Backhand breakdown: one hand or two?

Published by Matt Trollope

Stan Wawrinka unleashes his trademark one-handed backhand; Getty Images
Former pros Wally Masur and Alicia Molik – now Australian tennis figureheads – both used one-handed backhands in their playing days. What do they make of the resurgence of the stroke at the highest level?

Next week, when Grigor Dimitrov is projected to rise from world No.13 to No.12, exactly one third of the ATP top 12 will own one-handed backhands.

At this time five years ago, just one of the top 12 – Roger Federer – owned the single-handed stroke.

The one-handed backhand, at the top of the game at least, seems to be back in vogue.

We spoke to former Australian pros Wally Masur and Alicia Molik about this, and more broadly about what the benefits of a single-hander and its double-handed counterpart might me.

Masur, a former world No.15 who later captained the Australian Davis Cup team before becoming Tennis Australia’s performance director, played with a one-hander, while Molik – a former world No.8 and now Australian Fed Cup captain – switched from two hands to one on the backhand side in her mid teens.

 

What do you make of the one-handed backhands at the top of the men’s game?

Masur: “If you’re talking Federer and Wawrinka, Wawrinka has got that incredibly strong topspin backhand. Extremely powerful, really well produced. Federer’s backhand is not so powerful but it’s more versatile; he’s got the chip, he can neutralise the grip and block the return.”

Why do we generally see more two-handers in the sport?

Molik: “It’s probably an easier shot for a junior to master. The fact they can master it sooner means that they’re more effective and are going to win sooner. I think what’s critical when kids are really young and they pick up a tennis racquet – you want them to enjoy the sport. And to enjoy the sport they need to make contact with the ball and acquire the skills to be able to hit the ball. So I think that happens a lot quicker with a two-handed backhand. A young child is able to connect (better) and more regularly, so they can rally. A four or five-year-old kid is not interested really in technique – they just want to play.”

Wally, what did you see in players coming through the ranks when you were the head of the National Academy in Sydney?

Masur: “I found it interesting that there were a lot of double-handed backhands and a lot of extreme western forehands. Given that 90 per cent of tennis in Sydney is played on synthetic grass, I found that a little unusual. So obviously, it must have been taught (to them as young kids). I think what tends to happen sometimes at that level is a coach might look at the end product and teach what he’s seeing being delivered by the very best players in the world, as opposed to fundamentally developing quite linear swings with fairly neutral grips and just getting a kid to understand (the benefits) of putting the full face of the racquet (on the ball).

“You do get some kids who are pretty strong at a young age who are happy to hit the single-hander – it’s almost like a personality-driven thing. If a kid came to me with a single-hander, geez, I’d run with it. If it looked half-decent and that’s the way he wanted to play, I’d encourage it.”

What are the advantages and disadvantages of a single-hander compared to a double-hander?

Molik: “(With a single-hander) you develop a lot of strength when you’re on the stretch, or wide when you are in a bad position. I think it quickly improves your slice backhand, in the fact you do develop a lot of shoulder, back and forearm strength. That definitely helps the skill of a slice backhand. And also the volleys – it’s rare that you see a player with a one-handed backhand who doesn’t volley pretty damn well. And I think a lot of that is to do with the strength that’s developed from the one-hander. (Disadvantages come when playing) the ball above shoulder height and maybe on the return. I think having an extra hand on a return means often you can more easily adjust the racquet head, the racquet face and your body around the ball and get more strength behind the ball.”

Masur: “To me, the big problem with the single-hander – and no-one really exploits it with Stan, because nobody serves-and-volleys these days – but Stan just blocks a lot of his returns. So if you serve and volley, I think you’re going to get some dividends (off that blocked return). (But nobody does anymore) so he just takes that big wide stance, just blocks that return, gets himself in the rally and then his single-handed backhand is really dangerous. The big advantage of the double-hander is the double-handed return. Because even if you serve high and heavy, kick it up to the backhand, it just doesn’t seem to bother them. And then also on the pass, they have a few more options – they can kind of hold the ball with that left hand, just rip up the back of the ball like a left-handed forehand and burn you with the topspin lob. Single-handers can still play it but it’s a lot harder to disguise.”

With more one-handers at the top of the men’s game, might this inspire a new waves of one-handed coming up through the ranks in future generations?

Masur: “I guess we’ve always assumed that that would be the case – if you had sort-of a pin-up boy or pin-up girl that really played a style of game that captured the imagination of the kids, that it would start to influence people. And I’d like to think so – because what I like in tennis is variety, I like to think that there’s lots of different ways to win and to play. I think there’s room in our game for lots of different body types and attributes.”

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