Search “one-handed vs two-handed backhand” online and you find a mix of articles and discussions debating the merits and pitfalls of the two backhand strokes. It’s generally accepted that after entering the scene in the 1970s (over 100 years into the existence of tennis), in only 40 years the two-handed backhand has taken over the one-hander as the backhand shot and also contributed to the evolution of tennis into a prominently baseline game.
There has been talk in the last couple of years of a “mini-resurgence” of the one-hander as later-round grand slam matches have been disproportionately played by one-handers. Federer, Wawrinka, and Gasquet are notable top veteran players with one-handers, and even a few up and comers like Dominic Thiem and Grigor Dimitrov are hitting their backhands one-handed.
In this article, written in December 2013 when 7 of the top 20 players had one-handers, it’s suggested that the one-handed backhand requires more strength to hit well, particularly on the high-bouncing balls that are so prevalent in today’s game. This might be why players like Gasquet and Wawrinka are experiencing more success as they get older (and stronger?) and even Dimitrov seems to be growing into his game. Perhaps this could also point to the one-hander requiring more precise timing and footwork, both of which would likely improve over the course of one’s tennis career as more matches are played and more balls are hit (see this post for a discussion of timing vs technique).
But even as the one-handed backhand is experiencing a period of fame care of exciting players like Federer, Wawrinka, Gasquet and Dimitrov, the two-hander is still clearly the more popular shot and its utility is demonstrated by some pretty good players like Djokovic, Nadal and Murray (not to mention virtually every female player on tour). And it’s often said that Federer’s major weak point was that his one-handed backhand couldn’t handle Nadal’s heavy topspin ball (although Wawrinka doesn’t seem to share this problem).
In terms of a technical pro/con comparison between the two backhands, here is a great post by Tomaz Mencinger. Tomaz says that he’s not analyzing which is easier to hit, but which is better to hit. He concludes that the two-hander is the more advantageous shot in modern tennis and, assuming both can be hit equally well, I would have to agree with his analysis.
But what if both cannot be hit equally well? My recent experience changing from a two-handed to a one-handed backhand has me questioning whether one backhand style is better suited to some players, and to choose the other one limits success.
My Discomfort with the Two-Handed Backhand
Three years ago I started taking lessons and using online coaching to learn the right way to do things. First up was my unreliable backhand. My main source of information was Jeff Salzenstein who taught that while there were a few different grip possibilities, the most common one for women, and the one he recommended, was with a continental grip in the dominant (right for me) hand and a semi-western in the non-dominant.
Up until this point I’d been using an eastern grip in my right hand and semiwestern in my left. I switched to this new grip configuration, and my backhand felt more uncomfortable than ever. I chalked this up to it being a new motion and was certain that with time and practice it would come together and I’d be crushing backhands like Serena, Sharapova and Wozniacki.
But this just never seemed to happen. The pros at my club could never find anything significantly wrong with my technique, but I pretty much played in fear of the ball coming to my backhand side.
On occasion, if the conditions were exactly right, I’d connect properly and hit a solid shot, but I could never comfortably rally from that side and made countless unforced errors. In the 2015 club championships I developed a blister on my left hand the day before the tournament (from hitting hundreds of backhands in the hopes of it finally improving it!), and so couldn’t hit with two hands. I made it all the way to the finals with only a slice backhand, which I think demonstrates how little of a weapon my two-hand topspin ever was as I clearly didn’t need it.
John Yandell’s Test for Finding your Backhand Grip
Midway through this season I made a gradual shift to the one-handed backhand. And by gradual I mean over the course of two days. But it was gradual in that I gradually modified my two-hander until I realized that I felt so much more in control if I just took my left hand off the racquet all together.
There’s a great article at Tennisplayer.net where John Yandell breaks down four distinct two-handed backhands. According to Yandell, these backhands differ based on how the arms are aligned when contact is made. The styles are:
- Straight/Straight (both arms straight, shoulders balanced or rear shoulder higher)
- Flex/Flex (some bend in both arms, shoulders balanced)
- Bent/Straight (dominant arm bent, non-dominant arm straight, rear shoulder higher)
- Bent/Bent (both arms bent, non-dominant arm is nearly identical to dominant arm forehand – this is the one most common among female professional tennis players)
Yandell argues that each style requires a different contribution from each arm. The Bent/Bent requires the most contribution from the non-dominant arm, and Yandell makes this comment:
I have written in the past that this version relies on the rear [non-dominant] hand, so it probably requires that a player be somewhat ambidextrous in order to really master it and have become automatic.
This sentence really struck a chord with me. I am extremely right-hand dominant and can’t think of any activity I do well with my left. I’m also right eyed and right footed. So Yandell’s article got me thinking: Maybe I’d chosen the wrong 2-handed backhand and the bent/bent technique would just never feel comfortable for me because it requires too much coordination in my left arm.
Yandell suggests a simple task where you hit fed backhands using, first, your left hand only, and, second, your right hand only (for a righty player). If you hit better one-handed backhands than left-handed forehands, you should consider using a two-hander with more right arm input.
