One Backhand to rule them all

Tommy Haas and Philipp Kohlschreiber won quarterfinal matches at the BMW Open in Munich today. Both men use a one-handed backhand, which practically makes them dinosaurs. Certain religious sects teach that man once lived at the same time as the dinosaur, and that he developed a two-handed backhand to rise to the top of the food chain. According to, The Disappearing One-Handed Backhand, in the NY Times’ Straight Sets blog:

When it comes to winning titles, the age of current crop of one-handers is perhaps the biggest red flag. With the exception of Dimitrov, a Bulgarian who will turn 22 in May, every player in the top 30 on the ATP World Tour who relies primarily on a one-hander is at least 26 years old — middle age for a touring pro.

And, yes, the story is similar on the WTA Tour. Henin’s early retirement eliminated the only dominant woman with a one-hander. She and Francesca Schiavone of Italy are the only women with one-handers in the last six years to win a Grand Slam. Only one woman ranked in the Top 20, 30-year-old Roberta Vinci of Italy, has a one-hander.

Juniors, tomorrow’s champions, see far more two-handers than ever before and are reluctant to trade in their own for a one-hander  — no matter how many winners they’ve seen Federer hit with the shot. …

The falling number of champions with one-handed backhands is reminiscent of what happened so quickly to serve-and-volley champions: there were many, then there were a few, and suddenly there were absolutely none.

Two weeks before the Straight Sets post, a very statistically-minded tennis blogger at Heavy Topspin noted that players with one-handed backhands were not yet extinct, but were getting older. In, The State of the One-Handed Backhand, we read:

Don’t write the eulogy just yet. The one-handed backhand isn’t the common sight that it used to be, but there are still plenty of them out there. When the current generation retires, however, we might have an endangered species on our hands. Here’s a quick look at the prevalence of the one-hander in today’s men’s game. …

I think the Heavy Topspin post is more balanced, but neither article got into the reasons for the decline of the stroke. I’ve read elsewhere that it has to do with players learning the game when very young (and very short) on high-bouncing bituminous and clay courts. If you’ve ever flailed at the occasional high-bouncing ball to your backhand, imagine getting a steady stream of shots that were too high to hit with any power while your insane tennis parent, who just drove you four hundred miles to play in some tournament, is watching and having a fit.

So if the two-hander makes it easier for five-year olds to add some power when returning that shot, they’re going to use it, just as they tend towards extreme Western grips to handle high-bouncing balls to the forehand – rather than stick with the one-hander and lose their junior matches. Unlike Pete Sampras, most of them will keep their hard-learned strokes into adulthood.

Update 20130505: Haas beat Kohlschreiber in the final of the BMW Open. Stan Wawrinka, who also hits a one-handed backhand, beat two-hander David Ferrer in the final of the Portugal Open. So it was a good week for the one-hander.

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