When it comes to worldwide reach and scope, few sports hold a candle to tennis. To celebrate all that makes tennis so rich and deep, Tennis Channel kicks off "TenniScope." Authored by Tennis Channel writer Joel Drucker, these short pieces describe many of the fabulous moments and places, people and products that have added sparkle and passion to our sport.
A Tale of Two Backhands
By Joel Drucker
It's interesting to explore the nuances of backhands. Just about anyone who picks up tennis these days first learns a two-hander. The premise is that it's initially much easier for a child to hold a racket with both hands - and soon enough technique is learned and the child is blissfully whacking balls.
But check this out: Of the last 25 Wimbledons, one-handers have taken the men's singles title 21 times. At the U.S. Open, 17 times in the last 23 years the winner has been a man with a one-handed backhand.
What gives? If indeed the two-hander is so prevalent, then why are the winners of tennis' premier events still deploying a one-hander? After all, in a great many ways, the two-hander can inflict more damage than a one-hander, particularly when it comes to generating pace and depth on service returns. You look at the way the likes of Andre Agassi, Jimmy Connors and Marat Safin deploy their two-handers, and you will witness a thundering rain of laser-like, crushing power rarely generated by a one-hander.
But perhaps the answer lies less in the singular stroke and more on how each backhand is integrated into a player's overall game. This aspect of integration is deeply important.
In large part, a two-handed backhand is similar to a forehand - a powerful drive that's usually struck hard, deep or severely angled. Agassi's one-two combo of forehand and backhand was lethal, in my mind the best in tennis history. As my Tennis Channel colleague Leif Shiras - a victim of Agassi - once said, "it's just unfair that someone can hurt you that way off both sides."
So given that upside, what's the appeal of the one-hander? Two answers: variety and offense.
Another way to conceive the backhand is to redefine its set of responsibilities. Rather than force it to mirror the terminal, often point-ending qualities of a forehand, let's suppose we view the backhand more as an opportunity creator.
In this sense, the nimbleness of the one-hander is telling. It can be sliced or driven, used to get opponents off-balance and out of rhythm, floated deep but with little pace, deployed as an approach shot - and perhaps most of all, integrated into an all-court, attacking game. Though in theory there's no reason why a two-hander from the baseline can't master a one-handed backhand volley, this doesn't happen too often. But a one-hander is often actually practicing a good backhand volley technique even when hitting slice backhands from the baseline.
Versatility, offense and, to a lesser degree, measured defense, are the cornerstones of an effective one-handed backhand. Such was the philosophy when both Stefan Edberg and Pete Sampras abandoned their two-handers in their teens. Initially, each suffered losses. The courts of California are littered with many names you've heard of who beat Sampras during his transition years. But over the course of time, Sampras' one-hander built the kind of game he knew could win him Wimbledon and the U.S. Open. As he once told me, "The two-hander was the kind of stroke that could have kept me comfortable at the baseline. But with the one-hander, I knew there was no going back. I was going to be committed to playing offense."
Joel Drucker has been part of Tennis Channel since the network first hit the airwaves in 2003, most notably as co-producer and writer of "Center Court," as well as working for Tennis Channel at many tournaments as an analyst and writer and since 2006 authoring this website's "Roving Player" column.
Drucker is one of the world's preeminent tennis historians, having authored dozens of articles on every generation of the game's leading players - from past stars Don Budge and Jack Kramer to contemporary greats Maria Sharapova and Roger Federer. Along with Tennis Channel colleagues Bud Collins and Steve Flink, Drucker is one of three American writers on the International Tennis Hall of Fame Enshrinee Committee - the group that each year builds the ballot for the worldwide panel of voters. Drucker's first book, Jimmy Connors Saved My Life, is considered by Sports Illustrated to be one of five "must-read" tennis books.
Read all the Tenniscope columns:
Happy Birthday, Ken Rosewall | Davis Cup: How it all started | Mixing It Up In Mixed Doubles | Aussies Set The Tennis Code | The Royal Reign of Margaret Court | Reflections on Michael Chang | Let's Take it Inside | Warm-Up Suits | Death of a Player | A Tale of Two Backhands | Court Management | Movie Review | Racquet Racket | Sampras: Book Review