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Beauty and the Beast: One-handed versus two-handed backhands
A shift in the past 15 years has, arguably, transformed the two-hander into the most important live stroke in tennis.
Published Jun 14, 2023
HIGHLIGHTS: In a battle of two-handers, Daniil Medvedev beats Holger Rune to win Rome
As Stefanos Tsitsipas loads up and uncoils into a full-swing, his broad shoulders rotate and in a blink, the racquet violently explodes into the ball. His right arm continues carving an arc, a high-follow through that conveys all the authority of a backhanded slap, this one across the face of an opponent’s game. Spectators and viewers meet the shot with lusty “oooooohhhhs” and “aaaaaahhhs.”
That backhand! It’s such an imperious statement, so grand a gesture, it’s so. . . artistic. It’s the backhand that slays drive-by fans. The shot that weekend warriors wished they owned, putting them in the company of the high priests and priestesses of stylish tennis. Players like Richard Gasquet, Justine Henin, Guillermo Vilas, Gustavo Kuerten, Amelie Mauresmo, Pete Sampras, Stan Wawrinka, Dominic Thiem, and—who else?—Roger Federer.
Using a sturdy two-handed backhand will never gain you entry into that elite cohort. On the other hand, blasting away with two hands on the handle will win you tennis matches. Lots of tennis matches. Comparing the two strokes, Tennis Channel analyst Paul Annacone, who coached both Sampras and Federer with great success, told me: “For lack of a better term, the one-handed backhand to me is more artistically and aesthetically pleasing.” He added, “But there’s been a big shift away from it in the last 15 years in terms of style of play, technique, and equipment.”
That “shift” has, arguably, transformed the two-handed backhand into the most important live stroke in tennis as well as the most under celebrated. Few wax poetic or go ga-ga over the superb backhand of, say, 2022 Australian Open finalist Danielle Collins, yet the best of those backhands are elegant, streamlined strokes that beautifully marry form and function.
But there’s more. The two-handed backhand has fundamentally altered the way the game is played and who can play it. It has had an enormous leveling influence. It brings to mind the famous adage about Sam Colt and the weapon he invented: “God made all men, but Sam Colt made all men equal.”
“I’m one-hundred percent on the beauty of the one-hander,” Chris Evert told me in a recent interview. “But the two-handed backhand is the most compact and efficient - those are the two words I would use to describe it. For the one-hander, your footwork has to be perfect, and it takes impeccable timing. With two hands, you can get away with not being perfect. You can improvise and adjust a lot more.”
It would be one thing if the payoff for having that perfectly addressed and timed one-handed backhand were commensurate with the degree-of-difficulty, but it isn’t. Over the past decade the two-hander has destroyed any debate over which backhand is the superior weapon: Male players with one-handed backhands accounted for just seven of the 40 Grand Slam singles titles fought over in the last 10 years. In that same period, not a single woman won a major with just one hand on the grip—the last player to accomplish that was Henin in 2007.
These days, Jimmy Arias plays tennis just for fun. The Director of Tennis at the famed IMG Academy, Arias rose as high as No. 5 in the rankings in early 1984, thanks partly to a whippy, aggressive, one-handed topspin backhand. “Now,” Arias told me, “When people hit a kicker to my backhand and I flutter it out, I tell them, ‘That shot cost me about 10 million bucks.’ The two-hander was transformative, and the full impact has only been felt pretty recently. I feel like the one-hander now is definitely a negative.”
Venus. Serena. Naomi. Maria.
The WTA's crossover icons are on a first-name basis.
The supremacy of the two-handed backhand was more than a process, it was an out-and-out revolution, kick-started by a trio of double-fisted contemporaries at a critical moment in tennis history. Bjorn Borg, Chris Evert, and Jimmy Connors were not the first two-handers, the shot goes all the way back to the Aussies Vivian McGrath and John Bromwich in the 1930s. But such players were always outliers.
In the early Open Era, the most notable pioneer of the two-handed backhand (for men) was ESPN analyst - and the first president of the ATP—Cliff Drysdale. Among the women, Peaches Bartkowicz—one of the “Original Nine” forebears of the WTA Tour—used both hands to good effect. At age 15, Evert played Bartkowicz and she still remembers, “Peaches had a really mean backhand.”
It took a perfect storm to propel the rise of the two-handed backhand. The “tennis boom” of the late 1960s and early ‘70s brought droves of new fans and players to the game. As Baby Boomers discovered and took up tennis, their children were exposed to early tennis training. In this new Open Era, making a living as a touring tennis professional took on a special luster.
