Editor's note: As Coronavirus fears have cancelled this week's tennis action, Neal is going to take a look each day at the best shotmakers on the ATP and WTA.
Those learning to play tennis seem to find the backhand one of the more difficult shots to master. Most tend to take the easy way out and just slide into hitting it with two hands, but that’s not to say that hitting a two-hander is easy. It isn’t. But mastering the backhand, particularly the one-handed variety, can unveil a shot that is effective, mesmerizing, artful, and a thing of beauty to watch. It adds style to players who otherwise might look like gladiators, trying to rip their big forehands into their opponents’ bodies.
As players get past the stroke-production part of the game and move on to try to master competitive strategy and gamesmanship, it’s the backhand that generally is the easier of the two groundstrokes to maintain, and once learned, it tends to be not only a weapon, but a foundation for the competitive players to always fall back on.
Who, on Tour, has the best backhands? Well, I’m partial to the one-handed backhand for several reasons. First, hitting with one hand allows the player better reach. It also tends to be a bit easier to recover from quickly, and allows the striker the versatility to also perfect a slice, block, and/or chip much better than the two-hander does. So I believe that the top five backhands in the game belong to those who hit them with one hand….except for one major exception, Novak Djokovic.
Below are my Top 5 but please respond with your own list. I'm happy to discuss, argue or agree.
Stefanos Tsitsipas has mastered all six shots in tennis (serve, backhand, forehand, backhand volley, forehand volley, and overhead) to the point that it’s hard to pick any one shot of his that is better than the rest. He’s simply excellent at all of them. But his backhand also offers versatility that is hard to overlook. Tsitsipas hits a great topspin drive, he has mastered the slice and chip, as well as a block, that he sometimes uses as an effective return-of-serve tool. But what I like most about the Greek’s backhand is the way he seems to be able to hit a top-shelf shot while on the move. There’s no question that tennis players must produce effective shots while running one way or the other, but with most players you notice that they go out of their way to stop, get set, and deliver. With Tsitsipas, he’ll dominate a rally when he’s able to hit from a stable position, but he has the uncanny ability to also slug the shot while he’s on the move, or at least that’s the way it looks because he’s so fast and quick.
The stylish Frenchman has never climbed as high in the rankings as once was predicted because Gasquet lacks the ability to fight and compete through good times and bad. But don’t blame it on his backhand. That shot is not only a thing of beauty to watch, but is his signature on the tennis court. Most players show some difficulty mastering the stroke when a ball comes in chest height or higher, but not Gasquet. Sometimes he’ll adjust by stepping back a bit, which not only gives him more time, but also can allow the ball to drop a bit from its apex, which makes it just ripe for Gasquet to rip. And rip it he does. His shot is so stylish that it is easy to lose focus of the pace he gets and merely delight in the way the shot looks. If ever there was a “model” for a shot in tennis, Gasquet’s backhand would be it.
The only man with a two-handed backhand that’s on my list, Djokovic hits his backhand with authority and confidence. He has great accuracy, and he also offers a lot of disguise to the shot—something that two handers tend to master better than their single-handed brethren. If you don’t believe that Djokovic’s game, or backhand, is something to behold, go watch him play in person. It will make a believer out of you. And don’t let his overall excellence blind you to the beauty in his backhand. It’s classy and stylish, yes. But it is a great, feared weapon, too.
Has there ever been anybody in tennis who could hit his backhand with the kind of pace Stan the Man gets on his signature shot? Not only is Wawrinka’s shot fast, but it’s also “heavy” on the opponent's racket, which just puts another burden on the guy across the net. Wawrinka can hit the shot both cross-court and down-the-line, and he even sometimes shows a backhand drive that I can only classify as an almost inside-out shot. Not one to ignore all the nuances of his game, the Swiss has mastered the chip and the slice, although he doesn’t show them as often as he hits his topspin drive. He is truly a master when it comes to his groundies, and his backhand, in particular, is a trademark to marvel at.
Thiem has an absolutely brilliant backhand that he strikes with both pace and pinpoint accuracy. He augments his backhand drive with the ability to slice his backhand, and, especially on clay when given the time, he seems to be able to do almost anything he wants with it. We shouldn’t leave out that his backhand is a thing of beauty to watch. It’s concise with no wasted motion, and it seems about as natural a shot as you’re going to see on the tennis court. Want a lesson on how to hit a backhand? Watch Austria’s Dominic Thiem.