Evolution of the Two-handed Backhand
The Fosbury Flop, Titanium Drivers, Turbo-chargers, Two-handed Backhands… What do all these things have in common? They are all innovations that helped revolutionize their respective sports. And, the two-handed backhand in tennis is arguably, one of the greatest technical innovations any sport has seen.
Amazingly, of all the historic tennis competitors, virtually no one utilized the stroke until 100 years after the sport was invented! I find this even more interesting since many sports - namely baseball, cricket, hockey, and golf - used two-handed swing patterns during that same period.
The 1970’s, a decade known for bell bottoms, disco, and polyester leisure suits, was also a remarkable decade for the sport of tennis. During this period, the game experienced an incredible surge of popularity. With the proliferation of new tennis facilities across the country and large purses of prize money offered in professional tournaments, tennis became big business. In 1973, over 50,000 spectators and millions more through television coverage, watched the tennis spectacle of the decade: Billie Jean King defeating Bobby Riggs in a $100,000 “Battle of the Sexes.”
The 70’s were also the decade when skilled players began emerging onto the tennis scene utilizing the two-handed backhand, a stroke that would begin a significant transformation of the game for the next thirty years.
Two-Hands Makes a Statement
When 17 year-old ingénue, Chris Evert emerged as the number 3 ranked women’s player in the world, people began to take notice of the mechanics of her two-handed backhand and its role in helping make her a formidable champion. At 18, Chris Evert turned pro and promptly earned over $150,000 her rookie year on tour…a lot of money in 1973!
Even as players like Borg and Connors began to dominate the game, it would be years before the stroke to gain widespread acceptance.
That same year, two male players whose names would become synonymous with high-caliber tennis: Bjorn Borg and Jimmy Connors, first came to prominence. Both men would reign as enduring champions and both used two-handed backhands to accomplish this. At 20, Connors became one of the youngest American men to be ranked number one (Pancho Gonzalez also was ranked number one twenty-five years earlier).
Interestingly, even as these players dominated men's and women’s tennis for the next ten years, few other top contenders followed their lead and employed the two-handed backhand. American Harold Solomon would be one of few notable men to use the shot in the 70’s. Among the women, American teen-sensation Tracy Austin was one of the few who would adopt the stroke. The shot arguably helped her go on to become the number one ranked American female player in 1980.
Why Two Hands?
As I mentioned in my earlier articles on the Evolution of the Game, the first two-handed backhands were more a happenstance than a calculated stroke preference. Evert was actually discouraged by her father/coach Jimmy Evert and Borg simply found the two-handed backhand a logical crossover skill developed from his slap shot used when he played hockey as a child.
Mats Wilander was among the first of the new breed of two-handers, but his greatest success came after he added a one-handed slice to his game.
While Connors was before Borg, (by a year in terms of major titles, Connors won the doubles at the French in 1973 and the U.S. Pro Singles title that same year, Borg won Davis cup matches in 1972 and 1973 but his first major was the French, in singles in 1974), they existed essentially in the exact same time frame.
Connors' backhand can be traced to his mother and grandmother's initial training, probably recognizing that Connors, not a big kid by any means, would do better early on with a two-hander.
However, two-hander players who subsequently emulated these champions, (or those who would teach the stroke), discovered an overall advantage in several components of the shot. These advantages can be traced to the evolution and increased use of topspin in the modern game.
Players quickly found the two-hand mechanics made for a more stable and repeatable topspin stroke pattern. The use of the off-hand in pulling the racquet up the back of the ball through contact helped considerably not just in developing the topspin stroke itself, but in the increase of potential topspin as players looked to hit the ball harder. And these advantages held true for beginners and advanced players alike.
Two-hand Dominance Takes its Time
It would take the tennis teaching establishment time to recognize what these champions had demonstrated: the two-handed backhand was not a fluke. Although few other top-ranked players would emerge into the limelight with the two-handed backhand during the early 1980s, it was becoming increasingly more popular with the youth of that era.
By the end of that decade, a slew of top young two-handed players were starting to materialize in the pro ranks. Americans, Mary Joe Fernandez and Andre Agassi along with Swede, Mats Wilander were among the first of this new breed and by 1989, American Michael Chang and Spain’s Arantxa Sanchez Vicario, both two-handed backhand players, unexpectedly took top honors at the French Open Championships.
The 1990’s ushered in more and more men and women champions who were using this stroke. These included Jim Courier, Goran Ivanisevic, Yevgeny Kafelnikov, Todd Martin among the men and Jennifer Capriati, Monica Seles, Conchita Martinez, Mary Pierce, Lindsay Davenport, Martina Hingis, and Serena and Venus Williams among the women.
Note both Clijsters and Dokic hit their backhands with the forearm and racquet forming a straight line from the elbow to the top of the racquet.
Because of the mechanics, the basic structure of the two-handed backhand is very similar among most players who use it. However, there are a few players who have created variations of the two-handed backhand, which are noteworthy.
