Hitting a backhand was once an art. Players usually used one hand to hit it, just like the forehand, and used that side of the wing more to place the ball cunningly, guide the ball with a passing shot and strand the opponent at the net, or use wickedly slice backhands that would bite off the surface, rob the opponent of pace and make his life difficult. Watch this clip between Rocket Rod Laver and Ken Rosewall to realize what things could be achieved with a single-handed backhand. Steffi Graf won more than 15 slams with only a sliced backhand (she stopped using her topspin backhand almost exclusively in the 90s), which is by miles the best slice that tennis has ever seen.
In the modern era, especially in the last two decades, with the advent of graphite rackets, better strings and lighter weight rackets, the art and elegance of the one-hander has given way to the brute force and power of the two-handed backhand. So what if you can’t achieve the same level of finesse and precision with the two hander when you can use it much more efficiently to hit winners off this wing?
Andre Agassi famously says about his backhand down-the-line, “This shot has helped me pay a lot of my bills!”
Pete Sampras and Roger Federer may have won a combined 30 Slams with only their one-handed stroke (Pete, in fact, struggled throughout his junior years after he converted his two-hander into a one-handed backhand), but they will be the first to admit that there were subtle weaknesses that were easily capitalized by their opponents. Sampras never won a Major on clay precisely due to this reason, while the dominance of Rafael Nadal over Federer is well documented.
And hence the biggest backhands in the modern game are those with the two-fister. Nadal has flattened his stroke immensely in the last two years, and hits possibly the best backhand passing shots ever witnessed in history, especially when off balance, but he routinely faces difficulty on this shot when short on form or confidence. The single-fisted players with a more western grip like Stan Wawrinka and Tommy Haas may not have glaring weaknesses like Federer, but they lose a lot of variety that Federer has, and the lack of consistency hurts them immensely.
Which leaves us with two players who have been perennially at No. 3 and 4. Andy Murray possesses almost as much variety with his double hander as a player with a single handed backhand, and this stroke is the primary reason why he has been at the top even with a forehand that can at best be considered a liability. Even though he may not generate as much power as Nadal or Novak Djokovic, he craftily utilizes the pace of his opponent to direct the ball at will on either side of the court.
Despite all this, when it comes to the backhand, only Nole comes to mind. Watching him hit his backhand so confidently reminds you of none other than Andre Agassi and he is probably the only player who has no glaring weakness on his backhand, be it cross court, down the line or slice. Using an extremely western grip on this side, Nole firmly grips his racket and uses his strong upper body to generate extreme pace on the backhand, and one can see the ball flying off the court (especially on the fast Deco Turf) as Nole hits the ball for a winner from even behind the baseline. He may be out of form or confidence, but his signature stroke, the backhand down the line, is always to be watched out for.
With such variety and strength on the less important wing, Djokovic can confidently use his backhand as a “weapon” to end points, rather than as a means to set up a forehand.
Winner: Novak Djokovic
Special Mention: Marat Safin’s jumping backhand is one of the favorite delights of the author.
Women’s Contenders: Serena Williams, Kim Clijsters, Justine Henin, Maria Sharapova, Caroline Wozniacki
Winner: Kim Clijsters
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