With the end of a great career comes the retirement of that player’s arsenal of shots. Some have etched their way into the history books of the game they dominated; others have been as unstoppable as they have been beautiful; and others still have peaked at just the right time to change the course of a player’s career – and life.
On the WTA Tour, one of the most groundbreaking stories of the last decade has been the emergence of Li Na, as both top-tier tennis player and global icon. Much criticism and cynicism has been thrust upon the Women’s Tennis Association’s blatant branding efforts and seemingly frantic expansion into the Asian market. But in spite of that, there’s little doubt that the Chinese star’s late-career efforts elevated her to icon status in the world of sports.
Li had always been a quality player, whose oft-recalled history includes several lengthy injury layoffs, as well as a break the game in favor of education in her earlier years. While her recent autobiography may account for her personal history, this week’s #SaturdayNightShots retrospective will take a look at the most explosive shot in this recently retired champion’s game: the two-handed backhand.
Li’s two-hander exemplified nearly perfect technique and, at its best – much like fellow Asian sensation Kei Nishikori’s – is characterized by early contact and impeccable timing.
The best closed-stance backhands in tennis result from great leg strength and precise footwork. Alongside exceptional lateral movement, Li wielded both in devastating displays of backhand prowess. Her ability to change the direction of the ball in both attacking and defending positions was compounded by the unpredictability of the stroke, combining power and placement with remarkable difficulty to read by opponents across the net.
While one may credit the success of Li’s final four years on Tour with several coaches that tinkered with her serve, forehand and volley techniques, the backhand was always the anchor of her game. While her forehand tended to go cross-court before her breakthrough, the backhand went both up and down-the-lines, cross court, and in drive volleys on the rare venture to the net. She’d often forsake forehands to hit backhands when given the opportunity.
Li tended to excel on all surfaces – aided in part by her adaptable movement – but largely as a result of her directionally versatile backhanded. While Li’s versatility off this wing didn’t typically encompass slice or volleys, steady improvement in those areas brought her to World No. 2 in 2014, at once the peak and twilight of her career.
The following is the customary list of hits and misses for the Chinese icon’s exceptional – although not unflawed – backhand:
Power. First and foremost, Li’s backhand was powerful. Not only was she exceptional at redirecting pace, but she could also generate pace of her own, off low balls on grass courts or high bounces of her favored Melbourne hard courts.
Placement. Li’s backhand was devastating both cross-court and down the lines. She would even run around forehands to hit backhands – a tactic that is not commonly recommended, but reaped rewards for Li in many cases.
Angles. Li was also able to play with sharp angles that were still laced with plenty of pace, allowing her to open the court up for easy winners.
Unpredictability. The preparation for Li’s backhand was nearly identical for both cross-court and down-the-line shots, making it difficult to read and frustrating when several simple variations on the same one-two punch patterns of play were employed.
-Not particularly versatile for most of her career, although noted improvements were made in the past few years. Li rarely sliced the backhand while defending or off of a grass court, and approaches to the net were often made on the back of drive backhands.
-As with most “signature shots”, when it was on it was on, but when it was off, it was off. Somewhat mentally suspect for most of her career, her backhand, while incredible at its best, could go on long streaks of terrible errors. She tended to play with small margins, both on lines and over the net, so on off-days it was difficult for her to form a Plan B off that wing. #statz:
Have a look at some of The Tennis Island’s previous #SNS 2014 retrospectives: