By: Matt McGee
We all love the artistry and grace of the one-handed backhand. There aren’t too many left on the either tour, but those who play it on the men’s tour – Gasquet, Dimitrov, two Swiss – remain near the top of the ATP rankings.
To understand the difference between two such players, Roger Federer and Stan Wawrinka, we must first look at what advantages they have over the more ubiquitous two-handers.
For one, a one-handed backhand has bigger first-strike capabilities on the pro level. It’s simple physics: a player with a onehanded backhand has a longer swing path – particularly in line with the target direction – than does the player using two hands. Longer is better. Think of the Large Hadron Collider; it’s 16.5 miles long for one major reason: acceleration. A longer path means more acceleration. More acceleration means you can smash subatomic particles and, for our purposes, tennis balls.
The modern two-handed backhand is essentially an offhand forehand with a little guidance from the other hand. A right-hander will drive through the shot with the left hand. Because of this, there’s a point at which extensive shoulder rotation on the backswing becomes self-defeating. Not so for the one-handed backhand, as shown by the photos of Wawrinka below. Not only can he get the racquet back further than a double-fister, but the coiled turn also creates that beautiful springlike tension which then will be unleashed into the hit.
Note Wawrinka’s follow-through, how the racquet extends out in front of him. Such extension is on a nearly straight line through the hitting zone, and gives his backhand that extra bit of pop that two-handers can’t get.
To understand why, stand perpendicular to a wall with your right arm closest to the wall. Reach towards the wall, and keep backing up until, without leaning in, your fingertips barely touch the wall. Now put your left hand over your right as if you were holding a baseball bat. Without separating your hands, reach towards the wall – no leaning! You’ll find that not only can you not reach as far but the addition of the left hand will make the motion rotational, rather than linear. That rotational motion does have its benefits for two-handers, but for pure power and the ability to direct the ball down the line, the one-hander has the advantage.
As humans, we have an innate ability to appreciate artful movement. The one-hander is such a wonder because it truly is the most efficient way to generate maximum power.
So what does all this have to do with Federer or Wawrinka? The crucial difference between the two is that as Freder begins his forward swing, his arm remains noticeably bent and close to his body. His arm will straighten at the point of contact, but because he starts that way, his swing path is paradoxically more rotational than linear. Put simply, he does not drive through the ball as well as Wawrinka does. Partly as a result of that bent arm, Federer has a much more severe upward motion into the hit. That creates a heavy, but less speedy, stroke. This upward arc also means the timing has to be almost perfect. A millisecond too late in getting his racquet to the ball, and it clangs off the side of his frame. No one has more shanks on this side than Roger.
In a backhand-to-backhand cross court rally, Wawrinka has the superior firepower. Because his down-the line-backhand is always a threat, the former No. 1 cannot camp out in the ad-court. By contrast, the Australian Open champion can afford to cheat more into the ad-court in a backhand exchange and open up the court with either an inside out forehand or driving backhand.
When at the baseline Federer, as always, is going to use his backhand to set up his forehand, the stroke he really wants to hit. But in Wawrinka, he has an opponent less likely to give him the type of backhands that Federer can attack.
It is important to remember Federer’s slice backhand, a shot he probably hits better than Wawrinka. He has used it to good effect this week during the ATP World Tour Finals. But against Wawrinka, it will be more difficult to get enough of an advantage on that side to hit it as cleanly, or precisely.
Of course Federer has other tricks up his sleeve, including his pinpoint serving, willingness to come forward, and his 14-2 record against his compatriot. Despite his Davis Cup teammate having the more potent backhand, Roger Federer still remains the alpha Swiss.
Catch the two best one-handers in the game to at it during the ATP World Tour Finals semis, and follow Matt on Twitter @leftdabuilding!