracy to the forehand, possibly even surpassing it, which is not the case with the one-handed. People with a noticeably weaker one-handed backhand tend to get balls returned to them on that wing, giving them a disadvantage, especially with high kick serves and lefty slice serves.
- Two-handed backhands can be hit with an open stance, whereas one-handers usually have to have a closed stance, which adds further steps (which is a problem at higher levels of play).
- Two-handed backhands can change direction more easily than one-handed backhands, due to having more stability over the shot with two hands, allowing the player to control the shot better and place the ball with more precision.
- Two-handed backhands are generally more easy to develop and require less motor skills than a one-handed backhand to perform all the basic shots. Since the 70s, juniors have been taught two-handed backhands more often than the one-handed backhand.
- However, one-handed backhands have some other important advantages over two-handed backhands:
- One-handed backhands allow greater reach, especially while on the run.
- One-handed backhands are able to hit lower balls with more pace and penetration than two-handed backhands. They also can generate more power when properly set up, and can be very penetrating when hit correctly.
- One-handed backhand players move to the net with greater ease than two-handed players because the shot permits greater forward momentum and has greater similarities in muscle memory to the preferred type of backhand volley (one-handed, for greater reach). This is why a majority of serve and volleyers employ a one-handed backhand.
- One-handed backhands should be hit more in front of the body than the forehand, which allows them to be hit with a deeper hit spot.
- One-handed-backhand players are much less likely to develop the habit of playing volleys with two hands, which is better for serve and volley play.
- One-handed backhands force players to hit high balls with slice, thus causing them to develop much better slice backhands than two-handed players.
- One-handed backhands can be put away more easily than two-handed backhands for finishing shots due to their flatter, more penetrating nature.
Generally, both backhands are efficient at what they do. The type of backhand a player uses comes down to mostly personal preference and their game style. Since the 1970s however, the two-handed backhand has had a spike in popularity and is now more widely taught than the one-handed backhand.
Many tennis greats use the one-handed backhand. Such players include Roger Federer, Stefan Edberg, Pete Sampras, Justine Henin, Steffi Graf, Gustavo Kuerten, Amelie Mauresmo, Martina Navratilova, Stanislas Wawrinka, Don Budge, Ken Rosewall and Rod Laver.
The player long considered to have had the best backhand of all time, amateur and professional champion Don Budge, had a very powerful one-handed stroke in the 1930s and '40s that imparted topspin onto the ball. He used an Eastern grip, and some pictures show his thumb extended along the side of the racquet for greater support. Ken Rosewall, another amateur and professional champion noted for his one-handed backhand, also used a continental grip to hit a deadly accurate slice backhand with underspin throughout the 1950s and '60s. Connoisseurs of the game also rate Swede Henrik Sundström's one-handed backhand as technically magnificent and as powerful as many forehands, but Sundström's career was cut short by injury,
In his 1979 autobiography, Jack Kramer devotes a page to the best tennis strokes he had ever seen. He writes: "BACKHAND—Budge was best, with Kovacs, Rosewall and Connors in the next rank (although, as I've said, Connors' 'backhand' is really a two-handed forehand). Just in passing, the strangest competitive stroke was the backhand that belonged to Budge Patty. It was a weak shot, a little chip. But suddenly on match point, Patty had a fine, firm backhand. He was a helluva match player."
On the men's pro tour, dramatic changes have occurred since then. In the 1980s, many great players such as Stefan Edberg, Ivan Lendl, Henrik Sundström and John McEnroe were leading the charge with their one-handed versatile backhands. But a new wave of players, such as Jimmy Connors, Björn Borg and Mats Wilander, started to show the world that two-handed backhands could also offer major advantages. Players could now increase the speed and control of their two-hander in key defensive shots, such as returns, passing shots and lobs. Since then, many players followed this trend. Among the main ones are Andre Agassi, Jim Courier, Sergi Bruguera, Marat Safin, Novak Djokovic, Andy Murray, Rafael Nadal, David Nalbandian (owning the fastest recorded backhand at 110 mph (171 km/h)), Nikolay Davydenko, Lleyton Hewitt, Gilles Simon and Jo-Wilfried Tsonga. However, the one-handed backhand is still used effectively by a few great players like Roger Federer, Richard Gasquet, Stanislas Wawrinka, Mikhail Youzhny, Nicolás Almagro, Tommy Haas and Grigor Dimitrov. Justine Henin's backhand was considered on par with the men's, with John McEnroe saying "Justine Henin has the best single-handed backhand in both the men's and women's game. Henin's backhand is described as a deadly weapon which is spontaneous, accurate and powerful. She can hit drop shots with her deadly back hand."
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On the women's pro tour, one of the great rivalries of the 1980s was symbolized by two different backhand styles: Martina Navratilova's smooth one-handed sliced backhand versus Chris Evert's perfectly controlled two-handed backhand. Many different styles of backhand arose in the late 1980s, including Steffi Graf's exceptional sliced backhand, and Monica Seles' two-handed backhand, characterized by its rapidity of execution. The two-handed backhand began to gain popularity over the one-handed backhand in the 1990s (even though there had been great tennis champions whose backhand was two-handed, Chris Evert being an example). Some of the most popular two-handed backhands of the modern game include Serena Williams, Martina Hingis, Venus Williams, Victoria Azarenka, Maria Sharapova, Kim Clijsters, Lindsay Davenport, Petra Kvitová, Li Na and Jelena Janković. Janković is able to generate great power with a two-handed backhand can also create angles and is currently deemed as one of the best on tour. The Williams sisters' double-handed backhand is considered one of the most powerful on tour. They can damage their opponent from any corner of the court with this backhand, being able to create angles that are much more difficult to create with a one-handed backhand. Jelena Jankovic's backhand down the line is considered to be among the best on the WTA tour.
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- "The Backhand:Ken Rosewall". Greatest Shots in Tennis History. Tennis.com. 01/02/2008. Retrieved 2008-10-26.
- "Henin bows out at the top". BBC Sport. 2008-05-14. Archived from the original on 18 May 2008. Retrieved 2008-05-27.