“You’re so much fun when you’ve had a bit to drink!”
“Have you lost weight? You look great!”
“Your backhand has become so much less of a liability!”
One of these (backhanded) compliments is not like others. Yet if you ask Milos Raonic, he’d have to sympathize with the latter. No matter how backhanded such a statement may seem, the 23-year-old Canadian’s backhand shot really has made leagues of improvement, and it is the subject of this week’s #SaturdayNightShots.
No one – least of all Raonic himself – can deny that the baackhand has been the weakest part of his explosive, authoritarian game. Raonic is the epitome of the North American “big-serve-big-forehand” school of tennis, complete with the comparatively vestigial two-hander.
Raonic’s booming forehand is frequently accessed thanks to the solid footwork of his 6’5” frame, thus often covering his weaker wing. But in the past, when players have been able to expose his left wing, he has been little more than helpless off the ground.
This season, the Wimbledon semifinalist has solidified this once-volatile wing with an effective and heavy slice, and has improved the topspin variation of the shot to the benefit of his results, prize money and ranking.
Under the tutelage of player-turned-coach Ivan Ljubicic – and Ljubicic’s own former coach Riccardo Piatti – Raonic has slimmed down to improve his movement, and his backhand has been the major beneficiary. He now steps into his slices and topspin backhands with more authority, and puts more work on the ball, making the shot more difficult to deal with.
The Canadian’s improvements at the net have also benefited from the more solid, less error-prone slice. Mid-court shots to his backhand once gave him fits and typically ended with an error into the net. Now, they have become bait for cutting approach shots. Given his statistical success at the net in 2014, this has given new reason for opponents to avoid the backhand more than ever.
In his first win in seven attempts against Roger Federer in the quarterfinals of the BNP Paribas Masters in Paris-Bercy – a win that effectively qualified him for the World Tour Finals in London – his forehand did most of the damage, yet it was his improved backhand that shined under pressure. Raonic sealed his only break on a backhand passing shot, and occasional high-paced shots up the line threw his rival off several times.
While the misses may still outweigh the hits, Raonic’s improvements are unmistakable, ultimately changing his backhand from a liability into a compliment:
| HITS |
-Significantly improved slice increases margin for error, giving him a reliable, less volatile shot to use when players target his backhand.
-The slice has also given him more effective routes to the net off mid-court balls, where he succeeds in finishing points with improved volleying.
-Although volatile, his topspin backhand is a heavy shot for opponents to deal with when hit with depth. He can also use it to inject pace, making it a last-resort passing shot on the run or, when he’s not running around it, a point changing shot down the line.
| MISSES |
-In contrast to his forehand, the shot has higher risk and is more difficult for Raonic to dictate with. While his exceptional footwork allows him to take more forehands than an Isner or a Karlovic, the backhand can still leak errors.
-Those errors stem from a result of low clearance over the net, as well as generally poor balance. He tends to hit it with a loose closed stance, which requires an extra step – an extra step that could alternatively be used to run around to hit a forehand.
-Raonic’s desire to hit forehands occasionally detracts from what is otherwise an okay backhand. When he gets caught trying to run around it, he can find himself jammed up and, more often than not, hitting a loose backhand into the net.