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The one-handed backhand takes another step towards extinction: “Everything goes against this style”

Pete Sampras
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BUENOS AIRES – When the ATP ranking became official, on August 23rd, 1973, nine of the ten best tennis players in the world had one-handed backhands. Jimmy Connors, the tenth best player in the world according to that first official record, was the one who ruined the perfect statistic for tennis players of that style that today lives in full decline.

Almost 51 years have passed and on February 19th, 2024 the story is told diametrically different. Stefanos Tsitsipas, was the last member of that species that still inhabited the top ten, but this Monday woke up in the eleventh place on the list. Alex de Miñaur took his place. Now all the elite tennis players hit the ball with both hands on the backhand side. For the first time in the history of the ranking.

“It’s a pity that we have run out of referents in the top 10, but these are things that happen. Tennis is evolving fast and even though I think that the one-handed backhand is the most beautiful in tennis, the two-handed backhand can defend a little better with the serves that exist today and the speed with which it is played,” Horacio Zeballos, owner of a one-handed backhand, told CLAY. A left-handed one, which once beat Rafael Nadal in a final on clay (Viña del Mar, 2013).

The Argentine, former 39th in the world in singles and one of the best doubles players today, believes that the momentary disappearance of the one-handed backhand in the top ten is a sign that “tennis continues to improve”, and that despite the decline of exponents of such an aesthetic shot, the good show on the court will continue for a long time.

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Roger Federer
Roger Federer, one of the last great champions with a one-handed backhand

Zeballos explains that although the two-handed backhand is what should generally be taught to children when they are learning tennis, instincts should be respected: “The backhand is natural. Every kid is born with that instinct to hit the backhand one-handed or two-handed, depending on how he feels more comfortable. If I had to teach, I would opt for two hands, precisely because of the speeds of the competition nowadays.”

“Returning a 220 kilometers per hour serve with one hand is very tough. The exception would be if the kid comes and tells me he feels it with one hand. There I say, ‘obviously let’s go with your instincts,” explains the three-time Grand Slams finalist in doubles alongside Spaniard Marcel Granollers.

“It’s dying out thanks to how powerful tennis is in professionalism today. Playing the two-handed backhand gives you more control to use all that power,” Dusan Lajovic, one of the oldest surviving one-handed backhand tennis players on the singles tour, tells CLAY.

“I personally like the one-handed backhand, I play it myself, and I like it more when I watch it. It gives diversity to the sport. But look at how the surfaces are today, the balls, the strength of the players. Everything plays against the one-handed backhand and takes away options to diversify styles. We see fewer different styles of play. Everything is so powerful,” adds the Serb.

In the past, tennis players didn’t have the physical preparation of today. Playing with a two-handed backhand meant running half a meter more to one side, and then to the other to find a comfortable position.

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“Today, they hit it the way it comes, from the front, from the back, with their legs open. The sport as physical as it is today forced to modify the techniques”, journalist Guillermo Salatino analyzes with CLAY. The Argentine covered almost 150 Grand Slam tournaments since 1977 and saw closely the evolution of tennis and the slow approach of the stroke to extinction.

Stefanos Tsitsipas
Stefanos Tsitsipas dropped out of the top ten. For the first time there is no one-handed backhand representation in the elite group

Not a bright future for the one-handed backhand

Are there any young projects in men’s tennis that keep the hopes of the classic romantics alive for the future?

“You can see the guys coming up playing with the one-handed backhand and there are fewer and fewer of them,” says Lajovic.

Looking at the list, few U25 exponents loom among the top 300 in the world. Lorenzo Mussetti is the only young player with a successful projection. Meanwhile, Frenchman Giovanni Mpetshi Perricard is in good shape at the age of 20, playing in the qualifiers of major tournaments. There is no more than that.

The elegance of Roger Federer’s stroke, the whiplashes of Stan Wawrinka and Ivan Lendl, the left-handed magic of Guillermo Vilas, the effectiveness of Stefan Edberg and the slaps on the run by Pete Sampras are references that are less and less transferred to the new generations.

The dominant one-handed backhands are being kept in the archive.

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