Evert, though, was no arriviste. She hails from a multi-generational tennis family. Her father Jimmy was a standout player at Notre Dame (he had an excellent one-handed backhand) who made a career out of teaching tennis on the public courts of Fort Lauderdale, Fla. Chris was playing by age six but she lacked the strength to hit conventional backhands and kept dropping the racquet. “We didn’t have mini racquets back then,” she said, “no little Chrissie or little Tracy (Austin) racquets. At six, I was using my dad’s full-size racquet with the smallest available grip.”
Frustrated, Evert picked the racquet up off the court one day with two hands and began using it that way. Jimmy Evert was skeptical at first, but her growing success convinced him that it would be a mistake to force a change. Halfway across the nation, in East St. Louis, Illinois, young Jimmy Connors was going through a similar process. Halfway around the world, in Stockholm, Sweden, so was Bjorn Borg.
When this trio with the radical backhands joined the pro tours, the game was dominated by iconic players with conventional backhands, among them: Rod Laver, John Newcombe, Stan Smith, Ilie Nastase, Margaret Court, Billie Jean King, Rosie Casals, Evonne Goolagong. Then, in three years beginning in 1974, Connors and Borg bagged seven of the 12 majors, while Evert in that same span won 6.
The trio quickly became mega-stars, with plenty of crossover appeal. Their influence on the rising generation was enormous. When the floodgates opened, women were among the first and perhaps greatest beneficiaries. The lack of arm strength at a young age was no longer so large an impediment to picking up the game and sticking with and even mastering it.
When people hit a kicker to my backhand and I flutter it out, I tell them, ‘That shot cost me about 10 million bucks.’ —Jimmy Arias
“The great one-handers, Gasquet, Thiem, Wawrinka—there’s great beauty and elegance in their shots,” Annacone told me. “But there’s also plenty of power.”
It’s an accurate assessment, at least when it comes to the rally game. But to get into a rally game on an even footing has become a paramount, and challenging goal in this day of 140 mile-per-hour serves and heavy spin.
“I think the most important thing in today’s game is how much easier it is to return serve with a two-hander,” Annacone said. “So much can be determined by how a rally starts. It’s important to start it from at least a neutral, if not offensive, place. The players who accomplish that most easily are the two-handers. The (Novak) Djokovics and (Andy) Murrays of the game.”
The troubling reality for one-handers was made manifest in the storied rivalry between Federer and Rafael Nadal. They met six times at the final stages of the French Open, Nadal winning each encounter. The formula to his success was there for all to see: hit the heavy topspin, or the big kick serve, high to the Federer backhand. Exploit the less stable nature and lower power of the one-hander. Playing left-handed certainly helped Nadal—as did his own two-handed backhand.
In this current period, serve and return (not necessarily in that order) have become the most important shots in tennis. It speaks volumes that Djokovic, Andre Agassi, and Connors top the list of great serve returners. Despite the slight disadvantage the two-hander has when it comes to maximum reach, all three have two-handed backhands. One-handers have lower-than-expected success rates when returning. There are other reasons for this.
“It’s so much easier for a two-hander to change his grip when returning serve,” Arias said. “That’s important because the game is so fast now. The new strings, racquet technology, heavier balls hit with more spin - they’ve all made those high backhands hard for one-handers. The two-handers can step in and take advantage of those.”
Evert said she understands why a player receiving a serve at warp speed is happy just to “block or stab” back the return. But that’s more difficult with one hand. “There are so many moving parts in a one-hander,” she said, “Where using two hands is very stable. Under pressure, there’s less to go wrong. Proper movement also is more critical for the one-hander.”
Ivan Lendl, who had a fine, versatile one-handed backhand, goes as far as to say that, if he had to do it all over, he would learn to return with a two-hander and then rally with a one-hander. He reasons that the one-hander is better for generating slice, hitting sharp angles, and changing pace. Annacone believes it needn’t be so extreme, noting that even the most proficient two-handers, like Djokovic and Murray, have become more comfortable with taking a hand off to hit a slice. More players in either division of tennis are mastering two-handed slice as well as dropshots and other crafty shots. For young and old alike, the choice is no longer a binary one between the beauty (one-handed backhand) and the beast (the two-hander).
“Now you even have people hitting sidespin two-handed backhands,” Arias said, citing Cam Norrie’s unusual backhand. “I don’t know how he produces that thing he hits. He sticks his arms straight out, then just sort of slides across the ball. It’s a slice-y, side-spin, low-angle backhand.”
The beauty of it is that that game continues to evolve, leading you to wonder, what could possibly come next? How about two forehands, since some people already think the two-handed backhand is just a second forehand in disguise? Let’s leave it at that for now.