Like I said in one of my earlier articles, the number of upcoming youngsters who practice tennis with a single-handed backhand is on the decline and the art is getting orphaned as every year goes by. Now, with almost all players adapting themselves to playing two-handed backhands, it is time for us, as tennis fans, to give one final salute soon to this most beautiful aspect of the game.
The way I have chosen to do this is to pick up the ten best single-handed backhanders, not necessarily in order, to have ever played the game. So here we go:
Even more so than among the gentlemen, this art appears to be almost dead now in women’s tennis, and so I feel it is appropriate to start paying my tributes to the shot with a female player who played it with precision and ease.
1. Justine Henin:
Henin was one of the two Belgian women, the other being Kim Clijsters, to dominate the game in the last fifteen years or so. Her retirement signaled the end of the single-handed backhand in women’s tennis, with now very few active players (Francesca Schiavone and Carla Suarez Navarro are the only two that come to mind) still playing with that style. In fact, Henin perfected the one-handed backhand so well that many of the tennis critics compared her play with that of her male compatriots. Her backhand was very fluent, she used this weapon with considerable efficiency, even matching the power games of the William sisters. When she hit a backhand crosscourt, the ball used to travel like a bullet unleashed from a rifle. The free flowing backhand of hers was almost always error-free and so she was able to prevail on many important points. Her winners, cutting across various angles, from anywhere on the baseline, were quite amazing. To me, she is the best single handed backhander to have ever played on the WTA tour.
2. Pete Sampras:
This Greek-American did everything right on a tennis court. When it came to playing with the single-handed backhand, he was no meaner than any other player. The passing shots that he executed off his backhand, almost always turned out to be winners. Known for his powerful serves, Sampras also executed his crosscort backhand with extraordinary ease. Having played tennis in an era when there were only a few baseline maniacs, no one was able to force errors from his racquet off this wing, and so his backhand was not his liability at all. For me, he had the best single-handed backhand during his playing time.
The striking feature of any one-handed backhander was always how he tried approaching the net and finished off the point quickly, until this former World No.1 changed the trend. Lendl was the lone single-handed backhander who was always quite prepared to play from the baseline, thereby fathering the corner-to-corner slug fests of the modern era. May be the existence of a Nadal or a Djokovic during his playing days would have caused him ti repent adopting the baseline game despite being a single-handed backhander. Lendl was fortunate though that neither of those two individuals had even touched a tennis racquet when he played, and as a result, he pocketed every Grand Slam barring Wimbledon. Grass is for cows, you see.
4. Richard Gasquet:
He is a Frenchman, which is why it is puzzling that he chose to be a single-handed backhander. Despite growing up in France which hosts the only Grand Slam played on clay, he seemed to have never had second thoughts about this shot, and that can be seen from the way he has mastered hitting winners with his one-handed backhand. The “thud” that one can hear when a ball is hit off his backhand indicates the immense power with which he strikes it. So confident is he with his backhand that he rarely seeks the aid of his forehand. In the modern game, Gasquet has one of the best one-handed backhands, but somehow he has not been able to stand toe-to-toe with the baseline maniacs of today.
5. Nicholas Almagro:
As rare as it is to see a single-handed backhander emerging from France, when it comes to Spain, the phenomenon can happen only once in a blue moon. Amidst the Juan Carlos Ferreros, Nadals and Ferrers, Almagro is one player who does not believe in using two hands to play anything which comes on his wrong side. The elegance of his one-handed backhand is something worth watching. Though he has not had too many success stories with his style of play, we cannot overlook the fact that he is willing to play in a traditional style even if it hasn’t fetched him too many returns.
6. Grigor Dimitrov:
When he finally hangs up his boots, maybe ten years down the line, he will probably be greeted with a red carpet welcome in Bulgaria for being the last professional to have ever played the game with a single-handed backhand. Either that, or he would have tasted so much success at the Grand Slam level that his successors would readily take up his style of play. Looking at his game today, the latter seems to be a really remote possibility. Very soon, the single-handed backhand is going to be shelved permanently. If a player desires success in today’s game, he is almost forced to play with the double-hander, which indicates that this “baby Federer” might be among the last persons to play with a one-handed backhand.
7. Boris Becker:
I searched with vigor, but I was forced to go back again to the past to pick another great single-handed backhander, because the current set of players like Kohlschreiber and Robredo are not players who can be labeled truly great in this aspect. So I got into the late part of 1980s and early half of 1990s, and picked Boris Becker as one of the great one handed backhand exponents of the game. Though the German played with one-handed backhand, he never relied on it so much the Sampras or Gasquet did. Becker would, almost instinctively, go straight to the net to finish off the point rather than relying on a neat backhand crosscourt winner from the baseline. Nevertheless, he could hit his backhand with considerable precision, and he always came up with the goods when he needed it. Not to mention that this German had one of the most stylish one handed backhanders of all time.
8. Stefan Edberg:
When you mention Becker, you cannot refrain from talking about Edberg. Becker and Edberg had many wars during their playing days, much like Djokovic and Nadal of the current bunch of players. Edberg’s backhand looked even more graceful than that of the German, and you could always see the time which his wrist watch indicated when he played it. Though he was never known for his power in the execution of his shots, the placement of his backhands was always worth noticing
9. Patrick Rafter:
This two-time US open champion, on account of his successes against Pete Sampras and Agassi, deserves a mention when it comes to counting the best single-handed backhanders of the game. Not only was he considered sexy for his physical appearance, but he was also deemed graceful and elegant as a player. His backhand was at par with that of Sampras and he could always play a forcing shot off his backhand, either down the line or crosscourt. And just like the quintessential single-handed backhander, he never stuck to the baseline, and his aggressive style of play was always a treat to watch.
10. Roger Federer:
Critics might say that the backhand is a weakness in Roger’s game, but who really cares? Federer has played with this shot and won a record 16 Grand Slams and had 74 titles overall. So should it really matter to him what others say? Perhaps because of the invasion of the fleet-footed youngsters in recent years, Federer has tried going for more with his backhand, which has made it erratic, but nonetheless it is with this same backhand that he has played some of his most remarkable shots. One such winner came when he sprinted down the line to hit a winner past Nadal while he was down match point in the 2008 Wimbledon final. Be it down the line or cross court or even slice, no one has ever played the this shot as elegantly as Federer. While I don’t agree that Federer’s backhand is his weak link, I do admit that that it is comparatively less penetrating than his forehand. But that’s just because his forehand is such a superlative shot.
So these are, in my opinion, the ten best single-handed backhands of the game. Before the coffin carrying the single-handed backhand is buried, this is one last tribute to this dying art.