Midway through this season I switched from a two-handed backhand to one-handed (reasons discussed here if you’re interested).
After giving myself a few months to experiment and get used to the feel of the stroke, I think it’s a good time to do some in-depth analysis of my technique and look for areas of improvement.
I took videos of my backhand over the fall. In the next little while I’ll be dissecting my backhand, but before that I want to do an entire post on the one-handed backhand grip.
Why a post dedicated just to the grip? Because I became overwhelmed with the information out there on grips, the different opinions, the pictures of pros and the debate over which grip to use. After spending a lot of time reading and thinking about the one-handed backhand grip (I’m a nerd, I know), I want to document and share my thoughts.
For this discussion, I’ll use this image for the bevel numbering, from Tennisplayer.net on the one-handed backhand.
How important is the grip?
A lot of the reading I did for this was on tennis forums like Tennis Warehouse. Many people on these forums share insightful research and opinions in the hopes of helping others and learning more themselves. However they can frequently be criticized for overthinking things and putting too much weight on one aspect of a stroke or of the game. In grip discussions, for every opinion you see on a grip, there will be someone saying the grip isn’t that important and we should be focusing on other things.
I couldn’t disagree with the haters more – I think the grip for every shot is incredibly important! Hold your racquet in your usual grip at an imaginary contact point as though you’re hitting a tennis ball. Now make a tiny adjustment to your grip. I’m talking a millimetre move in any direction. What happens to your racquet face? The angle can change substantially, as will the impact on where the ball goes and the spin on it if you swing as though your grip hadn’t changed. To get the same racquet face position at contact you’d have to somehow alter your swing path to compensate.
The grip you use should be a key component of your swing. Try to swing like Djokovic on the forehand with a continental grip and see what happens. Your racquet face will be very open at contact. I don’t see how the grip is any less important than any other part of the stroke.
My Current One-Handed Backhand Grip
For my forehand, I hit with a semiwestern grip. I modelled my forehand after Djokovic’s, and also learned it from Jeff Salzenstein’s online coaching programs, which taught that a semiwestern forehand grip is a good way to go (not the only good way though).
When I first learned this grip, I focused on two things: that my index knuckle should be on bevel 4 (in the image above), and that my fingers should be spread out along the handle, in what I now know that some people call the “pistol” grip.
SW Forehand Pistol = SW Backhand Pistol
When I first started with the one-handed backhand, I watched videos online and saw that most coaches are saying the modern one-handed backhand grip is moving towards a more semiwestern configuration, with the index knuckle moving towards the back of the racquet on bevel 8 (compared to the eastern grips where it’s more on the front or top of the racquet – bevels 1 or 2). Many of the online videos I watched also discussed the pistol grip and recommended spreading the fingers in the one-handed backhand grip.
I took this to mean that I could use the same grip on my forehand and one-handed backhand. Don’t see what I mean? Turn the racquet in the image above 180°, and bevel 8 becomes bevel 4, so the index knuckle is on the same bevel in the SW forehand and SW backhand grips.
So up until now, that’s how I’ve been hitting my one-handed backhand – with a SW pistol backhand grip, which is, in fact, identical to the SW pistol forehand grip (hitting with the same side of the racquet). This seemed great to me, since it meant I didn’t have to change my grip between forehands and topspin backhands – I could just rotate my hand and hit the ball with the same racquet face for the two shots.
