Halfway through this season I switched from a two-handed to a one-handed backhand. I wrote a post all about this that you can check out if you’re interested, so here I’ll just say that the one-hander feels much more natural to me and I think this could be because I’m so right-arm dominant.
After letting myself get accustomed to the stroke for a couple of months, I took some videos in the fall and I’ve been going through the videos looking for areas to improve.
I want to be clear that the purpose of this isn’t to feel bad about my backhand. It’s a newer shot and I know there’s a lot to work on. This is a good thing!
Current Results of my One-Handed backhand
Like when I did my 2015 forehand and 2015 serve video analyses last year, I think it’s a good idea to list the general results I get with my one-handed backhand. Then when I come back to this later I can see how changes I’ve made to my strokes have impacted the results.
Here are general observations on my one-handed backhand. I’ve only been using this shot for a few months, so I don’t have much awareness of the components of my stroke and a feel for what went wrong when the shot doesn’t work.
- I get a lot of pace. I find I need to be cautious of swinging too fast or the ball will go long.
- I typically don’t get a lot of topspin (which is why #1 happens).
- Sometimes the ball flies very high and long completely unexpectedly.
- If the incoming ball isn’t too fast, I can typically hit a well-aimed backhand back. I often hit fast balls late, causing them to unintentionally go down the line rather than cross-court.
- I find I can handle low and high balls fairly well.
Notes on the Video Analysis
While we can take videos of ourselves and look for things that coaches have told us to do (or told us NOT to do), I find it more helpful to actually compare videos of my strokes to professionals who are known to have solid technique. My videos aren’t great quality, but I think they show some key things I can be working on.
A few notes:
- I’ve chosen Stan Wawrinka for my comparison. He seems to know what he’s doing.
- I’ve numbered the frames for reference for discussion.
- I’ve used our weight transfers as a basis for the timing of our strokes. Our feet are in similar positions in each frame, and then I’ve looked at what our upper bodies are doing at those foot positions.
The image quality isn’t high enough to see my grip, but I’ll tell you I’m using a pistol grip in these videos. Wawrinka uses a hammer grip. I’ve written two posts on the hammer and pistol grips in the one-handed backhand and why I’ve since switched from pistol to hammer. See the first of these posts here and the second here.
Back-view Images and Analysis
Here are the images. Wawrinka’s backhand is taken from Hi-Techtennis (one of my favourite resources for high-speed video).
I think there are a few major differences between my and Wawrinka’s backhands that are shown above.
1. Racquet Path
Wawrinka’s racquet travels more vertically and mine more horizontally, as shown by our follow throughs in frame 9. My follow through is much lower than Wawrinka’s, showing that my racquet path is more horizontal. This likely contributes to my lack of topspin.
2. Timing of Swing – Energy Production
In tennis groundstrokes, energy is imparted into the ball through a kinetic chain. We generate energy in our muscles, starting with our legs (by bending them). We then rotate our trunks so that our hips and shoulders face different directions (hips forward, shoulders back), thus building potential energy. When we straighten our legs, (often when transferring weight from one leg to the other) and uncoil our trunks while we swing the racquet, the stored energy is transferred along our arms and into the ball through the racquet strings.
The keys to generating maximum power are to
- create as much potential energy as possible (i.e. by bending legs and coiling the upper body)
- transfer the energy efficiently (good swing mechanics with no breakages (pauses) or dysfunction in the kinetic chain (muscle imbalances/joint problems).
So how are my backhand and Wawrinka’s backhand doing in these regards?
We both bend our right legs and then straighten them during the swing. This is clear because we’re both shorter in frame 5 than we are in frame 9.
The big difference, though, is that Wawrinka generates more potential energy by coiling his body more than I do.
In frames 2-4, Wawrinka’s racquet is essentially not moving. His shoulders continue to turn towards the back of the court and his left elbow raises up and back as he coils his shoulders. He doesn’t start looping his racquet yet. I start looping my racquet down basically at frame 2.
So by the time we both plant our feet (in frame 5), I’m already bringing my racquet forward. My shoulders have uncoiled and are facing sideways. Wawrinka continues to coil his shoulders and doesn’t start his loop until frame 6.
When our front legs plant, our hips start moving forward. By having his front leg planted in front of him, and his racquet still in the ready position (shoulders turned, racquet tip up), and then starting his loop where his shoulders coil even more (frame 6), Wawrinka is really getting the maximum possible difference between the direction of his hips (starting to go forward) and the direction of his shoulders (backward). As his hips start to go forward (once his front foot is planted), his shoulders are maximally turned backwards. This creates a lot of potential energy that’s released into the ball during the forward motion of his swing.
I, on the other hand, move my shoulders more in conjunction with my hips. Yes, I turn my shoulders substantially backwards, but they’re facing the furthest back while my hips are facing sideways, not forward, as is the case with Wawrinka. By the time my hips are starting to move forward, I’ve already uncoiled my shoulders so that they’re facing sideways, not backwards. My shoulders and hips are never separated by as much of an angle as Wawrinka’s, so I don’t create as much potential energy to be released into my shot as Wawrinka does.
I can actually feel a huge difference when I consciously swing the way Wawrinka does (plant my front foot before initiating the loop). I notice a stretching in my oblique muscles and then feel like my oblique muscles actually initiate the forward movement. Shadow stroking with this technique is a great core workout!
