Building the One-handed Topspin Backhand
If you are at all like me, among many other indelible impressions from the glorious Wimbledon are the classic one-handed topspin backhands that flowed off the racquets of Roger Federer and Richard Gasquet. So checking the ATP rankings, I was surprised to find only five two-handed backhands in the top ten: Roddick, Nadal, Djokovic, Davydenko and Berdych vs. Federer, Gonzalez, Robredo, Gasquet and Blake. In the next group ranked 11 thru 20 I found six two-handed backhands: Murray, Canas, Ferrero, Baghdatis, Chela and Moya vs. Haas, Ljubicic, Youzhny and Ferrer.
Somehow I had imagined there would be even more two-handers. Maybe it is from the recent clay court season where many of the men who play with semi-western forehands are more apt to favor the two fisted backhand (Nadal, Djokovic and Moya). But if in fact the one-handed backhand may be in more of a resurgence than I had thought, it might be worth a second look from the players perspective. How does that thing feel? How do you build one? All good questions to be sure.
The first step in building one of these babies is the correct grip, known as a full eastern backhand. Holding the racquet in your non-dominant hand, with the racquet face aligned vertically (not open or closed) place your hand on top of the handle. This is a full grip change from an eastern forehand, and even a further distance to move if you favor the semi-western forehand grip. When gripped correctly, it feels as though you cock your wrist “up” ever so slightly, such that you could place a quarter on the back of your hand and it would not fall off during the preparation phase of the swing.
Eastern backhand grip: Place a quarter on the back of your hand and it feels as if it would not fall off during the preparation phase of the swing.
Interestingly, this position locks the wrist, not because of muscular tension but rather because the bones in the hand and wrist are positioned such that the wrist will not give or move backwards at the moment of contact. The full eastern grip is the key, and all that follows depends on getting the feel for this grip. For some reason, many recreational players are unwilling to take this all important step. Certainly grips can be difficult and sometimes confusing, but if the classical players profited from these grips then truly so can you and I.
After setting the grip, now comes the preparation, which is nothing more than a simple turn to the side. The racquet head is held above the hand at this point, note how high Haas, Henman, or Gasquet are at this point. The ball will be hit with a swooping low to high swing, but at this point we are simply turning to the side with the racquet head up, well up.
Preparation is nothing more than a simple turn to the side with the racquethead held above the hand.
Balance and weight shift. As Henman prepares to drop the racquet into the forward swing, note his balance on the back foot, as he readies to step and swing. The back foot, the left foot (if you are a right-hander) is in this case the “educated foot” as described by the legendary Fred Earle. All strokes begin on the back foot and begin with either a step onto the front foot, or onto both feet for a dual leg drive. But in either case this swing starts, as do all swings, from the ground up.
Getting Under the Ball
Note how low the racquethead moves prior to contact, such that the hitting action is truly low to high. The lower the racquethead swoops the more potential topspin. Further note how far in front the ball will be met.
The racquethead drops below the ball and contact is out in front of the body.
During the hit, the left arm stays well back, and this appears entirely different than the upper body action on the two-hander. And for better or worse, most two-handers who hit the occasional one-handed under spin (Roddick, Nadal, or even Courier of old) tend to turn into the swing as much as they did on the two-hander and are generally prone to play the ball crosscourt. In fact, with Roddick, his one-hander rarely if ever goes down the line, and his savvy opponents have already shifted into the crosscourt reply mode once Roddick “tells” the opponent the under spin is on the way.
Treat the drop hit as your golden opportunity, and use it each and every time to get the feel for this stroke. Give it three months and you will have a new stroke in your tennis tool box. Might even have the occasional friend marvel at your new found grace. But as always, remember “first things first,” and in this case the first thing will be the full eastern backhand grip.
But now the work follows. If in fact you find the full eastern position, the ball will tend to go into the net with even the slightest roll of the wrist. The ball must be hit out in front. The ball must be hit on the upswing. But finally, the ball must be hit with a vertical (not closed) racquet face. And you can and will accomplish that only when the wrist remains cocked (keeping that imaginary quarter on the back of your hand) throughout the stroke. Henman, Gasquet, McLennan (yes I have one of these as well) … now it is your turn.
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