No longer colouring tennis courts with the one-handed paintbrush | Tennis News - Hindustan Times
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No longer colouring tennis courts with the one-handed paintbrush

ByRutvick Mehta, Mumbai
Feb 25, 2024 09:40 PM IST

The one-handed backhand is steeped in the game's history. But only a handful of male pros in the top 100 play it now. The pool is drier among the women

They even had a band back in the day. Now, among tennis’ most classical shots, it is fast going out of tune in the modern game. The one-handed backhand finds no presence among players ranked top 10 in the past week's chart. With Stefanos Tsitsipas dropping to world No.11, it’s the first-ever wipe out of the shot soaked in elegance since the ATP rankings were introduced in 1973.

Greece's Stefano Tsitsipas returns the ball to Norway's Casper Ruud during the Mexico ATP Open 250 men's singles semifinals tennis match at the Cabo Sports Complex(AFP)
Greece's Stefano Tsitsipas returns the ball to Norway's Casper Ruud during the Mexico ATP Open 250 men's singles semifinals tennis match at the Cabo Sports Complex(AFP)

Then, nine of the world's top 10 flaunted one-handed backhands (the exception being Jimmy Connors), and 11 of the 28 players to have occupied the top spot since have done so possessing that shot. None greater than Roger Federer, its most iconic poster boy whose one-handed backhand evoked gasps, defined elegance and formed a select singing club labelled Federer’s Backhand Boys.

Now, only a handful of male pros with a one-handed backhand remain inside the top 100, while the pool is even drier among the women (German 36-year-old Tatjana Maria, at No. 54, is the highest-ranked woman who relies largely on the one-hander).

A lot like the serve and volley, the one-handed backhand is steeped in tennis history. The most aesthetically pleasing shot on court, it was almost the de facto way of playing the backhand years ago, to which the likes of Rod Laver, John McEnroe, Martina Navratilova, Pete Sampras and Federer sprinkled more oomph. Who wouldn’t pay to see Federer whip his backhand like a magic wand that can elicit speed, power, angle and the audience’s collective attention using just the right arm?

The currency of that precious skill and shot, though, increasingly lost its value as the game evolved. With modern tennis becoming more about power and fitness than finesse, the double-handed backhand, considered safer and defensively more solid with greater control, took precedence. Faster serves required two-handed backhand returns, with a shorter swing motion compared to a one-hander, to deal with. The combination of chipping (using a single-handed backhand) and rushing to the net made way for standing and bullying from the baseline with double-armed force.

Evolving racquets and strings generated greater topspin and bounce, exploiting a one-handed backhand opponent like seldom before.

Think Rafael Nadal blunting Federer’s weapon — especially on clay — with those loopy, high, spin-loaded forehands. Or Novak Djokovic dismantling Tsitsipas, with his signature one-hander, and his court position in the 2023 Australian Open final.

Djokovic, incidentally, himself tried switching to a one-handed backhand when he was seven. Told to do so by his then coach, he soon reverted to the double-hander. “Because I was very skinny and weak on the court, players on the tournaments started looping a lot of balls to my backhand, and I couldn't get the one-handed backhand back,” Djokovic told the ATP in a 2016 video titled, “Ode To The One Hander”.

It’s generally around that young age where players go one (backhand) way or the other, and where coaches are now largely keeping kids away from taking it up.

Justine Henin, who had among the best one-handed backhands in the women's game and now runs the Justine Henin Academy, recalled in a 2021 Sky Sports interview about how much work it took for her to develop it. “I can understand this for a little girl standing there waiting to play tennis. She might not have a lot of power, meaning it was important to build something which was technically very clean," she said.

David Nainkin, former pro who is currently the head of the USTA Player Development, said in the New York Times last year that he advises young players to get rid of the one-hander.

India has had a string of single-handed backhand players, from Ramanathan Krishnan to his son Ramesh, Vijay Amritraj, Leander Paes and Rohan Bopanna, the current world No. 1 in doubles where a lot more pros still play that shot. Coaches here too do not encourage budding players the single-hander.

“At a young age, when your arm isn't really strong, double hand helps. So, they start with the double hand," said Balachandran Manikkath, who has coached some of the country’s top pros and is the coaching director of the Rohan Bopanna Tennis Academy. “Unless a child insists he wants to play the single-hander, we do not encourage it. Even then, we have to tell him to be prepared to lose matches until you’re 15-16 and can get physically stronger and faster on court. At a higher level, unless you’re that quick and have the skill of, say a Federer or (Stan) Wawrinka, you're going to struggle with a single-hander.

“Moreover, children normally copy players,” he added. “Nowadays, there are no single-handed players to copy.”

Chris Eubanks, the lanky American, switched from the double to single hander because he watched Federer do it. Canadian Denis Shapovalov too had the Swiss maestro in mind when he picked up the one-handed backhand.

Now, Federer would rather teach a double-handed backhand to his own kid. “A young player coming up playing with two hands makes a lot of sense. Because the racquets are heavy, it's easier to control the ball with two hands rather than one," he said in the 2016 ATP video.

The band, much like the one-handed backhand, is fast losing its voice.

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