Is the one-handed backhand back? Seemingly on the brink of extinction not long ago, there are now growing whispers about its quiet return to the upper levels of the men's game. The phenomenon first drew attention at last year's French Open, when one-handers accounted for eight of the 16 players who reached the fourth round and four of the eight quarterfinalists. There were even four single-handed players in the fourth round of the women's draw, where the stroke is even rarer.
At Wimbledon, Steve Darcis and Sergiy Stakhovsky again returned attention to the one-hander, upsetting Rafael Nadal and Roger Federer on back-to-back days. And last month, Stanislas Wawrinka won the Australian Open to become just the third man in the past decade to win a Grand Slam using a one-handed backhand (Roger Federer and 2004 French Open champ Gaston Gaudio are the others). More generally, although one-handed backhands account for only about 20 percent of the ATP Top 100, they make up 35 percent of the top 20.
This resurgence generally has been met with enthusiasm, for the stroke is prized for its aesthetic appeal as well as the variety it lends to a tennis landscape now dominated by two-handers.
But talk of a revival also has been tempered by the observation that it is being driven mostly by veterans. Of the seven one-handers in last week's top 20, all but one are over 27 years old -- No. 3 Stanislas Wawrinka (28), No. 8 Roger Federer (32), No. 9 Richard Gasquet (27), No. 12 Tommy Haas (35), No. 16 Mikhail Youzhny (31), Nicolas Almagro (28), with No. 20 Grigor Dimitrov (22) the only exception. As a result, there are doubts about whether this one-handed stand will last much longer than they do.
But here's another way of looking at it: Are the old guys helping keep the one-hander around, or is the one-hander helping keep the old guys around? Among players 30 and older, five of the top seven have one-handed backhands -- Federer, Haas, Youzhny, Feliciano Lopez and Philipp Kohlschreiber (David Ferrer and Tommy Robredo are the other top over-30s). Lopez and Kohlschreiber reached their career highs at 28 years old, while 32-year-old Nicolas Mahut is one spot away from the No. 40 ranking he last occupied six years ago. When it comes to extending a tennis career, having a one-handed backhand clearly doesn't hurt.
Many are hitting better off that wing than ever, allowing them -- and their artistic swings -- to stay in the game's prominent positions. There are a combination of reasons why older players with one-handed backhands are thriving, according to Darren Cahill.
The first is simply physical. It is now well-accepted that the increasing physical demands of the game mean it takes longer for players to develop the power required to compete at the upper levels, leading to the tour being dominated more and more by older, stronger players. If anything, this effect has been magnified when it comes to the one-handed backhand. It takes more strength to hit away from the body with one hand instead of two, and the amount of spin players can now put on the ball creates bigger bounces that must frequently be hit above shoulder height, where the one-handed backhand is relatively weaker.
"I think the main thing is there's a big strength factor with having the one-hander compared to the two-hander," Cahill said. "The game has changed a little bit, becoming more physical, and obviously spin becoming a huge factor. It's become more difficult at a young age to play with one hand.
"These guys are doing well with a one-handed backhand later in their careers, as they become stronger athletes. [And that] has made a big difference to the way they've been able to compete with a one-handed backhand."
Another reason players are having more success with one-handers, says Cahill, is that they have now adapted the stroke to today's game. The benefit of synthetic strings lent itself more to the strengths of the two-handed backhand, leaving one-handers facing extra challenges.
"With double-handers, you can utilize that power and the ability to create topspin probably a little easier than a one-hander can. So it's taken a little while for the one-handers to catch up as far as utilizing the new technology with the string," notes Cahill, who himself switched to a one-hander after starting out with two hands. "And that's been with slight grip changes, with preparation, with the way they hit the backhand. Some of these guys are hitting it more with an open stance now at times.
"I think learning to play the slice with this new technology, as well, has been an art, because with the extra spin you get off the ball, the slice can sometimes hang there.
"So you have to learn to produce the backhand slice a little differently than what you do with an all-gut racket."
Cahill points to Wawrinka as an example, observing that the new world No. 3 "can play off the front foot or the back foot and still get as much power on both shots," and has "evolved his slice to be more defensive."
"I think that's a big reason why he's able to stay in a lot more points these days and stay neutral is because he's improved his slice. Everyone talks about his backhand [topspin] as being a great shot, but he's always had that," Cahill said. "It's the shot that keeps you in points that can make a big difference to your game."
Perhaps the biggest problems come on the return, because a one-handed backhand usually involves more preparation time and makes it harder to block back the serve.
"Because of the enormous grip changes the players make these days, it's more difficult to return serve with a one-handed backhand. So players are also adapting to that with their core position, and where they stand to return serve, or doing a more of a tweener grip for return of serve," Cahill said. "Federer has a bit of an in-between forehand and backhand grip to return serve, so the grip change is not nearly as much."
"If you look at a lot of the statistics regarding even points won at the net, I think you'll find a lot of the top players are trying to find ways to shorten points compared to what it was two or three years ago," Cahill said. "There's more variation with a one-handed backhand -- the slice, spins, being able to volley a little better."
All of this suggests that the one-handed backhand is back to stay. Once, it was the standard way of hitting the shot. The double-hander was a rarity until Jimmy Connors, Bjorn Borg and Chris Evert helped popularize it starting in the 1970s, and until recently, it seemed to be on the verge of a complete takeover. But with the one-handed version now regaining some of its value, it should be able to maintain a presence in the upper ranks, even if a minority one.
Though fewer young players are hitting the shot, some are starting to break through -- including the newest member of the top 100, 20-year-old Dominic Thiem, who turned heads by taking a set off Andy Murray last week in Rotterdam. Others in their mid to early 20s who have been climbing the ranks include Daniel Brands, Dusan Lajovic, Igor Sijsling, Dan Evans and, most prominently, Dimitrov. If they follow the current pattern, their games can at least be expected to mature well.
There are also significant differences among the current group of single-handers. Wawrinka hits his backhand like a club; Gasquet like a lasso. For Haas, it's the stronger wing, while for Federer it is weaker. And these days, even some players who use two hands have incorporated elements of the one-hander, such as Jo-Wilfried Tsonga and Albert Ramos for the slice or Radek Stepanek for the volley.
That means plenty of examples for a new generation to follow. Many single-handed players, from past greats such as Stefan Edberg and Pete Sampras to contemporary players ushc as Wawrinka and Thiem, began by using two hands and then switched. Some, like Novak Djokovic, have gone the other way, from one hand to two. As long as neither variety is seen as being intrinsically better than the other, coaches and juniors should be more likely to base their preference on what suits the player better.
For the one-hander, being in old hands may mean being in good hands.