The Top 10 Backhands in Men's Tennis today
Thrust a tennis racquet into my hands and ask me to have my best shot at something, and I would, instinctively, go for a powerful crosscourt forehand on a camera (see I am a tennis fan and I respect McEnroe’s aversion to certain things), spanking it so hard until it is shatters totally. I would not try attempting something different by striking it from the back of my hand because I know full well that power does not get generated there. That’s why it is quite amazing to see some of the world’s best tennis players using their backhand more than their forehand, considering the former as their preferred choice. And they seem to be doing it quite well too. While some operate it with one hand, displaying grace and elegance, many others do it with both hands, exhibiting control combined with power. Having briefed enough about this shot – with no interest in keeping you waiting for very long – let me quickly rank the players in the men’s game based on the consistency and potency with which they play the backhand.
10. Nicolas Almagro
If you are aware of his nationality then you would be surprised to see his style of play. You would be left wondering as to how a man from Spain – a place where you don’t get to see surfaces other than red clay (Madrid’s blue is a recent innovation) – was taught to play with a one-handed backhand (well, Tommy Robredo also surprises you for the same reason.) Believe it or not, he does not use more than one hand and in fact he, right now, has one of the best single-handed backhands in the world today. Interestingly, he considers his forehand to be his favourite shot, though he is not as well- known for it. He can pummel the tennis ball from the baseline off his backhand, striking it with immense power. His short stature is probably something which cripples his game during continuous baseline exchanges, forcing him to make errors as the match goes longer. However, he gets tons of winners off his backhand and especially it them well down the line.
9. Mardy Fish
This American is one of those millions in the ATP who employ both hands while dealing with the backhand. But for his forehand, he is almost a maven in all other things such as serve, volley and to an extent even in service return. However, he is most solid off his backhand with which he sets up most of his points from the baseline. Not known to be a swift mover, he overcomes this lacuna by trying to finish off the points with thumping shots, effectively played off his backhand. Minimum of errors and fantastic control are the characteristics of his backhand play. At times, he also uses the slice backhand to good effect.
This man from Switzerland is quite opposite to his Davis Cup team mate in terms of his strengths and weaknesses. While Roger Federer is exceptional with his forehand, Stan is incredible with his one-handed backhand. Though there is not much to choose between him and Almagro, I am ranking the former just ahead of the Spaniard simply because he is more consistent with his backhand. He can stand toe to toe with the proficient baseliners on surfaces such as clay and hard courts. He has a very good passing shot that he plays very effectively. He is equally adept at hitting both cross court and down the line winners.
He got booed by the crowd at the Melbourne Park this year during the Australian Open for behaving arrogantly by refusing to shake hands with Nicholas Almagro after his fourth round victory. But ignoring his haters, he made amends by registering an improbable victory over Roger Federer in the quarter finals of the US Open later in the year. And it is needless to say how vigorous his groundstrokes were, as they shook the Swiss off his game totally. The “Bird man” cannot fly but he can certainly make some punishing backhand shots fly past his opponents. It is quite difficult for an opponent to handle him from the baseline if he gets his power game working from the early going.
6. Marin Cilic
Though he looks pretty lean, this man from Croatia, standing 1.98 m tall, fires his backhand with immense power. The most beautiful part of his game is his footwork which helps him execute his shots perfectly. The more you see him working on the tennis courts, the more disappointed you get, wondering how a man of such immense potential has not progressed to earn even a Masters title, leave alone a Grand Slam. In fact, in most of his matches he starts off well, gaining control right from the beginning and striking backhands as well as anyone can imagine. But later on, somehow he loses focus and control as the games go longer which is the reason for most of his debacles. But he still has age and time on his side and I only hope he justifies his credentials by winning at least one Major in the near future.
5. Nikolay Daveydenko
With Daveydenko, you can never know where you should be present at the baseline to counter his groundstrokes. He is extremely nimble across the court and at times, even takes half volleys off his backhand quite easily. With one of the most conventional grips in the game, he hardly commits errors while striking the ball. He makes you run from corner to corner on the baseline with his persistent backhand approach. He can switch from crosscourt to down the line in no time. He generates amazing spin out of his backhand, probably better than most of the others. The sad part is – his backhand has never been the same since the 2009 World Tour Finals, which he won.