But now that I’ve been doing some research on what grips the pros use, I’m seeing that there’s debate over whether the hand should be spread out over the handle (pistol) or whether the fingers should stay closer together (hammer). So maybe my grip isn’t ideal after all…
Pistol Grip vs Hammer Grip
These are terms I’m seeing a lot when researching backhand grips. The pistol grip gets its name from the index finger and thumb forming a “V,” kind of similar to pulling a trigger. The hammer name comes from it being similar to how you’d hold a hammer. These grips form a continuum – grips can be either extreme pistol, extreme hammer, or somewhere in between. However most people’s grips fall into 2 categories with similar features:
- fingers are spread out along the handle
- the knuckles (along the back of the hand) form a line that is at an angle to the racquet handle
- the index knuckle and the heel pad (the two “x’s” in the image above) are in contact with the same bevel
- when holding the racquet out in front of you as though you’re contacting the ball in a one-handed backhand, the horizontal angle between the forearm and the racquet handle will be greater than in the hammer grip (the forearm becomes more aligned with the racquet handle)
- the racquet lies more vertically in the hand
- while the index finger is usually still spread out from the middle finger, the pinky, ring and middle finger are close together
- the knuckles form a line that is aligned with the racquet handle (along a single bevel)
- the index knuckle and the heel pad are not on the same bevel (the heel pad will move counter-clockwise away from the index knuckle bevel towards the back of the handle)
- when holding the racquet out in front of you as though you’re contacting the ball in a one-handed backhand, the horizontal angle between the forearm and the racquet handle will be smaller than in the pistol grip (approaching, but not quite at, a 90° angle)
- the racquet lies more horizontally in the hand
Here are some images illustrating the differences (shown with a semiwestern grip so index knuckle on bevel 8):
The Pistol / Hammer Debate
On the tennis forums, there’s a lot of debate over whether a pistol or hammer grip should be used. I was pretty overwhelmed by the amount of discussion on this. There’s a lot of disagreement about what the pros do and what we should be doing.
After much reading and consideration, here’s my take on the debate:
Pros Use the Hammer Grip
While I didn’t look at every player who hits one-handed, I looked at pictures of some big-name pros who hit one-handed. Of these, none of the men (Federer, Wawrinka, Thiem, Dimitrov, Gasquet), or the women (Suarez-Navarro, Mauresmo, Henin), use (or used) the pistol grip on their one-handed backhands. They do not necessarily use extreme hammers, but their grips are definitely in the category of hammer rather than pistol. The following pictures show these pros hitting backhands. I’d say Dimitrov’s is the closest to a pistol grip but I think his would still be considered a hammer.
The Hammer Grip is More Extreme than the Pistol Grip
If we define an extreme grip (compared to conservative) as one in which the hand is further behind the racquet handle, then any grip (i.e. no matter where the index knuckle is) that is held in the pistol grip will automatically be less extreme than the hammer grip.
Try this yourself. Hold your racquet in a SW one-handed backhand pistol grip (index knuckle on bevel 8, fingers spread out so your heel pad is also on bevel 8 and knuckles forming an angle with the racquet handle). Now, keeping your index knuckle on bevel 8, rotate your heel pad counterclockwise (if you’re looking at the butt of the racquet in the image) to line your knuckles up with the racquet handle. You might also call this rotating the palm towards the back of the handle. Your heel pad will come to bevel 7. Now, notice a few things about this hammer grip compared to the pistol grip.
- Your index knuckle is on the same bevel, but in the pistol grip your palm was more on top of the racquet whereas in the hammer grip your palm is more behind the racquet.
- Hold the racquet out in front of you as though you’re contacting the ball in a one-hander. To get the racquet face perpendicular to the ground, you’ll have to extend (or cock) your wrist much more in the hammer grip. In the pistol grip your wrist can be more neutral (between extension and flexion). To me, a SW hammer grip is very uncomfortable. It requires that the wrist and forearm form almost a 90° angle in extension. Also if you look at pictures of pros you won’t find any who have this extreme configuration at contact. Kuerten is the closest. Google him to see that he has a fairly extreme hammer grip with his wrist quite cocked at contact.
- I think that some of the confusion about the merits of the pistol grip come from its popularity on the forehand side among amateurs and pros alike. But while a hammer grip makes a backhand grip more extreme, the opposite happens on the forehand side. When hitting a forehand, the pistol grip rotates the palm towards the back, or even the bottom, of the handle, while the hammer grip rotates the palm forwards and upwards towards continental. So the pistol eastern is more extreme (palm further behind handle) than the hammer eastern forehand. I think this could be a major contributor to the confusion – it’s “helpful” in our forehands but not necessarily in our backhands if we’re trying to get into a position where our palm is more behind the racquet.