Most two-handed backhand players adopt a Continental grip for the lower dominant hand while the top hand usually takes on an Eastern Forehand grip. In other words, for right-handed players, the backhand resembles a left-handed forehand with the left hand. This grip alignment allows the player to keep the racquet parallel with the forearm of the dominant hand.
Jim Courier used a strong Eastern backhand grip and hit the ball extremely far out in front.
Most of these players keep their dominant arm’s elbow near the body through contact, utilizing the elbow as a fulcrum (See photos of Clijsters and Dokic above). The left arm (for right-handers) clearly resembles the form of a left-handed forehand. This differs from most one-handed backhands, which utilize an Eastern backhand grip on the single, dominant hand. The Eastern backhand grip generally creates a right angle between the racquet and the forearm of the hitting arm.
Notable exceptions to this conventional backhand would include four rather distinct variations.
If you took the traditional one-handed backhand utilizing a strong Eastern backhand grip, and hit it with two hands, you would closely resemble Jim Courier’s two-handed backhand. Courier would hit the ball extremely far out in front of him with the dominant arm held straight and rigid. The left arm would pivot the racquet head up for topspin in a “windshield wiper” action.
Certainly one of the innovators in the development of the two-handed backhand, Jimmy Connors created a simple, yet aggressive stroke that would set the trend in motion for future generations of dual-handed backhand players.
Bjorn Borg's backhand resembled a hockey player taking a slap shot.
Connors, like Courier, maintained a relatively straight left arm, (his dominant, being left-handed.) Driving the ball with minimal topspin, Connors utilized the shot for low depth, certainly contributing to his all-court style of play. However, unlike Courier, Connors favored a Continental grip for his dominant hand. (Although, some might say it was a hybrid grip that was somewhat closer to an Eastern forehand grip than a Continental.)
Hockey player turned tennis player, Bjorn Borg fascinated the tennis public with not only a steely mental temperament, but a unique and effective topspin two-handed backhand. Following the advent of greater topspin by predecessors, Rod Laver and others, Borg took the concept of topspin to another level. Borg’s form really did resemble a hockey player ready to backhand a slap shot.
Notably, Borg used a Continental grip on his right hand, his dominant, and very nearly a Continental grip on his left hand. The unique feature of his backhand was his backswing. Borg would lift his left elbow often above his left shoulder bringing the hands high into his side. Unlike a traditional loop swing, this was almost a straight back swing pattern, giving Borg time to move to the ball with the racquet literally back and up prior to him even reaching a ball. His subsequent whip down and back up the ball was indeed almost a slapping motion.
Andre Agassi uses a straight dominant arm throughout the course of his swing.
Agassi has been called one of the finest return-of-serve players in all of tennis. His short compact swing on both his forehand and his two-handed backhand have helped make his groundstrokes a formidable weapon. His form most closely resembles Jimmy Connors’ form, with a straight dominant arm through the course of his swing. However, he hits the ball with a bit more closed racquet face and greater brush up on the ball giving his backhand significantly more topspin.
Agassi favors a Continental grip on the dominant side, and very nearly a Continental grip on the top hand. Not unlike Fred Perry in the 1930’s who would often take the ball on the rise with his body driving forward adding pace to his shots, Agassi often takes both his forehand and backhand groundstrokes early on the rise after the bounce, helping to add pace to his strokes.
The pattern of player development has favored the more traditional two-handed backhand form, with fewer players preferring any distinctively different variations. Any innovations in the shot have been predominately focused on changes in footwork. Today, the two-handed backhand is being hit with both open and closed stances, with players looking to gain an edge in quickness and recovery.
Gustavo Kuerten's one-handed backhand is one of the most beautiful and effective in the game.
While the two-handed backhand has become the dominant stroke among both men and women professionals, we still see a considerable number of high-ranking players still implementing strong one-handed backhands. Players like Justine Henin-Hardenne and Amelie Mauresmo on the women’s tour and Pete Sampras and Gustavo Kuerten among the men.
Watch these talented players hit and you will see the same characteristics that top two-handers possess: Stability, repeatable swing patterns and significant topspin. The question for any developing player is: which stroke should they explore? Obviously, if players develop the key characteristics I just mentioned—and with earlier success—using the two-handed backhand, it stands to reason that more and more players will emerge among the highly skilled using the two-handed backhand. However, it has been shown that skilled one-handed backhands can compete equally with skilled two-handed strokes.
Tennis strategies arguably contribute to the use of one or two hands. Attacking players tend to favor one handed strokes with their ability to charge the net faster using one-handed stroke patterns. Sampras, Rafter and Henman add credibility to this argument!
Whether the backhand continues to evolve will remain to be seen. However, in the course of thirty years, we have seen a remarkable change in the shot among many top players and champions of the sport.
Your comments are welcome. Let us know what you think about this article by emailing us here at TennisONE.
David W. Smith is the Director of Tennis for the St. George Tennis Academy in St. George Utah. He has been a featured writer in USPTA’s magazine ADDvantage in addition to having over 50 published articles in various publications. David has taught over 3000 players including many top national and world ranked players. Dave is also a member of Wilson Racquet Sports Speaker's Bureau. He can be reached at ACRpres1@msn.com