The Rally: One and Not Done
This week in the Rally, Richard Pagliaro and I discuss the recent resurgence of the one-handed backhand on the men's side, and its potential ramifications down the road.
Stan Wawrinka’s win in Australia was, among other things, the capstone on a year-long resurgence of the one-handed backhand among the men. In Melbourne, Wawrinka became the first man other than Roger Federer to win a Grand Slam using a one-hander since Gaston Gaudio won the French Open in 2004. On a lower-profile but just as important note Down Under, Grigor Dimitrov showed that his own single-hander, which had once appeared to be his fatal weakness, can seemingly hold its own with anyone, including Rafael Nadal and his topspin.
It was assumed for years that the one-hander was heading for extinction, and it still seems to be on the women's side; 31-year-old Roberta Vinci is the only player in the WTA's Top 15 who currently uses one. Yet it's the toast of tennis once again; everyone who watched Wawrinka win in Oz was duty-bound to remark on how amazing and beautiful his backhand is.
I agree that this is something to celebrate; visually, there’s nothing like the sweep of a one-hander. But I can get tired of hearing the celebration. Sometimes it sounds as if people consider the one-hander to be a morally superior shot to the two-hander; as in, "that's the way tennis should be played." Few people ever speak up for the more-utilitarian two-hander, but there have also been plenty I've liked watching in recent years—Nalbandian, Djokovic, Murray, Safin, Baghdatis, Dolgopolov, Li Na, Sharapova, Azarenka, Jankovic, and others. Genie’s Bouchard’s versatile version is the latest.
What do you think, Richard, would you rather watch a one-hander or a two-hander? And do you think its recent resurgence is good for the game? I'd be happier if it actually led to more net-rushing, but it's not clear that's going to happen anytime soon.
Ideally, I like seeing a sweeping one-hander up against a compact two-hander. It’s one reason why Wawrinka vs. Djokovic and Justine vs. Serena resonate for me. That contrast can bring more elements and angles into play—trying to play the high ball against the-one hander, or using the low slice to try to draw the two-hander forward—whereas sometimes when I watch a pair of two-handers go at it, rallies can feel more like generic plots decided solely on depth.
Djokovic’s two-hander is my current favorite, but I really like Murray’s backhand as well because it’s so clean, and his one-handed slice is the best among two-handed players, in my opinion.
Two of my favorite two-handers were Coria and Nalbandian because they had great down-the-line backhands, and they both had the kind of mesmerizing subtlety off that side that I typically associated with some of my favorite one-handers (Guga, Gabby, and Evonne). Starting about the one-minute mark of this video you see them show just about the entire spectrum of backhands.
There are plenty of reasons to revel in the one-hander—is there any shot as breathtaking as the running one-handed pass, like the one Dimitrov hit against Raonic in a tiebreaker in Australia?
And as someone who’s hit a two-hander forever, I’ve always viewed the one-hander as both a beautiful and subversive shot, because the best ones are simple and unpredictable. But anyone who’s tried switching from two hands to one (or even dabbled like Tsonga) knows how much more profound the timing must be to get it right. Two-handers disguise timing issues; one-handers expose them. That’s why Wawrinka’s ability to step in and take the Nadal topspin on the rise is so impressive.
A few months back, I was on a conference call with McEnroe and Sampras and asked if they thought the revival of some older one-handers like Haas, Robredo, and Youzhny signaled a mini-resurgence for the one-hander.
McEnroe replied: “[One-handers] have a certain edge with the slice, but the better [two-handed] players can hit slice and perhaps you have a slight edge in the disguise department, but basically we’re talking about situations. The positives are outweighed by negatives in terms of the way game is played so much more off the back foot now. With a two-hander you can catch it late and do something with it. You’d think there would be an advantage of one-handers coming to net, but it’s not utilized a lot. It’s not like Gasquet is coming in a lot or even Tommy Haas.”
Is there any one-hander out there you think can change that, Steve?
