Roger Federer made one-handed backhands an art form, but now it is dying out

By | February 20, 2024

There’s no one around who can match Roger Federer’s glorious backhand in the era of double-fisted power shots

More than a year after his retirement, Roger Federer remains the poster child for the one-handed backhand – the most aesthetic stroke in tennis. Yet he could also be the key to its demise.

When the ATP rankings were updated on Monday, there was no single-hander in the world’s top 10 for the first time since the chart’s inauguration, all the way back in 1973.

The shift represents a victory for the modern style of power-baseline tennis, as opposed to all-court mastery or net play. Some causes are systemic, such as changing racket technology. Others are more personal, such as Federer’s fight against Rafael Nadal.

“You go back to that period around 2003 and 2004 and Roger was so dominant,” says British coach Calvin Betton. “But then Rafa came along and started hitting big, high-bouncing balls into Federer’s backhand. When Rafa rose to the top in their rivalry, it created a stigma for the single-hander.”

The Swiss Federer hands the ball back to the Spaniard NadalThe Swiss Federer hands the ball back to the Spaniard Nadal

Rafael Nadal started to bully Federer’s backhand at Roland Garros – Benoit Tessie / Reuters

Granted, Federer upgraded his backhand late in his career and won six of his last seven meetings with Nadal, slightly reversing the overall balance. (The scorecard ended at 24-16 in Nadal’s favor.)

But the damage had already been done. The image of Federer swinging back and forth with shoulder-height backhands, especially on the high-bouncing clay of Roland Garros, had sunk deep into the sporting consciousness.

Nadal’s dominance over Federer lasted more than a decade – from 2005 to 2016 – and embodied a broader stylistic change within the game. This was the period when natural gut strings were being phased out by polyester. This was tennis’s answer to the Roland synthesizer, which pushed traditional pianos out of recording studios during the 1980s.

Polyester strings last longer, provide more spin and give you more power. The disadvantage, however, is that they offer less sensation than the natural alternatives.

If there is a player who embodies the mechanical style of polyester tennis, it is recent Australian Open champion Jannik Sinner, who won twelve of twelve in matches this year in Rotterdam. Sinner, the owner of a punishing double-hander, is technically sound and ruthlessly powerful, but has so little touch that he could almost play with oven gloves. For better or for worse, this is the modern way.

Jannik Sinner extends a backhandJannik Sinner extends a backhand

Jannik Sinner uses a brutal two-handed backhand, packed with power – Piroschka Van De Wou/Reuters

The near extinction of the one-handed backhand represents a grim scenario. While Sinner’s physical explosiveness makes him an entertaining watch, no spectator wants uniformity. A day on the Center Court of Wimbledon could be the sporting answer to Attack Of The Clones.

Barring the emergence of a dominant one-hander who can match Federer’s feats, it seems unlikely that this narrative will shift in the opposite direction. And one reason is the increasing emphasis placed on success at a young age.

Promising players are picked up by management agencies and national federations when they are still in their teens or even younger. Still, it’s difficult to swing with one arm if you’re not physically developed – which is why Pete Sampras didn’t make the switch until the age of 14. As a coach, you take a risk by teaching this increasingly outdated shot, hoping that things will work out as a player gets stronger in the coming years.

The sight of a photogenic one-hander in full flow is one of tennis’s greatest pleasures. The seductive beauty of Richard Gasquet’s single-hander earned him the nickname “Le Petit Mozart” – the ultimate backhanded compliment.

In two of the ATP Tour’s most spectacular performances in recent years, maestros defeated Novak Djokovic with one hand. Think of Stan Wawrinka at the 2015 French Open final, and Dominic Thiem at the ATP Finals in 2020. Both times, Djokovic saw backhand winners fly past him from all sides.

Overall, though, Djokovic has won far more of these battles than he has lost. As the owner of the most reliable two-hander in history, he is also building an unanswerable case for being considered the best player overall. That’s just one reason why modern coaches feel like the one-handed ship has sailed.

“At its very best, the one-hander gives you more spin and more power than a two-hander,” says Betton. “But to be able to hit like that you need a big upper body, like a Wawrinka or a Thiem. Those guys can attack from the backhand and hit winners from behind the baseline. They can use their strength to absorb the pace of the modern game and create their own pace. However, in general, it is more common for people to be bullied with one hand.

“I would like to say that there is a new generation of single-handers emerging at Challenger level [the next tier down from the ATP Tour] but I just don’t see it. The only exception is this 6-foot-4 French guy named Giovanni Mpetshi Perricard, who has the same powerful body I mentioned earlier. Otherwise the one-hander will swim against the current.”

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