In the third round of the US Open 2023, its oldest representative, Stan Wawrinka, said goodbye to the tournament: the Swiss played in New York at the age of 38 years and 5 months. It’s always sad when champions leave the tournament path (the Swiss won here in 2016), but it’s even more painful because Stan became one of the last player representatives with a one-handed backhand at a Major. The most annoying thing is that the three-time Slam winner’s main weapon worked almost perfectly in the United States: he lacked a little luck, speed and psychology.
Nowadays, the trend is that there are fewer players with a one-handed backhand each season, and current players rarely come close to winning a Slam. The representative of the top 5 Stefanos Tsitsipas left the US Open – 2023 already in the first round, the simplest players (Christopher Eubanks, Richard Gasquet, Dusan Lajovic) did not stay and Grigor Dimitrov sheathed his famous cutter just a couple of hours later. Wawrinka.
The last great winner with one-handed backhand (US Open – 2020), Dominic Thiem, after a wrist injury, cannot return to his previous level: his victory in New York is the exception that proves the rule. The days when one-armed Rod Laver, John McEnroe, Pete Sampras and Roger Federer won prestigious trophies seem to be gone forever. In women’s tennis, this trend started even earlier. Let’s look at the reasons why tennis players are increasingly relying on the two-handed backhand.
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Many owners of a one-handed backhand today regret that they switched to it in childhood.
The truth of tennis life today is that even many active one-handed players regret that in their youth they chose aesthetics over reliability, and now they suffer. Just ask Eubanks, 27, a late-rising star in American tennis this year. The sensational Wimbledon 2023 quarter-finalist admitted that he was about 13 years old when he fell in love with Federer’s backhand and abandoned the two-handed game. “Today I definitely wouldn’t switch to one-handed. From a practical point of view and obtaining results, it is better to hit the ball backhand with both hands,” agrees the American.
Swiss coach with Russian roots, Dmitry Zavyalov, taught Wawrinka the one-handed backhand at the age of 11.
Photo: Julian Finney/Getty Images
Today, among the top 10 players, only Tsitsipas plays with a one-handed backhand. On the women’s circuit, finding a representative like this is much more difficult, but it is still possible. For now, as the German Tatiana María is already 36 years old, she is ranked 47th in the ranking and may be spending her last season at a high level. This year in New York, the mother of two daughters was eliminated in the first round. However, she also likes the representative of the younger generation and the main hope of the one-handed backhand fans, 21-year-old Lorenzo Musetti. Last season, the Italian showed that he is capable of resisting the tops: in the final of the clay tournament in Hamburg he beat Carlos Alcaraz. Several of Lorenzo’s backhands became true tennis art, but there was no follow-up.
The main problem for one-handed players remains handling high-flying balls after opponents’ best spins. This requires early contact with the ball, which requires near-perfect technique. “I remember how my dad scolded me for frequently hitting the ball with a backhand cutter. He yelled, “Hit this damn ball now!” I tried, but I never felt 100% confident,” Roger Federer once admitted.
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One-handed players find it difficult to handle a ball flying at a speed of 150 km/h.
In January this year, Tsitsipas faced Novak Djokovic in the final of the Australian Open. In Melbourne, the Greek’s backhand worked brilliantly, including thanks to his great height (193 cm), but this did not prevent the Serbian from pressing his opponent’s left hand and breaking Stefanos in three games. The only thing that happened to the Greek was to reach the tiebreaker twice.
The one-handed backhand has not only disadvantages, but also advantages: during the swing phase, it is very difficult for the opponent to guess where the ball will be sent. If the shot goes over the line, then the point is practically in your pocket. In addition, the one-handed backhand usually has a very specific rotation, so the ball, after the bounce, puts a lot of pressure on the opponent. Additionally, such a blow can create unexpected angles. Why then do fewer and fewer players prefer this opportunity?
Tsitsipas has lost twice in Slam finals
Photo: Clive Brunskill/Getty Images
The answer is on the surface. With each passing season, strength and speed come to the fore in tennis (and other sports too): today the ball travels almost twice as fast as it did in the 1980s. Even on clay courts, Historically the slowest surfaces, the game is played hard and fast these days. Players spend more time in the gym, get stronger and now hit forehands at over 150 km/h. The rackets and strings allow for such strong topspin that balls, even hit by intermediate players, bounce up to eye level. It is incredibly difficult to handle such a blow with one hand efficiently.
“Look at Alcaraz. His footwork is really fantastic. If at 20 years old Nadal could run towards any ball on clay, Carlos does it at the same age on any surface. Look at his super kick against Evans: he ran 10 meters in 1.2 seconds. He has similar indicators on serve, forehand and backhand. Add to that mental toughness, and he is a true champion,” marvels tennis columnist Brad Gilbert of Carlos.
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Every year the chances of one-handed players winning the Casco decrease.
Experts and coaches working with youth advise teenagers not to be fooled by the highlights of Federer’s games and to make the two-handed game their main weapon by hitting the backhand as early as possible. “It is worth thinking about stability, because the movement with the two-handed backhand is shorter and easier. Nowadays it is almost impossible to achieve success with a one-handed backhand. I think that in the next 10 years this shot will almost disappear at a high level, just as the serve and volley went out of fashion,” predicts the head of development of the United States Tennis Association, David Nainkin.
One of the best tennis players of the 80s, Martina Navratilova, who had an almost flawless one-handed stroke, also advises beginner players not to get carried away with one-handed backhands. “Tennis should be played only with two hands: moving the racket backwards, accelerating, including the backhand. Taking into account modern demands, one-handed play is gradually becoming, although beautiful, a rudiment of the game,” says Navratilova.
Martina Navratilova has 18 victories in Grand Slam singles tournaments
Photo: Focus on Sports/Getty Images
Another reason for the “disappearance” of one-handed practice is frequent wrist injuries. The technique of this shot requires an almost perfect approach to the ball, turning the body and getting closer to the racket. If there is an error in any of these links in the chain, then the force of the ball flying towards you with crazy force can damage ligaments or tendons. With two hands it is much easier to compensate for an error, reduce the load and avoid injuries.
And yet, the owners of one-handed backhand are not ready to change anything, not only because it is already too late to change, but also for reasons purely of pleasure and aesthetics. “For me, tennis only makes sense with one-handed shots. This blow is too deep in my heart,” Tsitsipas admitted. I would like to believe that the Greeks and other adepts of the one-handed backhand will one day be able to win a Slam, but every year the chances of doing so decrease.