3. Timing of the swing – speed of the swing
There’s another consequence of Wawrinka waiting longer than me to initiate the loop phase of his swing (he waits until his front foot is planted in frame 5, while I start much earlier, around frame 2). This is that he necessarily has to swing faster than me to meet the ball on time. He completes his entire loop in frames 6-8 while mine happens over frames 2-8.
My swing generates less potential energy (smaller coil), is more gradual, and is slower.
4. Elbow height during racquet take-back
Wawrinka brings his racquet up with his elbow much higher and further back than me. He gets a tilt between his shoulders, with his front shoulder down and his back shoulder up. This might help contribute to his vertical swing path as well as his big shoulder turn. My shoulders stay level, which could cause (or reflect) my horizontal swing path.
Ok, as though this isn’t enough to think about, let’s look at another angle!
Side-view Images and Analysis
Wawrinka’s video comes from this video by Tennis Unleashed
I won’t say much here because I think that most of the differences that I addressed in the back view discussion are still evident here
- My left elbow is much lower than Wawrinka’s during racquet take-back.
- I start my loop earlier than Wawrinka (frame 2 for me, frame 4-5 for him).
- I don’t turn my shoulders compared to my hips as much as Wawrinka
- I swing much more horizontally; Wawrinka swings more vertically (his follow through is higher – see frame 9 and 10)
I’ll just add two quick things:
1. Racquet Arm Straightness
Wawrinka straightens his arm more than I do in the backswing portion of the swing, but since we both contact the ball with our right arms straight I don’t think this is a big deal. Looking at videos, it appears that some people straighten their arms before the racquet comes forward (Wawrinka, Thiem) more than others (Federer, Dimitrov, Gasquet).
Florian Meier of Online Tennis Instruction has a video about the arm being straight in the one-handed backhand. He shows views of the right (straight arm) and wrong (bent arm) way to do it.
My backhand is a blend of the right and wrong way. Initially I have a bent arm during take-back, and it stays bent for a little bit as my racquet comes forward, but my arm straightens out and by contact I’m in the same position as Meier.
Scrolling through the video comments, I saw that one commenter asked Meier whether the arm had to be straight during take-back (since she’d noticed that a lot of pros seem to have bent arms at that point). He responded that he recommends for people at the club level to straighten their arms before bringing the racquet forward for simplicity.
I think the main point of Meier’s video is great advice. The arm needs to be straight before and during contact. But I’m not sure I agree with the recommendation that the arm is consciously straightened during take-back, since doing so might introduce unnecessary muscle tightness that can interfere with the natural motion of the swing.
A pitcher releases the ball with a straight arm but the arm is bent during take-back. Same goes for contacting the ball on the serve. Federer, who hits his forehand with a straight arm at contact, straightens his arm naturally during the forward motion, not forcefully during take-back.
I’m not saying a straight arm during take-back is bad if this is what comes naturally to you. I just think that having a relaxed arm is important and that keeping your racquet arm bent until the pulling force of your shoulder naturally straightens it out is fine.
As I work on getting my left elbow higher with a bigger shoulder turn my racquet arm will likely become a bit straighter during take-back. But since it doesn’t seem to be necessary to have a straight arm during take-back, this isn’t something I’m going to worry about too much.
2. Racquet Instability
Frame 7 shows my racquet face opening up at/just after contact before closing again in frame 8. I addressed this in my previous post on the stability of the hammer grip compared to the pistol grip. I think the pistol grip (the grip I’m using here) contributes to racquet instability in the one-handed backhand.
What to Work On?
Making connections between my backhand results and the videos, here are a few thoughts:
- My swing is slower, more gradual and less powerful than Wawrinka’s. This could be why getting topspin is difficult (high racquet head speed is needed for high RPM).
- I’ve compensated for my slower swing by hitting fairly flat, which gives the shot pace and depth.
- My racquet instability at contact leads to inconsistency.
My objectives, then, are to work on:
- As discussed in previous posts, switching from a pistol to hammer grip (done!)
- Swinging more low to high
- Keeping my left elbow up and back during take-back
- Waiting until I plant my front foot to initiate the loop to maximize my shoulder turn and explosiveness (I won’t really focus on this one until after I learn the low to high motion. Maximizing power is the least of my concerns right now, I want to get the right swing path first)
It’s winter here in Canada, so I don’t get to play too much tennis. I’ll use this off-court time for shadow stroking and watching slow motion videos. These methods are great for absorbing information and learning the feel of shots without having the outcome of the ball affect anything.
I did play last night so I got to work on my backhand. My partner and I do a lot of basket-feeding drills in the winter, and after struggling with baseline drills for awhile I asked him to hand-feed me a basket of backhands. I was focused on my grip and keeping my left elbow up and back. My partner noticed right away that I had a very horizontal stroke (we can help each other out much more during basket feeding). I’d completely forgotten to work on the low to high swing! I incorporated this (just focused on finishing high) and what a difference – topspin galore.
So for one basket of hand-fed balls my backhand felt much better and I was getting the results I wanted. I know that hand-feeding isn’t all that realistic compared to regular hitting, but it’s helpful for identifying problems, working on new technique without any pressure to have good results, and for grooving new swings. I feel it was a good start.
I’d love to get your feedback – any thoughts on my backhand are welcome, and I’d love to hear about yours too.