The Fragility of the One-Handed Backhand

Gasquet strikes an instant-YouTube backhand winner off a Roger Federer smash at Wimbledon in 2021. Screenshot: Wimbledon

It’s difficult to watch Richard Gasquet play Rafael Nadal and not feel bad for the former. Such is the blend of their playing styles that Gasquet is regularly forced to hit his one-handed backhand at chest height, or at neck height, or while making an extreme stretch to his left. It must be like going about a regular day with one arm tied behind your back. Nadal gets to do what he likes: he can hit forehands without too much risk or pace and Gasquet will still be made deeply uncomfortable. Nadal has other advantages — he is better on both forehand and backhand (even ignoring his affinity for forcing Gasquet to hit high backhands), he is a better defender and returner, and he has mastered all the little intangibles of tennis in a way Gasquet can’t touch — but the meat of the matchup is decided by that Nadal forehand/Gasquet backhand pattern. It’s how Nadal has built a terrifying 18-0 record in their head-to-head.

Throughout edition 18 of the matchup, commentators danced right up to the line of saying it was impossible for Gasquet to win. He had a few early break points, but within an hour, he was down 0-6, 0-2, the result already sealed in several layers of stone. This was where the pity hit hardest for me — Gasquet knew he had lost as well as anyone else, but he had to play out the superfluous last few games. He was like the sacrificial movie good guy who gets their ass thoroughly kicked by the villain, showing the audience that the villain isn’t screwing around. “This would be a nice moment,” a commentator said when Gasquet had a game point at 0-3 in the second set. “Come on, Richard.” The crowd went wild when Gasquet at last broke the ice. He celebrated ironically, lifting his arms to heaven.

Gasquet takes pride in his backhand. He gave a list of his top five one-handed backhands in his autobiography and put his own second, behind Stan Wawrinka’s. Yet against Nadal, it spells his doom, time and again, because it can’t survive the topspin barrage. He hit one winner with it in the entire match tonight. Before the match, Brad Gilbert asked Nadal what he needed to do to beat Gasquet. Nadal said he had to play great, better than in previous rounds, which was a lie, because all Nadal ever needs to do to beat Gasquet is hit crosscourt forehands.

Nadal is a seasoned tormentor of one-handers, but unfortunately for Gasquet and others, Nadal is merely an extreme manifestation of the challenges their style poses, not an anomaly. Indeed, one-handed backhands are about as noticeable as a tennis Achilles’ heel can get. Nowadays, most top players have massive serves (those who don’t can usually hit pinpoint targets at slower speeds), and one-handed backhands can’t handle the heat. Every ATP player in the top 30 with a one-handed backhand — Stefanos Tsitsipas (5), Grigor Dimitrov (19), Denis Shapovalov (21), Dan Evans (23), and Lorenzo Musetti (30) — is a subpar returner of serve. In the past 52 weeks, each of these players’ return performance lags well behind their ranking. Dimitrov is the least problematic at 28th, but each of the others suffer a gap of at least ten spots: Tsitsipas is 32nd, Evans is 37th, Musetti is 46th, and Shapovalov is a dire 69th.

Though forehand returns are also relevant, this is a damning trend. Even Federer, who is probably the best ever at blocking back massive first serves with a one-hander, has historically struggled to convert break points and punish second serves. With the return of serve being an increasingly necessary part of the game to excel at — it’s no coincidence that Djokovic and Nadal are two of the best returners of all time — you have to wonder why anyone would play with a one-handed backhand in today’s landscape. Even imagining trying to return serve with a one-hander is hell: you’re gripping a heavy stick with one hand, motioning across the torso rather than parallel to it, attempting to parry a 135 mph rocket. The timing required to get a clean hit on the ball, much less punch it back deep in the court, is not something I’d ever want to pursue, because I know I’d never find it. (Not that I would have a chance with two hands either, but at least my despairing arms would have each other.)

Users of the one-handed backhand themselves agree. Roger Federer has openly said he’d teach the two-handed backhand nowadays. Dominic Thiem has said the same. In 2014, Roberta Vinci told Michael Steinberger of the New York Times, “the one-hander is so hard; they play so strong now.”

And yet, there’s a palpable thirst for one-handed backhands in tennis, from fans to commentators. It’s not an uncommon occurrence for a pundit to remark on how nice it is to see a player with a one-handed backhand take the court. People invoke words like “elastic,” “elegant,” or “stylish” to describe one-handers. Later in Steinberger’s Times piece, he wrote, “the one-hander has become the last redoubt of artistry in tennis, a final vestige of the sport as it was traditionally played.” The latter point here is true, tennis today is vastly different from its original version, but the mention of artistry is symptomatic of much of the tennis world’s misunderstanding of one-handed backhands. Artistry, literally, means “creative skill or ability.” Isn’t the two-hander, which was widely taken up to adapt to the increasing stress on baselining in tennis, more representative of creativity than the more historic one-handed backhand?

Much of the demand for one-handed backhands is driven by nostalgia, which I fully understand. (I visit Grantland.com on the daily.) As Dwight Schrute once said, “people underestimate the power of nostalgia. It is one of the great human weaknesses, second only to the neck.” Something about the motion resonates with people; maybe the casual look of the follow-through in contrast with a powerful shot or the pronounced arc of the one arm carving up the ball is what makes the heart sing. But hungering for more one-handed backhands on tour while neglecting to observe the very good reasons that they’re dying out won’t help tennis. It’s like obsessing over how prettily a mediocre artist signs their name. Considering how the sport looks today, with serves only getting bigger and topspin heavier, it makes very little practical sense for anyone to play with a one-handed backhand anymore. What you might gain in slice potency or angle production you’d lose many times over in the return of serve alone. It’s possible to be a great player with a one-handed backhand, of course, but it’s extraordinarily rare if not impossible in today’s game to be a great player because of a one-handed backhand.

At the end of the day, tennis is a competition, not an art form. It’s more than fair to love a player for their visual style, and even for a pundit to appreciate a particularly gorgeous winner. But lamenting the scarcity of one-handed backhands — when the reason for their disappearance is that players are trying to be better at modern tennis — only interferes with fans’ understanding of the sport.

After losing the first two sets to Nadal 6-0, 6-1, Gasquet made a push in the third, striking the ball more cleanly and moving forward to slam-dunk finishing volleys. The crowd cheered lustily, having been starved of the emotional oxygen of a mildly close match all night. There was a sense throughout the stretch that Gasquet’s form wasn’t sustainable, that his low-margin aggression would inevitably lapse as Nadal steadier tennis remained statically reliable, and at 5-all, that was what happened. Nadal closed out the match from there, not looking back. Gasquet’s push was fun while it lasted.

Published by Owen

Owen has been a tennis fan since Roland-Garros in 2016. Initially a Federer fan, his preferences evened out the more tennis he watched and the more he learned. He started a blog (https://racketblog.com/) in early 2019. In the summer of 2021, he got a media credential at the ATP 250 event in Newport, Rhode Island, and got to talk to a few players, including former world No. 5 Kevin Anderson and rising star Jenson Brooksby. Owen will argue to the death that the 2009 Australian Open semifinal between Rafael Nadal and Fernando Verdasco is the greatest match ever, he hates that one-handed backhands are praised so often for their subjective elegance (sucking praise away from the more effective two-handers), and he thinks the best part of tennis is its scoring system, the mental and physical challenge not far behind. You can follow him on Twitter @tennisnation.

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