Federer Hopes And Dimitrov Suggests The One Handed Backhand Is Not Done Yet

Grigor Dimitrov in action ahead of the ATP Shanghai Masters.

Much has been made recently of the fact that with Stefanos Tsitsipas dropping out of the men’s ATP top 10 in late February 2024, it is the first time that the Top 10 has had no players with a one-handed backhand since the ATP rankings came into being over 50 years ago.

Many well-known tennis news sites and blogs have since been signaling the end for the one hander. However, with Grigor Dimitrov’s recent impressive run to the final of the Miami Open we shall see the Bulgarian once again inside the world’s Top 10 at age of 32–and as a result tennis purists all over the world can breathe a sigh of relief, for the moment at least. For his run to the final in Miami, Dimitrov used his single hander to great effect–hitting over it confidently and aggressively when required but also maintaining great depth with the slice when in more trouble on that side.

Roger Federer Has His Say

In a recent candid interview with GQ, tennis legend Roger Federer lamented the apparent decline of the one-handed backhand among the top-ranked men’s players. The ATP’s top players no longer use the single-handed backhand shot, a technique that Federer himself initially struggled with–as did Pete Sampras who moved to the one-hander later in his development–before transforming it into a formidable weapon.

The 20-time Grand Slam champion acknowledged that the one-handed backhand is becoming a rarity in the modern game, calling it “a big loss.” When reminded of the absence of one-handers in the Top 10, the 42-year-old Federer exclaimed, “That’s a dagger right there. I felt that one. That one was personal. I didn’t like that.”

However, Federer also recognized that the scarcity of one-handed backhands sets apart players like himself, Pete Sampras, and Rod Laver, who “carried the torch” for this unique shot for an extended period. “It makes us special,” he said, adding that he still appreciates seeing players like Stan Wawrinka, Richard Gasquet, Tsitsipas, Dominic Thiem, and his good friend Grigor Dimitrov employ the one-handed backhand.

Murray Has His Say

When interviewed in Indian Wells this year by Prakash Amritraj and asked if “One handers are going the way of the dinosaurs,” Andy Murray stated:
“I still think there’s a place for it but I just think players are serving so big consistently now and the return is difficult with the one handed backhand and that’s a big part of it. Guys are serving bigger more consistently and it’s much easier to deal with two hands on the backhand side and with players hitting bigger and bigger from the back of the court the timing is more tricky with the one hander. You better have a good one.”

Power Game

The two-handed backhand has become the preferred choice for the modern power game. This can be attributed to several factors: the slowing down of court surfaces at many major tournaments, advancements in racket technology that enable more spin and control with polyester strings that maintain their tension longer, and the ability of the two-hander to overpower average-sized opponents who use one-handed backhands. In general, players with two-handed backhands can relentlessly attack until the one-hander’s shot breaks down.

However, there are exceptions to this rule. As well as the retired great Roger Federer, Stan Wawrinka, Dominic Thiem, and Richard Gasquet rely on upper body strength and rotation, technique, and timing to hit winners from deep with their one-handed backhands. Their exceptional skills allowed them to overcome the perceived advantages of the two-hander and give the crowd the opportunity to purr over their shot making at the same time.

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Iconic Moments

Let’s reminisce about some iconic one-handed backhand moments. At the 2017 Australian Open, a pivotal point came late on in the match when Federer started stepping into the court and hitting over and early on his backhand against Nadal. This aggressive tactic turned a 1-3 deficit into a 6-3 fifth-set victory. Each time Federer stepped in and let rip on his backhand you could hear the crowd audibly gasp in amazement.

The 2015 French Open also lives long in the memory, when Stan Wawrinka outlasted Djokovic with his accurate power game, especially from the backhand wing causing Djokovic to look to the heavens on numerous occasions with his arms out wide in disbelief at the shot making.

Who could forget the Wimbledon semifinals in 2000 and 2001, where Pat Rafter defeated Andre Agassi in tight matches? Rafter would sometimes rush the net on second serves, chip and place his one-hander, never abandoning his tactics despite Agassi’s baseline prowess. These moments showcased the artistry of the one-handed backhand, eliciting awe from spectators. Matches featuring two-handed backhands, while still high-level, don’t tend to draw the same gasps of admiration from paying fans, regardless of the players involved.

Going Forward

Going forward, the tennis world should consider how it envisions the game evolving. While long, attritional baseline rallies can be enthralling and theatrical for spectators, they can also become repetitive, following similar patterns throughout games, sets, and matches. Fans desire variety and differing style match-ups. They want to witness a range of playing styles on display.

Stefanos Tsitsipas still has time to regain his Top 10 ranking, but his one-handed backhand is undoubtedly a weakness that opponents can exploit, as he lacks the power of players like Dominic Thiem or Stan Wawrinka. However, there is hope for the future of the one-hander. Denis Shapovalov is regaining his touch after injury and loss of form, Lorenzo Musetti has youth on his side, and the young Frenchman Giovanni Mpetshi Perricard boasts an impressive one-handed backhand. Many hope he can carry the torch after the impending retirement of “le petit mozart,” Richard Gasquet.

Main Photo Credit: Robert Deutsch-USA TODAY Sports

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