In the wake of his 27th Masters title (the second in Shanghai) and his fourth straight victory this year over perennial rival, Rafael Nadal, Roger Federer stated that he would teach his kids a two-handed backhand, should they ever choose to pick up the game that made daddy so great. I understand his rationale behind it. The two-handed backhand has dominated the game of tennis for the past two decades. It is a solid swing with an easy follow through to execute. It also grants its wielder a lot more natural firepower than the one-hander does. While I understand Federer’s rationale, I don’t necessarily agree with it. The one-hander is still as relevant today, as it was in the 90s and 80s. A quick glance at the current top ten ATP ranked players, shows four wielders of the one-handed backhand, among them – Roger Federer (2), Dominic Thiem (6), Grigor Dimitrov (8), and Stan Wawrinka (9). Two of them (Federer and Wawrinka) are multiple grand slam champions and their combined grand slam haul accounts for 40% of the entire grand slam haul of the current top ten.
What does this mean for you if you are getting into tennis or if you have a young charge you think can go all the way in the sport? You have to make an early decision on which backhand to go for. One or Two? Here are a few things you need to think about when making this decision.
Which shot comes naturally
Now do not pull an “oh I love the one-hander, it is so graceful” on me. This isn’t about which shot you like – aesthetically or functionally – it is about which shot comes naturally to you… or your charge. Most young up and comers will start with a two-hander, simply because the racket is too big for them.
Side Note: You can remedy this by getting your young charge a street tennis racket for kids, which will help them in their stroke mechanics until they are ready to move on to a bigger and heavier frame.
Now you can see which shot come more naturally from an earlier age. Think of the natural shot, as the one you don’t have to put much conscious thought into executing. Tennis is not necessarily a thinking game. With shots exchanged in rallies travelling in excess of 90 miles per hour, you barely have enough time to think. Tennis is about grooving your kinesthetic motion so that it becomes second nature or a low level thought. Muscle memory might be a fair way to describe this. If you have to constantly remember to put your supporting hand on the grip to hit a backhand, the two-hander might not be your natural shot. If this doesn’t work, which shot do you or your charge go to when under pressure? This is very true even at the professional level. Top players will retreat to comfortable shots and playing patterns when they are backed up against the wall.
What kind of player are you trying to become?
Now the natural shot is not the only consideration when deciding whether to go with a one-handed backhand or a two-handed backhand. Because tennis is a game that requires hours and hours of practice to get better at, you can become very good at any shot if you put in enough practice. This is true, even if it is not your natural shot. A professional example is Rafael Nadal. He is a natural right-handed human being who learned to play with his left hand for the sole purpose of one day dominating Roland Garros. Another example? Pete Sampras. He switched – very late if I might add – from a two-handed backhand to a one-handed backhand under the guidance of Pete Fischer, who believed the switch would help him become the consummate grass court player. History will always let us know what happened.
More importantly, the lesson is this: try to figure out the kind of player you want to become. This extends beyond surface specialization but play patterns and mechanics as well. The one-handed backhand is perfect for players who want to develop an all-court offensive game. Its natural free-flowing motion allows players to transition from forehand to backhand and from defense to offense in a heartbeat. It also grants the player a ‘natural slice’ due to the grips used to hit a backhand.
Side Note: To learn more about backhand grips, visit this link. As for the other type of grip (the grip tape), you can check out the Wilson Ultra Tennis Grip. It is perfect for giving you more confidence in following through on your backhand shot, without being afraid of the racket flying out of your hands and smacking an umpire in the face. Gasp!
Finally, with strong shoulders, the one-handed backhand can be a very powerful shot from the baseline and at the net. Pat Rafter had great shoulder muscles that allowed him to hit very hard one-handed backhand stab volleys so easily, you would think he could do it in his sleep.
The two-handed backhand, while being a more powerful shot naturally, is actually a more defensive shot. You would be sacrificing a whole lot of variety for compactness, a solid shot that is less prone to break down under pressure, and a heightened ability to go big down the line from that wing. However, true to its defensive nature, the two-handed backhand allows for more control and as such very lethal passing shot abilities, should you master it. I am not saying you or your charge cannot become an offensive player with a two-hander, but let’s look at some of the best two-handers we’ve had in the game, in the last two decades: Agassi, Hewitt, Djokovic, Nalbandian, Safin, Nadal, Murray, Nishikori. Out of this small sample set, Safin is the only pure offensive baseliner we’ve got. Most of these guys are or were defensive baseliners with a varying degree of offensive powers.
How quickly are you looking for success
This is very, very important too because I feel most people and most young up and comers are rushed into a choice that doesn’t necessarily tie in with the rest of their game simply because they are looking for success quickly. Let me start by saying this – and it might seem harsh but it is true. The juniors don’t really matter. It really doesn’t. Not all number one junior players, translate to fantastic pro tour players. Why am I saying this? The two-handed backhand is usually the easier of the two shots to master and will most likely bring you success faster. The one-handed backhand takes time and patience to master. You might not be the best of junior players but you just might win seven Wimbledon titles (ahem Sampras).
The two-handed backhand can give you a confidence boost that permeates through to the rest of your game. Again just make sure it fits into your developmental goals as a player. Is this the right tool for the job? What do I really want? The two-hander is a solid way to round out your game and hasten your developmental process. The more you hit it, the more comfortable you will get at it and it will become a solid shot. As for the one-handed backhand, the improvement graph is not so linear. Some days will be fantastic and others will be downright terrible. One day, however, it will click.
So, is Federer right? There is no real black and white here. In fact, there are over 50 shades of grey. It all depends on what you are trying to achieve. Which advantages are you willing to trade? What sacrifices are you willing to make? Hopefully, this guides you in making the right choice.