The backhand is a storied shot within women’s tennis, primarily because of its ubiquity; so many players have dominated the modern game with two hands.
For the few top players that have opted for the one-handed variation – like Roberta Vinci and Justine Henin – craft and variety are the tools that make those shots difficult to handle for opponents. For two-handers like World No. 5 and two-time US Open finalist Caroline Wozniacki, power and fluidity is the name of the game.
Although not at her best this week in Dubai courtesy of minor illness, Wozniacki had to scrap past difficult opponents in Sam Stosur, Alizé Cornet and Flavia Pennetta before falling to top seed Simona Halep in three sets. Her backhand nevertheless remained on point.
Throughout most of her professional career, “Sweet Caroline” has arguably wielded one of the most solid backhands on the WTA Tour. Her fitness and athleticism might be greater assets, the backhand has undeniably made the difference in her over six-month rise back to prominence.
The term “Weapon” is a vague one in tennis; it typically recalls an aggressive, point-ending shot. Yet – as the enduring sports cliché goes – sometimes the best offense is a good defense. Such is the counterpuncher’s credo, and few exemplify this better than Wozniacki. Her backhand breaks down so infrequently – so brutally consistent in depth and pace – that for an opponent, hitting a clean winner or even forcing an error on the ad-side of the court is an overwhelming task against the Dane.
The shot is extremely sound, both technically and practically. The Dane’s use of her left hand is quite pronounced; it not only generates additional pace on the ball, but also adds height and shape to the shot, thus increasing the margin over the net and reducing the risk of errors.
Her body rotation also contributes to the backhand’s weight of shot; she can hit in an open or closed stance, and uses her strong back and legs to generate the power that can turn defense into offense. In particular, Wozniacki’s backhand down-the-line is her most potent and aggressive shot, one she can hit from the center of the court and on the run, courtesy of her impressive foot speed.
Since reaching No. 1 as a 20-year-old, Wozniacki’s game has been subject to much scrutiny; she lacks the obvious firepower or subtle “court craft” typically reserved for holders of that coveted position atop the rankings. She has since made several improvements to her game, leading to a career revival and a burgeoning rivalry with current No. 1, Serena Williams.
The Dane incorporated a sharper and more consistent slice to her backhand in the latter half of 2014, giving more variety to her otherwise homogenous style. Where she might have been content to send up a high lob in years past – hoping it would land somewhere near the baseline – she is now capable of slicing aggressive shots outside the reach of her topspin backhand, albeit with an unconventional two hands.
This allows her to not just merely retrieve shots, but send them back with interest.
The following is a concise list of hits and misses of the Wozniacki backhand; there is plenty to rave about this show, yet no part of a player’s game is without its faults.
Shape. Wozniacki gets wonderful shape on her backhand. There’s plenty of height over the net, but it doesn’t compromise the shot’s speed or weight. Loading it with a deceptive amount of spin, it can kick up off the court after the bounce, making it more difficult for opponents to handle.
Speed. The backhand’s speed is a result of her incredible footspeed. More often than not, her ability to race around the court allows extra time to step into her backhands and get a full body rotation, meaning her defensive backhands can be just as aggressive as when she is dictating.
Consistency. It rarely breaks down under even the most extreme pressure. While it might not have the brute force of Serena Williams’ or Petra Kvitova’s, it can handle that very force in cross-court exchanges just as well.
Errors off her backhand are more often a result of aggressive endeavors. While she can easily reflect and redirect pace, on the rare occasion that she loses patience and tries to force a play, she can leak unforced errors.
Wozniacki has also been criticized for being too predictable on the backhand side, falling into easy cross-court patterns. While those patterns often get her the victory against lesser opponents, the game’s bigger champions often find ways to exploit this tendency.
What do you think of Wozniacki’s signature shot? Sound off in the comments!