Sunday, February 9, 2014

WHAT KILLED THE ONE-HANDED BACKHAND?

Stan the Man showed us all that the 1-handed backhand still can...beat a 2-hander that is. Every time somebody new with a one-handed backhand succeeds in the modern game, it always seems to inspire a rush of questions about just what killed the 1-handed backhand anyway.  To this day, the history of tennis is replete with players with one-handed backhands who have won far more majors than players with 2-handed backhands. As a matter of fact, even if you restrict your research to major winners since the first great 2-handed champions emerged from the primordial ooze of modern professional tennis (Jimmy Connors and Bjorn Borg in 1974) one could argue that the two-handed backhand is nothing more than an historical anomaly that will be blown apart and scattered to the winds of history, when the game gets its collective head out of its collective arse.

Let the record show that of the four majors, 2-handers have won more than 1-handers only at Roland Garros.  This is a little ironic since the place you tend to see the most 1-handed backhands is on slow red clay, where even the smallest and weakest of tennis ingenues can hone this stroke through the imposed patience of the rustic surface.  At 26 to 14 titles, 2-handed backhands have had considerably more success in the last 40 years than 1-handers in Paris, but in Australia, the trend is reversed at 23 to 18, 24 to 16 at the US Open, and the trend is most lopsided at Wimbledon where the record is 27 to 13.  In total, 1-handers have it over 2-handers at the majors 88 to 73.

And just taking a look at the draw for Rotterdam next week I was curious to see how many of the 32 players in a rich field of players, for this 40 year old ATP 500, had let go of the second hand and, despite the presumed death sentence to their careers, have managed to make it in the game.  Of the 32 players in the draw, fully 11 or almost 1/3rd of the draw play with a 1-handed backhand.  Of course, 40 years ago, you'd expect the reverse, but not so today, and this begs the question:  why?

Well, in truth, we all start out with a 2-handed backhand, particularly those of us who got an early start in the game, and the biggest problem a child faces on the tennis court, besides seeing over the net, is the challenge of maintaining racquet head stability.  In the abstract, any good tennis pro will tell you that no matter how weak/strong you are, the best solution to this problem is the quality of your technique - if you do everything right technically before, during and after your stroke, you'll never need that second arm on either side.  But there's the rub: you can't make any mistakes technically - not in your footwork, court positioning, your stroke production or your follow through, because if you do it's nearly impossible to hit a 1-handed backhand properly.  The same cannot be said for the 2-hander.

The second hand gives the added racquet head stability you need when you haven't quite hit your mark in court positioning or footwork.  It allows for that smooth delivery of strings to ball that is essential for a shot even rarer in tennis than the 1-handed  backhand - a flat ground stroke. Freed from the need to sacrifice power for control, a 2-handed backhand is more likely to be delivered flat and straight as an arrow - just the sort of thing a modern player approaching the net could take advantage of, but hardly anyone consistently rushes the net anyway, so this advantage is lost on this generation.

So what killed the 1-handed backhand anyway?  Was it Bjorn Borg and his Viking-God flowing blonde locks and purple and green pin stripes?  Was it Andre Agassi and his rock and roll, gut-busting, gate-crashing brand of Bollitieri bash-ball?  Perhaps Jimmy Connors and his crotch grabbing, every-cuss-in-the-book uttering, "this is what they want" extolling, histrionics laden game?  No, it was none of these things.

It was the money.

Because there's so much money in the game, and so much of it is committed earlier and earlier in a player's career, the puppeteers have less patience with their marionettes developing the necessary technique to master a stroke as precise, and potentially fruitful, as the 1-handed backhand.  If the money's there, just do the minimum technically with a 2-handed backhand, and you'll be up and running in no time. Why bother taking the time (and eschewing the money) to develop a 1-hander?

As such, typically that stroke is reserved for only the most talented of tennis players who are able to make up for what they lack in technique, with pure god-given hand/eye coordination, until that technique is where it needs to be to cease being a liability.  That's not to say that the only talented tennis players are those with 1-handed backhands - to the contrary some of the nicest 1-handed backhands I've ever seen have come from players who hit a 2-hander by trade, either in training or in between points, or on the rare occasion where it is technically preferable to do so.

But when entire families hang on every result, and armies of masseuses, and physios, and cooks, and coaches, and fathers and WAGS (and whoever else can successfully impose themselves on the career of a promising young professional) amplify the risk of missing out on the big early paycheck, the future begins to look dark as dusk if you can't fight above your weight class. Thus the 1-handed backhand goes the way of the stick-shift:  impressive when you see it, aesthetically far more enjoyable if you can do it, but an unnecessary risk when it's so much easier and safer to simply put it in gear and press "go".

But I have a feeling that this may not be a permanent thing. I think the future of tennis will not change nearly as much as we think.  There certainly seems to be a lot of gentle giants out there, that we all predicted would dominate the game, but ironically the optimal size for a tennis champion has remained for the better part of 100 years between 5'11" and 6'3" with very rare exception.  

Why?  

Because the court is still 27 x 78 feet, you still have to break serve to win sets, and you can't play the game from inside your head or the sofa in your living room.  And because of all of these things, I don't think conditions will persist such that a premium on racquet head stability from a very early age forces the game to continue to evolve towards the 2-handed backhand. And when everyone is doing the same thing and hoping for a different result, something's gotta give.

If the ball goes faster and with more spin on it, then the quality of the athlete will have to improve, and as that happens, the physical side of tennis will require tennis players to be in it for the long-haul, rather than the quick buck (because whether they play with one or two hands, no 17-year old in the world will have what it takes physically to win in what is increasingly becoming a man's game). Therefore results at at 13 and 14 should become less important than results at 18 and 19, and by then physically most will have had enough time to develop their ultimate game, rather than the most expedient one.

One way or another, I believe the game will once again belong to the ancient masters of the 1-handed backhand.
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