For tennis zealots, dub this day, August 13, as the Sweet Sojourn of the Southpaw Striker. Formally, it is International Lefthanders Day, a 24-hour chance to honor and ponder a group that is often misunderstood and even disregarded. Consider that the Italian word for left is “sinister,” the French “gauche.” Ouch.
Though lefties comprise a scant ten percent of the general population, one way we (yes, including me) gain payback on the world is through an outsized presence in tennis. To twist a phrase once employed by Hillary Clinton, call it a vast left-wing conspiracy; married to one, she should know.
Begin at the pinnacle, with Rod Laver and Martina Navratilova. Continue with titans John McEnroe, Jimmy Connors, Monica Seles. Note that while Rafael Nadal is a natural righty who turned lefty, the opposite holds true for such legendary right-handers as Margaret Court, Maureen Connolly and Ken Rosewall.
Toss in ample color in the form of Goran Ivanisevic, Marcelo Rios, Thomas Muster, Henri Leconte, Art Larsen and Patty Schnyder.
Add in more skilled strikers like Petra Kvitova, Angelique Kerber, Bob Bryan, Denis Shapovalov, Fernando Verdasco, Donald Young, Jamie Murray, Mark Woodforde, Greg Rusedski, Rick Leach, Daniel Nestor, Murphy Jensen, Luke Jensen (a lefty-righty server), Petr Korda, Jeff Tarango, Guillermo Vilas, Manuel Orantes, Roscoe Tanner, Tony Roche, Owen Davidson, Neale Fraser, Mervyn Rose, Ilana Kloss, Sylvia Hanika, Barbara Potter, Stacy Margolin, Elise Burgin, Diane Fromholtz, Marketa Vondrousova, Bernarda Pera, Taylor Townsend, Ann Jones. Please also don’t forget player and coach Renee Richards and John Lucas, the latter of whom was an All-American in both tennis and basketball.
We even have a pair of tournament directors, with Feliciano Lopez in charge of Madrid and Guy Forget running the show at Roland Garros, as well as current USTA president in Patrick Galbraith. The inventor and star of the first Davis Cup, Dwight Davis, was also a lefty.
Lefties spice up tennis considerably with off-beat angles, nasty slice serves, sharply carved and sculpted backhands, oddly hooked and wicked forehands, deft volleys—enough highlights to fill a 24-7 TV show, hosted, of course, by lefties Mary Carillo and Ted Robinson. Toss in written pieces by Steve Tignor, Kurt Streeter and Kamakshi Tandon; with technical input from ex-pro Jeff Salzenstein; tactical insights from strategy guru Craig O’Shannessy; contextual alignment courtesy of preeminent historian John Barrett and, when the spirit moves, a lyrical epigram from Torben Ulrich, whose trademark advice was, “Watch the ball, bend your knees, and remember there are people suffering.”
Or maybe make the lefty tennis tale a movie, with a mixed doubles foursome starring the all-lefty cast of Americans Robert Redford and Kate Hudson versus Aussies Hugh Jackman and Nicole Kidman, supplemented by comedy from Jerry Seinfeld and a cameo by Barack Obama. Toss in a lefty-crafted soundtrack, courtesy of Paul McCartney, Jimi Hendrix and Bob Dylan, singing, “I Want to Hold Your (Left) Hand,” “All Along the Ball Machine” or, that ode to rough conditions, “Blowing in the Wind.”
Then again, who needs Hollywood? Lefty tennis players themselves generate plenty of theatrical electricity. For sheer fireworks, the closest tennis ever came to such Japanese big-screen clashes as “Mothra versus Godzilla” were the lefty-lefty battles of the maniacal McEnroe and the combustible Connors.
Listen also to the good Goran and the bad Goran, the verse-laden Vilas, the tirades of Tarango. Southpaws put their mouth where their money is. They also take bold steps. As the Cold War got underway after World War II, Jaroslav Drobny preferred being stateless to life in an increasingly oppressive Czechoslovakia. Leave it to Navratilova, all of 18 years old, to also boldly leave her native Czechoslovakia, seek asylum in the United States and continue to express herself on a wide range of political issues.
Now I’m not saying all lefties are saints—though Joan of Arc was both. Most of all, they are free spirits, perfect fits for an individual sport like tennis. It begins at the group lesson. The instructor faces the students and often says, “OK, everyone mimic me. Except you lefties, do the opposite.”
So from the jump, the lefthander is explicitly told he or she does not fit in with the pack. Per the advertising campaign launched by lefty Steve Jobs’ company, Apple, “Think different.” To hell with that instructor and his commands; teach yourself and figure out the devilish patterns on your own. Off we go. Why not whip that crosscourt forehand to the righty backhand? Here, have a short slice, a volley behind you, an unreadable, flippy overhead.
Even the tennis scoring system itself aids the southpaw cause, most notably in the all-important ad court. What poetic justice that on those critical 15-30, 30-40 or 40-30 points, while righties have to contort themselves to aim their serve to the backhand, the lefty can merely swing naturally across the body, from left to right, and snap off that nasty slice. Think opposite? You better believe it.
The grand eminence of oppositional presence is the one and only Laver. At a young age, Laver was told a lefty had never been No. 1 in the world—and to get there he’d need to become the first southpaw to possess a lively, dynamic topspin backhand. Sadly, previous lefty backhands were predominantly meager, poked chips. Off Laver went, to whip the backhand, let it fly with the forehand, clip off those volleys. Wielding his elegant Dunlop Maxply Fort frame like a scalpel, Laver upgraded the southpaw from sidekick to sheriff. To steal the title of a play about lefty President Harry Truman, give ‘em hell, Rocket.
Inspired by Laver, we take the ball early and seek to lacerate you with spins and angles, fake you out with drop shots and lobs, off-forehands, sharp backhands, sneak attacks.
Alongside all this artistry there might well even be science. Studies have opined that lefthanders see the ball sooner, which of course is a profound advantage in sports, where the ability to take away an opponent’s response time is paramount. Baseball, for example, has long venerated the smooth swing of the southpaw, from Babe Ruth and Lou Gehrig, on through to Ted Williams, Stan Musial, Barry Bonds, Tony Gwynn and Jim Thome.
It’s all part of putting righties through the looking glass, a term coined by Alice in Wonderland author Lewis Carroll—naturally, a lefty, albeit a rather tortured one (tennis has had its share too).
What is the fate of the lefthander? Over the last 30 years, the stiletto-like game perfected by the likes of Laver, Navratilova and McEnroe has become much less prevalent. Gross motor skills carry far more value in today’s game than those delicate fine motor assets. And yet, Nadal’s expansion from clay-court defender to all-courter was greatly aided by his refinement of a tidy trio of lefty signature shots—nimble volleys, the occasional slice backhand and an improved serve. The success of Kvitova and Kerber, as well as the potential of Shapovalov, gives hope that the sweet southpaw swing can continue to inflict its own form of pain, even in a groundstroke-dominated climate.
Beyond the lines, for decades there have been rumblings and even studies asserting that we lefthanders die sooner, the result of our struggles in a right-handed world. Grappling with school desks and butter knives will hasten my demise? Per John McEnroe, you cannot be serious. Tennis will remain our court of refuge—and even vengeance.