Gasquet’s one-handed backhand is one of the best things to have happened to men’s tennis. I am saying this because he remains the only hope for kids aspiring to become professionals with the one-handed backhand as their playing style. Known as “Baby Federer” during the early stages of his career, his on-field behaviour and professionalism are almost the same as that of the great Swiss Maestro. For those who blindly believe that playing with one hand is a liability, his game is a slap in the face. His technique and execution of top spin are second to none. Awesome is one word with which you can describe his groundstrokes, and he looks really elegant while playing them. This man from France is one of the few all-court players going around in the current era. Normally, one-handed backhands are criticized for lack of accuracy but his is an exception. I would pay to watch him weave his magic on the court.
3. Andy Murray
His two-handed backhand has long been one of the best in the business and of late he has improved it even more, having developed his own version of the slice. He uses the slice defensively exceedingly well nowadays for setting up points. He makes running backhand down-the-line winners look rather ridiculously easy. Compared to his forehand, his backhand is miles ahead in its quality. He plays some fantabulous lobs out of nowhere off his backhand. The great thing about his game is his unpredictability since he plays with so much variety. His passing shots are very difficult to counter for his opponents as he negotiates them cleverly when they approach the net. Above all, he is very strong with his backhand returns, even off first serves. The backhand of Murray is his biggest asset.
2. David Nalbandian
This Argentine is one man who can make even the double-handed backhand look elegant and pleasing. He creates mind-blowing angles from the baseline, even when standing in a totally hopeless position. Forceful backhand diagonals and passing shots are the highlights of his game. He has impeccable footwork and technique with which he hits the shot. Since he has a big swing coupled with heavy top spin, he bamboozles his opponents who, in turn, struggle to keep the ball in play. If you have not seen the quality of his backhand, you must see a video of his US Open match last year (2011) against Nadal, a match that Nalbandian ended up losing. The first set was close to becoming a one-sided affair before Nadal started turning things around. However, before the Spaniard woke up, the Argentine was all over him with some unbelievable shot-making. Though he is primarily a baseliner, he shortens the points by gaining control over the rallies and hitting winners in the blink of an eye.
The current World No.1 has been doing everything right since 2011. Every aspect of his game has improved vastly and all of a sudden he looks to be the man to beat in all tournaments. If his forehand has improved two-fold, his backhand has improved three-fold. Seriously, that double handed backhand down the line is something for which even fleet-footed players like Nadal and Murray seem to have no answers. Since developing that shot, he has become a better player on clay courts than he was before. And that drop shot off his backhand is simply one of the most majestic displays ever seen in the world of tennis. He is not only powerful with his groundstrokes but is equally efficient in dispatching the ball for winners. He unleashes more errors to start with but as the game gets going, the errors disappear in a hurry. That’s when he gets control of the game and once he does it, his backhand works astonishingly well. He keeps hitting crosscourt backhands to his opponent’s wrong side and once he corners the opponent, he switches mode easily, playing the down the line winner which hardly ever misses its target.
These, according to me, are the top 10 backhands in the game today. However, no article on tennis can be complete without mentioning the name of Federer. Though I could not label his backhand as one of the best in the game, he certainly plays some standout shots which cannot be taken lightly. He may not produce a muscular backhand like Gasquet but he can really shock his adversaries on the other side of the court by the angles he creates. Who can forget the running back hand down-the-line passing shot winner which he hit during the final at Wimbledon 2008 against Nadal when he was down match point! If that was a shot to be remembered, then how about that one which came off his racquet in the Shanghai Masters semifinals against Murray! When the ball was expected to be just returned to the Scot (something normal players would do from that position), he played a down-the-line winner from an unbalanced position, standing on his toes. He knows how to play the backhand alright, but this is the shot which has quite often proved to be his Achilles’ heel because he commits more errors while playing it. But wait – if you take just the backhand slice as a shot, then it has to be said that he plays it better than anyone in the game today.Published 16 Dec 2012, 22:50 IST