Does it seem odd that a teenager born in Greece, and who trains in France, would be such a diehard Swissophile? Not when you see Tsitsipas play; then the connection becomes obvious. Following in the footsteps of Federer and Wawrinka, he uses a one-handed backhand.
You can get an idea of how closely Tsitsipas has studied the Maestro’s backhand when he hits a crosscourt passing shot. Like Federer, he keeps his head down, flicks his wrist and extends his right arm in a circle above his head. And like Federer, he can make it look as if he’s going down the line, only to snap the ball in the other direction.
On Tuesday in Rotterdam, Tsitsipas made the ball dip, drop and hook enough to give Jo-Wilfried Tsonga a good two-set run for his money. He was up a break in the first set, and he pushed the second set to a tiebreaker. Tsitsipas was the No. 2-ranked junior in the world in 2016, and he’s currently training at the Mouratoglou Academy. There’s a lot to work with. He’s 6’4”, and he plays with variety and creativity from all parts of the court. He’s a thinker as much as a hitter.
Still, it’s probably a little premature to dub Tsitsipas, who is currently ranked 215th, the new Baby Fed, or Grandbaby Fed. To me, what’s interesting about his game is what it says about the continued possibilities, and drawbacks, of the one-hander.
The single-handed backhand is having a moment on the men’s side. The winners of the last two majors, Wawrinka and Federer, both use the shot. In this century, two players with one-handed backhands have won back-to-back Slams on just two other occasions: Gustavo Kuerten and Pete Sampras at the French Open and Wimbledon in 2000, and Federer and Gaston Gaudio at the Australian Open and French Open in 2004.
The surge of the single hand doesn’t end there. At the Australian Open, Grigor Dimitrov came two games away from giving us the first all-one-handed men’s Grand Slam final since Federer beat Fernando Gonzalez in the Australian Open in 2007. And last season, 22-year-old Dominic Thiem rode his into the Top 10. Granted, 14 of the ATP’s current Top 20 use two-handed backhands, but the one-hander isn’t taking the slow road to extinction that has long been predicted for it. That’s a reason to cheer.
Over the years, the elegance and aesthetic appeal of the one-hander has been duly noted, maybe over noted, by the shot’s devotees. For the most part, I agree with them. In its extended upward sweep, the one-hander can be a gloriously expressive shot—like an artist, each has a distinctive line. At tournaments in the past, I’d go out of my way to watch Justine Henin and Richard Gasquet unfurl their one-handers, even if it was just in practice. But despite its utilitarian reputation, the two-hander can also be appealing, if it’s in the right two hands. I liked David Nalbandian’s two-hander as much as Gasquet’s one-hander, and I liked watching Alexander Zverev match his two-hander up against Thiem’s one-hander in their first-round match this week in Rotterdam. Even with both hands on the racquet, Zverev creates a smoothly sweeping quality with his swing.
Unique or not, beautiful or not, the one-handed backhand’s survival is essential because of the variety it produces. Matches between players who both use two-handed backhands can suffer from a stultifying sense of sameness, a lack of give and take, of cause and effect. But when a two-hander is across the net from a one-hander, different angles and spins come into play. The players have different strengths and weaknesses, and use different tactics to exploit them.
But as much as everyone roots for the one-hander to stay alive, should a coach recommend that his player use one? Does it actually make sense today? Watching Tsitsipas in Rotterdam, I was impressed by his thoughtfulness, but I wondered about his power—would he have enough? As thrilling as it is to watch Thiem’s down-the-line one-hander, that shot is never going to be as consistent as Murray or Novak Djokovic’s two-handers. And while Dimitrov is 16-1 in 2017, his one-hander can still break down under pressure, and remains his most vulnerable spot.
Federer and Wawrinka have obviously used their one-handers to great success, but they’re special cases. Federer wins with superior all-around talent, and few if any players have ever hit a one-hander as hard and heavily as Wawrinka. The two Swiss aside, the men’s game of this decade has been about being consistent, counter-punching with the return of serve and blending offense and defense from the baseline. All of those things are more easily accomplished with a two-handed backhand. When someone like Thiem hits a winner with his one-hander, it looks spectacular in part because it looks so difficult. Sadly, you don’t get any points for difficulty in tennis.
Yet every sport evolves, and it’s possible that this year’s Aussie Open will someday be seen as an evolutionary step. With quicker courts and balls Down Under, we saw attacking tennis—and the one-handed backhand that can create that kind of tennis—rewarded in a way that it hasn’t in recent years. If you’re a tournament director at a big hard-court event, and you see the results that the Aussies got in Melbourne, you might consider doing something similar yourself.
If you’re a young player like Stefanos Tsitsipas watching his hero, Roger Federer, win his first major title in five years at age 35, you might think you made the right choice with your backhand. And if you’re the next Stefanos Tsitsipas, a talented 12-year-old in India or Italy, you might consider taking a risk and switching to a one-hander yourself. The longer Federer sticks around, the bigger his family of single-handers might get. Most tennis fans wouldn’t complain about that.