That's a good point about two-handers versus one-handers being the most attractive match-up, at least on the ATP side. When you have two men with two-handers, rallies can seem very static and positional, rather than free-flowing and creative. That's even true when Djokovic plays Murray, and they have two of the best backhands to watch in the game. It also shows that what really makes tennis interesting is variety and contrast, rather than any particular type of shot. When you read old books and magazine articles about tennis from the 1950s and 60s, it’s amazing how similar they sound when discussing the state of the game back then—except their complaints are completely in reverse. Most observers found serve and volley, which was the dominant style at the time, to be as tedious as we find baseline play today.
(Yet on the WTA side I don’t find a match-up of two-handers, which is virtually every match-up, to necessarily be safe and dull. The women tend to go after their two-handed backhands, and it's often their best shot and most aggressive weapon.)
You're also right about the timing it takes to come over a backhand with one hand. There's something about the long, swooping extension involved of the one-hander that we love to watch—seeing Gasquet hit his live, with its ultra-high take-back, is always a pleasure and a bit of a shock. I began with a two-hander and eventually switched to one, but I've never been able to come over it reliably. I've settled for trying to develop a Ken Rosewall-style hard slice, which is tough enough. But when I occasionally do come over it and time it right, it's one of the best feelings in the game. Just putting the ball back over the net feels like hitting an ace.
So far, like McEnroe says, the tentative return of the one-hander hasn't led to a return of the net game. But it's the only way it's ever going to happen; there's never been a player with a two-hander who has been a natural at the net (Murray and Stepanek come closest). Some people say net-rushing is finished no matter what, that passing shots have gotten too good. To them, the Aussie Open semi between Nadal and Federer, in which Rafa peppered him with passes, is proof enough.
I don't believe that. Net-rushing can be successful if a player commits to it and makes it their A-game, rather than their change-of-pace B game. Federer hasn't been a full-time net-rusher for years now, if he ever was. It would be interesting to see what Sampras, Rafter, and Edberg—all serve-and-volleyers, all with one-handers—would have done against guys like Nadal and Djokovic on today's hard courts. I think they would have had success.
But there's hope. During the Aussie Open, I noticed that a lot of players and fans on Twitter watching Wawrinka and tweeting, "I wish I had a backhand like that!" You just need someone not only winning with it, but making it look like fun, and you'll have kids trying it again.
A few years back I watched Gasquet play practice sets with Haas on the Grandstand the week before the U.S. Open began. It was almost like watching backhand rallies infused with CGI effects—they were creating angles off of angles that were absurd, and yet both of them recover so quickly and reload the backhand so well.
You’re right about the women. I felt Schiavone’s performance winning the 2010 French Open was one of the best example of a woman using the one-hander as a set-up, transitional, and finishing shot in winning a major since the Mauresmo-Henin or Novotna-Tauziat Wimbledon finals. Hingis and Stepanek are two of the best two-handed volleyers in recent years, and Kvitova has the skills to be a fine volleyer, but her approaches are often uncommitted and she doesn’t always close with urgency. When Tsonga reached the 2008 Australian Open final swarming net at times I thought he would apply it more, but that hasn’t really happened.
If Tennis Australia or the USTA ever decided to speed up the surface, we might see more attacking play selectively. Remember when Agassi, after facing Karlovic for the first time at the U.S. Open said afterward: “If I was coaching him, I'd fine him $100 every time he hit a ground stroke—he'd play like Paul Annacone.”
Now, Paul Annacone probably doesn't play like Paul Annacone anymore. But I think you hit the sweet spot saying “it would take someone being committed to that style from the beginning of their careers.” Back when some were urging Roddick to use serve-and-volley play more, I asked Pat Rafter (one of the best backhand overheads I've seen) about it. He said movement around the net was perhaps the most underrated aspect of the form, that it takes years of practice not only to read the angles at net but to move accordingly to intercept them. I once had a volley lesson from Edberg, and he told me repeatedly “Volley with your feet”—that is, get yourself in position first, then—“just think of it as catching the ball on the strings.” He made it sound, and look, so easy; his backhand volley may be my favorite.
Wawrinka, Dimitrov, Gasquet, Haas, Almagro are all important because they not only keep the form alive, they give kids an example to emulate, but given today's game I wonder how many coaches encourage it. McEnroe told me, “If a parent asks me, ‘What do you think about my little kid using a one-hander?’ I say, ‘I think it’s pretty clear I love a one-handed backhand, but it’s pretty hard to argue that’s the way kids should go right now.”