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Where’s McEnroe? Why Barty? Why not Korda? A “20 Greatest One-Handed Backhands of the Open era” postscript
Plus, looking back at the weirdest one-handed of them all, from Frankie Durr.
Published Mar 16, 2023
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Making a listicle is a more perilous endeavor than it may sound. That goes double for a greatest-ever listicle. The only thing you can count on is disagreement. From everyone. I do it myself—I don’t think I’ve ever read a greatest-ever list, about any subject, without thinking, “Where the [expletive deleted] is so-and-so?”
So it wasn’t surprising to find out that lots of people had issues with “The 20 Greatest One-Handed Backhands of the Open Era” list I made last week. Like any other attempt to create historical rankings in tennis, it involved comparing things that aren’t easily compared. In this case, backhands from different eras, hit with different types of racquets, and wielded by two sets of players—men and women—who compete on different tours.
Which means every list like this is going to be, at some level, a personal and subjective one. And that’s how I thought of mine—one voice in a conversation, with my own preferences that I don’t expect anyone else to share. Here’s a look at a few of the questions I got about it on Twitter, and the explanations for my choices.
They were just slices, but Navratilova and Graf should have been Top 5
Where is Mac on the list, very good backhand
The second of those comments, in case you can’t tell, came from Brad Gilbert, who may have issued me a red card as well.
Steffi Graf, Martina Navratilova and John McEnroe, as well as fellow Hall of Famers like Pete Sampras and Ivan Lendl, had great one-handers. You don’t win seven or more majors, as they all did, without one. But none of them made my Top 20 because I thought of them as having even better weapons with other strokes. Serve and forehand for Graf and Lendl; serve and volley for Navratilova and McEnroe; serve, forehand and volley for Sampras.
Of course, you could say the same thing about Federer and Laver, both of whom are in my Top 10. But along with his slice, Federer had a topspin drive, and a gracefully explosive one at that; I gave points for style in this list. As for Laver, I felt like his backhand, which he could hit with a lot of pace for the wood-racquet era, was an integral part of a game where every shot was equally important.
It was hard to leave off the legends mentioned above, and I wouldn’t argue with anyone who wanted to include them—especially McEnroe and Navratilova. But I also liked having a chance to write about players whose games we don’t hear as much about now, like Gaston Gaudio, Nicolas Almagro and Evonne Goolagong, as well as those, like Carla Suarez Navarro and Richard Gasquet, who were and are defined by their stunning one-handers. Their backhands were standout parts of their games, and added a distinctive aesthetic flavor to the sport that no one can duplicate.
I assume this is a reference to the fact that Barty also hit her backhand with two hands.
It’s true, players with two-handers often take one hand off the racquet when they want to use a slice, and that shot doesn’t qualify as a one-handed backhand. But to me, as Barty’s career progressed and she went to the chip more and more often, she became one of the few players who used two separate backhands. By the time she was No. 1, her one-handed slice was her most talked-about shot, and may have been her most effective offensive weapon, because her opponents rarely saw one that bit, and stayed low, and disrupted their swings, the way hers did.
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What about Korda?
Good question. I may not have given Petr Korda his due, for a couple of reasons.
First, while I followed the Czech lefty for his entire career, I didn’t see nearly as much of him as I did some slightly lesser, younger players who made my list. Korda’s best years came before the advent of Tennis Channel (he retired in 2005), when the sport wasn’t on TV in the States—let alone streaming—every week of the year. Gaudio, Almagro, Suarez Navarro, Haas, Gasquet: I watched them constantly for years, and always looked forward to seeing their fancy one-handers.
Korda’s backhand, by contrast, wasn’t as fancy. He came over it and drove it well. But he didn’t hit it in the elaborate, looping way that signals “beautiful backhand” to me. Looks back at some clips of Korda hitting his compact one-handed pass on the run this week has made me wonder if I need to expand my idea of what constitutes an elegant single-hander. Korda had one, and maybe he should have made the list.
This is why, when it comes to greatest-ever listicles, it’s the conversation that matters most, rather than any individual opinion. Your tennis horizons can always be expanded.
Finally, there were a few uniquely struck one-handers that I considered, like Michael Stich’s and Conchita Martinez’s. The ultimate in that category, though, was Francoise Durr’s. I originally had her frying-pan special at No. 20, before reluctantly dropping her off. Here’s the write-up that didn’t make it the cut.
We’ll start with the most unorthodox high-level one-hander of all: Frankie Durr’s fly-swatter. The Algerian native, who journalist Peter Bodo called “the outstanding individualist of the women’s game,” played for France from the early 1960s until 1984, and was a founding member of the WTA in 1973. She won the singles title at Roland Garros in 1967—a feat not repeated by a Frenchwoman until Mary Pierce did it 33 years later—and 11 major titles in doubles and mixed. And she did it with a herky-jerky, start-and-stop serve that struggled to reach the speed limit.
Durr’s backhand, which she developed before she had a coach, was equally avant-garde—or “unacademic,” as she described it. She wrapped her wrist around the front of the handle and pointed her index finger up the side. Her motion was less a sweep than a swipe. “Like someone with a fly-swatter in her hand,” as the International Tennis Hall of Fame put it when she was inducted in 2003.
What mattered is that the shot worked. Durr’s opponents were often startled by the pace she generated, and the places she put the ball. She could use it as a deep drive, a low approach, or a winning down the line return.
“With my funny grip a lot of people could not read me well,” she said.
Durr’s early coaches tried to change her backhand; thankfully, they failed. She was known for her tenacity, and her backhand was a fitting representation of the willful spirit that took her, against every rule in the textbook, to the top of the game. Along the way, she said, her backhand also gave hope to a lot of recreational players.
“‘If she can play with such crazy strokes, why can’t I?’” Durr said, imagining the thoughts that went through a typical spectator’s head at one of her matches. “Why not? Stupid shots can work sometimes, too.”