Photo : Rakuten Japan Open
They’re definitely few and far between.
And proclaiming the shot is a dying art or on the way to extinction as the New York Times recently did is a mere step away.
Indeed, fewer and fewer players rely on it. The numbers don’t lie: less than 10% of the world’s tennis players hit their backhand with one hand. Take a look at the top 1000s and you’ll see how rare the one-handed variety truly is.
But it’ll never die out completely. Even players who prefer the two-handed option will need a one-handed backhand to hit their slices and those lethal drop shots that only sometimes pay off but always manage to rile up an opponent by way of sheer exhaustion.
With that in mind, how about a brief history of the one-handed backhand?
From the sport’s very beginnings, players hit their forehand and backhand drives with one hand.
The first two-handed backhands popped up about 100 years ago. We have Australians Vivian McGrath and John Bromwich, who played in the 1930s, to thank.
In the late 60s, Canadian Mike Belkin raised some eyebrows with the uncommon shot.
But it was in the 70s and 80s that the likes of Bjorn Borg, Jimmy Connors and Chris Evert really began to reverse the trend.
Here are two short lists of the top pros with a one-handed backhand and their years of service on the tours. In the interest of neutrality, they’re in alphabetical order.
- Ashleigh Barty (2012–2014 and 2016–2022)
- Steffi Graf (1982–1999)
- Justine Henin (1999–2011)
- Billie Jean King (1968–1990)
- Amélie Mauresmo (1993–2009)
- Carla Suarez Navarro (2003–2021)
- Martina Navratilova (1974–2006)
- Gabriela Sabatini (1985–1996)
In the WTA, one-handed backhands are particularly scarce. No.57 Tatjana Maria of Germany is the only Top 100 player who uses it is. In the top 1000, there are only 17 (a meager 1.7%) who prefer it.
Meanwhile in the ATP, 43 competitors in the Top 1000 (4.3%) and 12 in the Top 100 have made the one-handed backhand their go-to.
In the men’s game, quite a few big names hit their backhands with one hand. Fans will all agree with my decision to also include four who haven’t won a Slam but still unleash an exquisite one-handed shot, namely Richard Gasquet, who holds 16 titles, Stefanos Tsitsipas (10), Grigor Dimitrov (8), Lorenzo Musetti (2) and none other than Denis Shapovalov (1).
- Arthur Ashe (1969-1980)
- Gregor Dimitrov (since 2008)
- Stefan Edberg (1983-1996)
- Roy Emerson (1968-1983)
- Roger Federer (1998-2022)
- Richard Gasquet (since 2002)
- Gustavo Kuerten (1995-2008)
- Rod Laver (1963-1979)
- Ivan Lendl (1978-1994)
- John McEnroe (1978-1994)
- Lorenzo Musetti (since 2019)
- Ken Rosewall (1956-1980)
- Pete Sampras (1988-2003)
- Denis Shapovalov (since 2017)
- Dominic Thiem (since 2011)
- Stefanos Tsitsipas (since 2016)
- Guillermo Vilas (1969-1992)
As reported in the New York Times piece, David Nainkin, who heads ATP player development for the USTA, tells the young talents he sees with a one-handed backhand to get rid of it, since the two-handed backhand is far more stable and has a shorter and simpler motion. “It’s almost impossible to make it with a one-handed backhand now. I think you’ll see less of it maybe in the next 10 years,” he told the newspaper.
Even the GOAT in terms of singles and doubles wins concurs.
Martina Navratilova, whose one-handed backhand helped lead her to 344 titles, agrees that young players should use two hands but still work on their one-handed slices and volleys.
So the next time you see a one-handed backhand, be sure to take it all in. As the NYT said, the shot is “fast going the way of the wooden racquets of the early 1980s.”
The sun rises in the east
After a rewarding year in 2022, the current season has given Canadian tennis little cause for celebration. But as 2023 wraps up, things may be looking up.
On Saturday, October 14, there was a partial solar eclipse over Canada, and the very next day the stars aligned for Leylah Fernandez and Gabriela Dabrowski in China.
Within an hour, they were both crowned champions: Leylah in Hong Kong and Gabriela in Zhengzhou.
And not long after that, Gabriel Diallo won the Challenger in Bratislava, capping off a brilliant Sunday for three of our own.
While Dabrowski is no stranger to doubles crowns, Fernandez was finally able to put a stop to her 594-day WTA title drought.
Nearly 600 days ago, Leylah was World No. 21 and riding a wave of confidence that carried her all the way to No. 13 just six months later. Then things got rocky, and she dropped to No. 96 last June.
With her triumph earned at the expense of Katerina Siniakova at the Hong Kong Open, Leylah seems to have reignited the spark that propelled her emergence in 2021 and 2022.
She also re-entered the Top 50 as the new No. 43 with a jump of 17 spots in the rankings.
Read also: Sebov, Stakusic Lead Field in Saguenay
As for Gabriela Dabrowski, she extended her terrific run with Canadian-born New Zealander Erin Routliffe.
As the top seeds in Zhengzhou, China, they overpowered the third-seeded team of Shuko Aoyama and Ena Shibahara in three sets in the final.
In doing so, Gaby secured her 15th career title and her second with Erin Routliffe, with whom she shares the US Open crown, and both women punched their tickets to the WTA Finals. They’re currently sixth in the race, two places ahead of Fernandez and her partner Taylor Townsend of the US.
It’s impossible to conclude without mentioning that Gabriel Diallo won the second Challenger of his career in Slovakia, where he defeated No. 188 Joris De Loore of Belgium (6-0, 7-5).
On his way to the title, the Montrealer also had to vanquish 2020 US Open champion Dominic Thiem.
And so, Diallo continues his climb.
He’s currently ranked No. 130, up 34 spots and higher than his previous career-high ranking of No. 132 on August 20, 2023.
And the season isn’t over for him since he has the Davis Cup Finals in Malaga in November to look forward to. It’s certainly been a pivotal year for him with his two titles and an unforgettable experience at the Davis Cup Finals Group Stage just a few weeks ago.
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