The Hammer Grip is (to me) More Stable than the Pistol Grip on the Backhand Side
This could be another reason that the pistol is used in the forehand but not in the one-handed backhand grip. In the forehand, the racquet is supported by the 4 fingers under the racquet. However, only the thumb holds up the racquet on the backhand side (fingers are on top of the racquet). If you had a heavy bag of groceries, would you hold them with your 4 fingers or your thumb? Fingers for sure.
Perhaps in the forehand we can afford to spread our fingers out to get some extra feel and maneuverability of the racquet from the pistol grip without sacrificing stability. Our racquets are well supported at the bottom by our fingers (maybe even our palms if our grips are extreme). In our backhands we’re supporting our racquets with our thumbs only so need to get the strongest grip we can get. I find that the hammer grip feels stronger on the backhand side, I think because my strength is concentrated in the middle of my hand rather than spread out along the handle.
If It’s Good Enough for Stan…
Stan Wawrinka (who gets more than enough pace and topspin in his one-hander in my opinion) uses a hammer grip. According to John Yandell in this article, Stan’s index knuckle is on bevel 2, or maybe between bevels 1 and 2, which, if you’re only looking at the index knuckle, says his grip is a fairly conservative eastern grip. But his heel pad has rotated to bevel 8, and his knuckles are aligned along the racquet, indicating he’s using a hammer grip. He contacts the ball with his wrist fairly neutral between extension and flexion which, to me, is a comfortable position, but he still gets his palm partially behind the handle. I think this means that even though his index knuckle is in a “conservative” position, his grip is more extreme (if the definition of extreme is having the hand behind, rather than on top of, the racquet).
Transitioning to a Hammer Grip
So, looking at my one-handed backhand, I thought I was using an “extreme” grip. My index knuckle is on bevel 8, so I believed I was hitting a semiwestern one-handed backhand. But I’m now seeing that the knuckle alone doesn’t determine my grip. I’ve been using a SW pistol grip, which is less extreme than a SW hammer grip.
And now that I’ve looked into this further, I think it could actually be less extreme, or at least less stable (an therefore less effective) than most hammer grips that are used on tour (even some eastern grips). My palm is very much on top of the racquet handle rather than behind it (where it needs to be to be considered extreme), and my pistol grip isn’t strong enough to help my thumb support my racquet’s weight.
Since starting this research I’ve been trying out some different one-handed backhand grips. While anything but the SW pistol feels a bit uncomfortable (it’s a change, and I always find change uncomfortable at first!), I do find that when I connect properly an eastern or extreme eastern hammer grip gives me more pace and topspin and the shot just feels better. I’m going to give myself more time to adjust to the new position (and to having to switch between my forehand and backhand grips) and see where it goes.
- The index knuckle isn’t the only factor that determines a grip.
- Hammer grips on the backhand side are more extreme than their pistol counterparts since the heel of the hand is further behind the racquet for any given index knuckle location.
- The opposite is true of forehands – hammer grips are less extreme than their pistol counterparts since the heel of the hand is closer to the top of the racquet for any given index knuckle position.
- The hammer grip helps stabilize the racquet in the one-handed backhand which is supported only by the thumb (whereas the forehand has 4 fingers underneath the racquet).
- All pros (that I could find pictures of) use a more-or-less extreme version of the hammer grip on their one-handers. I couldn’t find any pictures of pros hitting backhands with the pistol grip.
Soon I’ll be analyzing the rest of my one-handed backhand. I’d love to hear what grip you use on your one-hander and your thoughts on the pistol vs hammer debate!
*Update: I wrote another post on these grips that actually looks at images from my backhand and shows that I have some racquet instability that my pistol grip might be contributing to. This post also gives a simple test you can do to feel the stability difference between he pistol and hammer grips.