Let’s take a moment to appreciate the beauty of that shot. It could hold its own in the midst of the silence of an Opera classic or the grace of an international ballet company. There is an innate beauty to the single handed backhand in tennis – it exudes grace and ceases to be just a simple shot in that moment, a sublime blend of skill and technique which can take your breath away amongst the monotony that the sport has become. My love affair with Federer started with this shot, a moment of pure magnificence in a world of violent hitting accompanied by even more violent shrieks. It requires immense training to make it a weapon as the balance and complexity required to perfect the shot is only outweighed by the sexiness of the shot. If only tennis players could be rated on aesthetics.
A simple stat which shows how the popularity of this shot has gone down is in the number of grand slams won before Nadal and after. I like to call this the ‘Advent of Nadal’ – In the period from 1995-2004 before Nadal won a single grand slam, 26 out of the 40 grand slams were won by single handers – Sampras ruled the roost here. However, from 2005-2016 a strange thing happened, the number of single handed backhands dropped rapidly and only 16 out of the 48 slams were won by singe handers, albeit 13 of them came from Federer with Wawrinka being the only other exception. Currently, there are a meager 24 single handers in the mens top 100 and only 3 on the women’s side. A startling decline from a decade ago when more than half of the draw comprised of single handers.
Let’s take a closer look at the reasons for this rapid drop.
Firstly, the size and nature of the tennis racquet have drastically changed – lighter racquets with bigger heads and polyester strings are the norm currently. These allow players to produce approximately 20% more topspin on their shots as compared to the older heavier racquets. Increased topspin makes the ball bounce more and you end up returning the ball at around shoulder height – this is not the most conducive position to hit a single handed return as it affects both the pace and depth of the shot. ‘The Nadal Effect’ – Data shows that Rafael Nadal, who is the prime exponent of top spin shots imparts 4900 revolutions on the ball, compare this with a pedestrian 1900 for Sampras in his prime. It is no surprise that Rafael Nadal has a favourable record against Federer – using top spin to nullify Federer’s single handed backhand and inducing errors.
Secondly, all the courts around the world – hard, clay and grass have slowed down over the years. The hallowed courts of Wimbledon were the last bastian, once the authorities altered the seed mix to ensure that men’s matches didn’t descend into ace-hitting contests, it also moved over to the dark side. Consequently, there was a demise of the serve and volley game, as the returner has far more time to hit a passing shot from deep in his own court. The single handed backhand is a weapon which relies on precision and speed – the slower courts reducing the probability of such winners. The leading example of this is in the resurgence of defensive players like Murray and Djokovic coming to the fore over the last 4-5 years at the grand slams.
Last and most important, a change in emphasis on playing styles at the grassroots level has been a massive influencer of this change. As a kid, the single hander is a difficult shot to practice due to the lack of strength, and most coaches make their pupils switch to the double fisted one very early in their careers. Barring exceptions that is – James Blake switched over to the single hander because his brother kept telling him that he wasn’t strong enough to succeed with the shot. In addition, the parents and coaches right now are more worried about their kids making rapid strides in the early parts of their careers and hence shy away from the long term project of developing a single hander. According to Carlos Rodriguez – coach of Justin Henin who is widely considered to possess one of the best single handers ever, this reason is the prime reason of this shift.
Dr. Jack Groppel, a founder of Johnson & Johnson’s Human Performance Institute, analyzed the biomechanics of each tennis shot for his dissertation in the late 1970s. Groppel found that while the two hander required coordination between the hips, legs, trunk and arms, the one hander demanded synchrony between the hips, legs, trunk, upper arm, forearm and hand. In layman terms, the two hander is much easier to master. This makes coaches often adopt the easier route in going to the double hander early in a player’s career.
We will never know how many Federers, Samprases, Henins and Grafs we missed out on over the last 20 years in this search for quick results and success. Tennis used to be a sport of gamblers and swashbucklers, now it has evolved into one for efficient sporting machines.