Every player in tennis has what could be considered a signature shot. The one-handed backhand has often laid claim to the most beautiful of signature shots. From Roger Federer to Justine Henin, the rare swing has yielded many a poetic phrase in praise. Yet, one two-handed stroke threatens the hegemony of backhanded beauty.
A signature shot indeed, Kei Nishikori’s backhand is calligraphy at its finest. It has painted lines on courts across the world throughout his emergence as a top player in 2014. His deep runs at tournaments like Madrid and the US Open have seen this shot at its stylish best, and it continues to be dangerously beautiful at his home tournament in Tokyo this week.
Very much unlike last week’s #SaturdayNightShot, where the Bouchard forehand subverts aesthetics for effectiveness, the potent Nishikori backhand is not contrasted by its visuals, and is appealing to both the eye and the tennis court.
Paired with his speedy movement, Nishikori’s silky technique has always been a staple of his game. But while his forehand has historically been the groundstroke most likely to break down in crucial moments, the backhand holds strong as both sword and shield in many key match-ups on the ATP Tour.
It was particularly lethal in his career-best win against Novak Djokovic – ironically a player widely considered to have the best two-handed backhand – in the US Open semifinals, as well as in his first Masters 1000 final in Madrid against Nadal, before he was beset by a back injury.
The shot is not a complicated one: a quick takeback followed by a sharp acceleration, complete with handy snap of the wrist to give his shots both height over the net and bite into the court, evidenced by its success on all surfaces. Nishikori’s hand-eye coordination is exceptional, and often hits the “sweet spot” of his racquet on the backhand side which, coupled with the near-perfect technique, makes that wing his most fearsome.
Below is a list of hits and misses for “Special K’s” backhand: every great shot has it ups, but they all have their downs as well.
| HITS |
-Nishikori takes his backhand extremely early, yet hits it as if he has had all the time in the world. In taking time away from his opponent, it allows him to dictate rallies with more authority.
-He can hit the shot with both a closed stance and an open stance, meaning he can hit clean and devastating shots on both defense and offense. This also makes it quite difficult to read.
-The US Open finalist is able to change the ball direction with ease: up and down the lines, crosscourt and down the middle all require little adjustment due to his effective transference of body weight.
-Nishikori also possesses a decent slice and drop shot off that wing, further adding to his variety and making the shot that much more potent on all surfaces.
| MISSES |
-It’s hard to argue that there’s such a thing as “too many options,” but occasionally the Nishikori backhand has faltered when he goes for too much: down-the-line shots tend to clip the top of the net in matches where his focus goes awry.
-As seen in his US Open final, fatigue is the crux of his backhand’s failure. When his legs aren’t working, neither can this shot.
| CONCLUSION |
While Nishikori’s body has, in the past, tended to lower the glass ceiling of his potential, his scheduling and fitness appear to have finally caught up with the faculty of his tennis. His two-handed backhand is a world-class shot, both in terms of aesthetic and effect, and has been the foundation upon which he has built a world-class game.