When you think of Peng Shuai’s run to the 2014 U.S. Open semifinals, you probably remember her being wheeled off the court in the second set due to heat illness. It was a frightening scene that largely overshadowed the match itself. But what shouldn’t be forgotten was Peng’s forehand, a shot that tested Wozniacki on that day, and a shot Peng hits with two hands.
The two-handed forehand is an unorthodox but not unprecedented shot in tennis. Back in the pre-Open era days, one of the best players in the world, Pancho Segura, overpowered his opposition with a two-handed forehand. Jack Kramer famously called it, “the greatest single shot ever produced in tennis.” Segura earned a No. 1 ranking and four Grand Slam titles with his two-handed approach.
Another tennis legend, Monica Seles, was famous for her powerful two-handed strokes and pummeled her way to nine Grand Slam titles. Fabrice Santoro captivated fans with magician-like shot variety and skill using a two-handed forehand. And fellow two-hander Marion Bartoli took her untraditional style all the way to the Wimbledon title in 2013.
So there are plenty of success stories when it comes to the two-handed forehand—you just don’t see it used very often. It’s frowned upon as a liability in an age where a player needs every possible advantage to succeed against increasingly powerful athletes. Two hands on both sides limits your reach, and makes it tougher to hit a very heavy ball. There's also peer pressure, with 99 percent of players doing something one way.
As a result, the pro game has begun to look like a tennis factory, churning out players with identical strokes and game plans. Gene Mayer, who was ranked No. 4 in the world in 1980 and used a two-handed forehand and backhand, told The New York Times, “I think there’s much more sameness, not just in technique but even in terms of playing style.”
It’s not a good sign that unique styles are disappearing—where’s the fun in that?
I had a two-handed forehand until I was 15. The last match I played before changing to a one-hander was a 6-0, 6-1 loss to a Columbian player that also used a two-handed forehand. I wanted more reach and a bigger weapon; the two-hander felt stifling as I grew older. My dad taught me the stroke as a four-year-old, and I kept it throughout the years, partially in honor of my devotion for Seles. My forehand never developed into a huge weapon, but I had my best year on the pro circuit less than a year after the switch, and enjoyed playing so much more. In the end, I became another one-handed disciple.
The pros and cons of a two-handed forehand are debatable. Female players tend to have better backhands than forehands, and having two hands on a shot can help improve stability, consistency and even power. It’s faster to get your racquet back with two hands, and it’s also easier to direct the ball. There are also less injury concerns when you’re not reliant on just one arm. And children can really benefit from two-handers, since physically it’s nearly impossible to get the hang of swinging a racquet with just one hand.
Being unconventional takes a lot of risk and lot more work—literally, more footwork in the case of the two-handed forehand. Competing with the often more powerful one-handers is understandably too large of an uphill battle for most. But there is still a place for two-handed forehands on the tour, as Peng and a few others show, though as the game gets faster and even more powerful, expect this unorthodox style to become extinct. Hopefully there will always be some players willing to break the factory mold.
Follow Nina on Twitter at @NinaPantic1.