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Evolution of backhand changes the face of tennis

Once I found myself thinking that modern tennis is constantly upgrading and consequently the standard tennis technique and tactics are changing too. “Thank you, Captain Obvios”, might be your immediate response as it’s natural for tennis to undergo some development. But as we spend hours and hours watching tennis matches, the changes of tennis tactics become less visible and everything seems usual and routine. And it all went right until we watched the records of legendary grand slam finals that took place 4 years ago. For one thing, the players are the same, but their playing style differs from that of today dramatically.  What exactly has changed? The role of the backhand shots in closing out points. And these changes are rather significant.

Federer’s backhand

No doubts, backhand is the hardest tennis element. If you remember, in our article on forehand and backhand peculiarities  we’ve mentioned that tennis courts used to be much faster than their today’s analogues. Considering this fact, the reliable backhand wasn’t that important playing element. It was enough to have a booming serve and striking forehand to achieve good results. Nevertheless, it’s worth mentioning that the overwhelming majority of players have no 7 feet tall and perfect physical data to boast of. As a result, they have to find another means to compete in power and strength with hitters and servers. What did they find out? They gave greater stability, consistency and flexibility to their backhand... Their tactics at that point was very simple: put pressure on their rival’s left side with rare shots down the line and hitting a well-angled diagonal thus making your opponents commit mistakes on backhand. Keep in mind, that the representatives of serve-and-volley style devote much of their training to polishing up their service play and explosive forehand and neglecting left side strokes. I think that this tactics was originated when Sampras and Federer reigned in tour. It was meaningless to compete with them in serve and forehand, as the two managed to bring these elements to perfection. 

Nadal’s left-handed forehand

Nadal forehandIn our view, this moment marked the start of the backhand evolution. It was widely acknowledged that if you want to be competitive and show top results you have to improve all other playing elements, not just serve and forehand shots, as top players have left almost no chances to excel them at these components. So serve-and-volley approach has become inefficient and something else was needed to succeed. And the only one tennis element which could be potentially improved was found. It was backhand. Frankly speaking, there is one more highly-competitive tool. Left-handed tennis. Leftie with a booming forehand equals to the progressive backhand. You see, Toni Nadal was right when he taught his nephew to grip the racquet in his left hand. This is how the genius Nadal appeared!

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As a result, many juniors who were eager to fight for top rankings started working on their backhand technique, making it more flexible and consistent.  Putting pressure on the powerful player’s backhand tended out to be beneficial as it gave them no time to use their key tool – forehand. Consequently, hitters had to take great risks to avoid cross-court backhand shots exchange. And they either started making too many mistakes or lost their court position and became vulnerable to the opponent’s counterattacks. This tactics efficiency brought about the second step of backhand evolution.

Backhand shots by Djokovic and Murray

Djokovic MurrayBackhand has become one of the style making elements in modern tennis. Mark you, that all top 20 players, except Federer, Raonic and Isner, perform excellent backhand shots. When the players started spending most of their time in cross-court backhand exchange, the necessity to seize the initiative and start attacking arose. This is when the players began to practice the hardest tennis component – down-the-line backhand. Shots hit from the left side have become more variable as the players started to implement diagonal backhand shots and learnt to vary the length and the power of the performed shots. It is no longer possible to get easy points in forehand exchanges. Putting pressure by hitting backhand shots was also not enough as the number of players with top level backhand has increased, as well as the number of left-handed players. That’s why the quality of backhand had to be improved. At that point we got to know Novak Djokovic and Andy Murray, whose backhand is superior to their forehand. If you watch the matches with Murray and Djokovic it’s evident that these fellows rely more on their backhand technique which is flexible and consistent enough to allow them dictate their rules on court. And be sure that future lies with this kind of tennis.

Benoit Paire’s backhand

backhandI’m more than confident that in the nearest future we’ll get to know a number of such players as Benoit Paire whose backhand technique excels the forehand. The more I watched the French male matches, the more I tried to understand why his opponents don’t serve him to forehand were the French is almost dead? The answer is simple. First of all, it’s very hard to hit down-the-line backhand, especially when all your shots from the left are pressed by constant booming shots from over the net. Secondly, the exchange of diagonal backhand shots is the most –practiced tennis stroke. Most players develop and execute their own samples of shots so that’s very hard to adapt to a new style later on. If you are used to execute backhand return of serve, which is a very sound solution, you’ll find it hard to change it in course of the match. As a result, the players instinctively attack their opponent’s left side thus letting him use his key element – backhand. This fact makes me believe that such players as Paire and alike with great backhand and poor forehand will be successful in men’s tour.

To conclude with, I’d point it again that today backhand is the most crucial and style making tennis element. It dictates the modern tendencies and one will do nothing on top without it. Learning it pays dividends. Raonic and Isner do their best to cast it away but as soon as they are to play backhand pros (be it Djokovic, Murray, Nishikori or Gasquet), that’s it. They have nothing to offer these guys from the baseline and have no means to climb up the rankings. Will backhand keep developing? I bet it! And in 2-3 years only 77-8 players with weak backhand will be left in top 100.  

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Wimbledon QF Preview and Prediction: Roger Federer v Kevin Anderson.
ATP Barcelona Final Preview and Prediction: Rafael Nadal against Stefanos Tsitsipas.
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