Who Needs the Backhand?

Saturday, April 14, 2012 /by

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My son Luke is just 9, and has about as much interest in tennis as I have in clogging. When he took the obligatory annual trip to the U.S. Open last August, about the only thing he really wanted to do (besides get ice cream and pizza) was play around in the Fun Zone. Those of you who don't have kids have no idea what a great addition these Fun Zones have been for those of us that do.

One feature at the Fun Zone was a net-enclosed mini-court where a tennis pro was hitting in five-minute clips with anyone willing to wait his turn in line. I convinced Luke to wait. When his turn came and the pro fed him a nerf ball on his forehand side, he whacked it. The next ball was to Luke's backhand, whereupon Luke naturally changed hand and hit another forehand. He went on like that until his alloted time was up, freely changing hands for each shot.

This was mildly surprising, because the few times we'd messed around on a court previously, I'd always more or less tried to teach him the conventional way (one-handed, lefty forehand, two-handed backhand).

I realized in the Fun Zone that left to his own device, Luke would probably hit two forehands. He's left-hand dominant, but throws (pretty poorly) with either. He may be ambidextrous, although it's more likely that like me, he's mixed-handed (I do some things, like play tennis, left-handed; others, like swing a hammer, right-handed. My wife is a pure lefty). This experience raised the question in my mind: In a world that gave us Rafael Nadal, one of the all-time great champions who happens to be a right-hander that plays tennis left-handed, why haven't we seen more players who are content to hit two forehands, eliminating the backhand altogether?

This seems an especially relevant inquiry at a time when it's all about power, and the most deadly stroke of all after the serve is—by a country mile—the forehand. Ever since Jim Courier hit the tour, the weapon-of-choice has been the inside-out forehand. This is true not only in the ATP, but the WTA as well. So what would happen if you were able to hit the inside-out forehand from either side of your body?

For the record, there have been some very high quality players who used a two-handed forehand. The most recent of them was Evgenia Koulikovskaya, who told Chris Clarey of the International Herald-Tribune that with so many curiosity-seekers flocking to her matches, she often felt like "a horse in the circus." Historically, Bud Collins' useful History of Tennis lists the most prominent of two-handed forehand players as Giorgio de Stefani of Italy, and an American lady, Beverly Baker Fleitz. The former actually beat Fred Perry at Roland Garros in 1934. Fleitz made it all the way to the Wimbledon final in 1955 before she lost to fellow American Louise Brough. 

In fact, according to Clarey's story, two forehand-only players, Lita Liem of Indonesia and Marijke Schaar of the Netherlands, squared off in the first round at Wimbledon in 1972. And he duly noted that in the 1990s, "Dual Hand Luke" Jensen, who is also ambidextrous, served with either hand but still hit a conventional right-handed forehand and two-handed backhand. I believe that there was a Czech male pro early in the Open era who also hit with two hands (Jan Kukal?), but could find no confirmation of it. You can also check out this present-day young player who posted a YouTube video of his two-forehand style:



The main stumbling block to having two forehands seems to be notion that it would take too long to switch hands. But I find that caveat absurd, given the typical bio-mechanics of a tennis player in motion. In fact, when you think of what players who use two hands off both wings (like Marion Bartoli) are up against in terms of moving and getting into position, the two forehand option begins to look awfully streamlined and economical.

One of the interesting aspects of this topic stems from the fact that so many players use a two-handed backhand. Even if you concede that this is the case mainly because most of today's pros started at an age when they needed to hit the backhand with two hands for lack of strength, it's obvious that having to hit a one-handed backhand is now seen as yielding some important ground in the battle for power and efficiency. Isn't that what so much of the Rafael Nadal-Roger Federer match-up hinges on, and isn't Novak Djokovic's hammer-throw two-hander an admonishment of the one-handed model and those who use it?

If the one-handed backhand is the equal of the forehand, who haven't more players shifted to it after developing adequate strength, as did the significant exception, Pete Sampras?

The paucity of the all-forehand game seems to be the product of either or both of two factors: The weight of tradition, and the wiring of the brain (full disclosure: I have not now, nor have I ever been, a brain surgeon). I wouldn't underestimate the role of tradition; it has also ruled out the underhand serve that could be such a valuable part of any player's arsenal—and yes, I am getting ready to do my annual post calling for young players to develop one.

As for the wiring of the brain, that seems an intriguing territory to explore. I wouldn't be at all surprised if there were some real neurological obstacle involved in changing hands; there does seem to be something, well, schizophrenic about the two-forehand option when you consider the extent to which we are creatures with an obvious and perhaps even prohibitive preference for one or the other hand. But if that's true, how do you, given the handicap implied, rationalize Nadal's success?

However, ambidextrous players must fall into a different category (and that one would also include "mixed-handed" individuals) altogether. And I'm surprised that a few more of them haven't come through the system to become two-forehand pros.

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