I remember taking a lesson where the pro had me hit left-handed forehands to get the feel for the two-handed backhand. He watched, puzzled, as I struggled to make contact with the ball, let alone actually get it over the net. We didn’t try any other configuration, I just added my right hand back on the racquet and my backhand improved (not much though!).
So after reading Yandell’s article I took to the hitting wall and drop-fed myself a few one-handers. The one-hander just felt better – like I’d picked up a pencil with my right hand after trying to write with my left. For the first time in my tennis life, I could sustain a wall-rally with myself on the backhand side, something I could never do with my two-hander.
So based on my test results, according to Yandell, I should be using the Bent/Straight two-hander option, since he believes that the dominant arm makes a strong contribution by pulling the racquet in this configuration and he finds that students that can hit better one-handed backhands than left-handed forehands have more success with this shot.
My Switch to the One-Handed Backhand
I spent a couple of days working on this new configuration, and it did feel a bit better, but I just couldn’t forget how natural the one-hander had felt. I took my ball machine out and found I could hit cross-court and down the line one-handed backhands with (relative) ease. I videotaped myself hitting against the wall during that first week, and while my form wasn’t perfect, it was a great deal better than I expected considering how new it was. Here’s a screen-shot progression:
While my one-hander felt natural, I was reluctant to adopt it since an internet search thoroughly convinced me that to do so would mean time-travelling back to an era of weak, slow players batting around wooden racquets and that I’d never be able to compete with my baseline hugging, lightening quick, poly string-induced-topspin-wielding two-handed backhand opponents.
Ultimately it was a combination of not being able to successfully hit a two-hander and a blossoming love for the one-hander that led me to my final decision to abandon the two-hander once and for all.
Handedness in Tennis
All of this has made me curious about “handedness” in tennis. In sports such as baseball, golf and hockey, which all require us to hit an object with two hands on a stick, we get to choose which side of the body we’ll hit from. In tennis, we automatically have to hit a two-hander from the opposite side that we hit our forehands with. I think it’s possible that some of us would naturally hit a two-hander from the same side as our forehands given the choice, but of course this wouldn’t make any sense.
In fact I’m wondering if some of the pros who hit one-handers are simply, like me, extremely right-hand dominant and don’t want to be hitting the ball with their left hands. In this interview, Roger Federer says “me neither” when the interviewer admits he can’t hit a two-handed backhand. Perhaps, for some, the choice isn’t really strategic at all but rather capitalizing on natural tendencies.
And if you happen to fall into the category of having a very uncoordinated left hand, and the one-hander feels more natural to you than a left-handed forehand in Yandell’s test, then maybe it would be wise to either adopt Yandell’s bent-straight two-hander formation, or maybe even test-drive a one-hander.
I thought the transition would be difficult, but the one-hander feels so much more natural to me that after only two months it already feels more like a weapon than a liability – something I could never say about my two-hander – and I’m excited to see how it progresses from here.
Also, remember that pros start tennis early and practice a lot so can likely develop a good deal of coordination in their non-dominant hands. In my opinion, adults starting tennis a little later on, who spend only a tiny fraction of the time practicing that pros do, need to choose strokes and strategies that capitalize on their strengths, or they could be fighting an uphill battle.
Remember that experts are often good at things despite their less-than-ideal habits, not because of them, simply because they’ve practiced so much that they’ve found a way to work around some poor technique or tendency.
I’m by no means saying that the two-hander is the unnatural choice for all very right-hand dominant people. Rather, there might be some people (late starters in particular) who can make it work for them because of the time and effort they’ve put in, but would have had an easier time, and perhaps a more effective backhand stroke, had they chosen the one-hander. Based on my experience I think this is true for me and I’m curious about whether it’s true for others too.
If you have children, perhaps it would be wise to let them choose how they hit their shots (i.e. which hand to hit the forehand with and whether to hit the backhand with one hand or two) based on how they feel rather than which one you think is better suited to the modern game.
There could be an advantage strategically to playing left handed, but according to Dr. Mininder Kocher, the associate director of sports medicine at Boston Children’s Hospital, interviewed in this NY Times article, people can be trained to override their natural handedness, but he doesn’t recommend it, and says:
I think forcing someone who has a natural handedness to write or play tennis with their other hand may be counterproductive, as it may lead to learning issues, confusion and decreased performance.
My only regret about my switch to the one-hander is that I didn’t do it sooner.
I sometimes feel I’ve wasted three years practicing a shot I’ll never use again and am saddened when I think about where my one-hander could be today had I used it from the beginning. But I remind myself that tennis is a learning process and our games are ever-evolving. Plus, knowing how bad my two-hander was makes me much more happy and relaxed about my one-hander. When I miss a few I can always remind myself that I would have missed many more with two hands on the racquet.
I’d love to hear your thoughts. I’ll be posting more on my one-handed backhand transition with video analysis too.