One- or Two-Handed Backhand?

Since Evert, Connors and Borg popularized the two-handed backhand in the late 60's and early 70's, the discussion of whether the one-handed or two-handed backhand is a better choice has continued.

Following is an objective look at the pros and cons of each, based on research by the German Tennis Federation, and USHSTCA conversations with Richard Schonborn, former chief coach of the DTB, which will allow coaches to better decide which backhand is best for which of their players.

The Muscles Used

Because your arm is on the same side of your body on which you make contact, some teachers have felt that the backhand should be an easier stroke, since it is less awkward. While the forehand, coming from the far side of the body, may have taken a little more maneuvering with the closed or square stance traditionally used in the U.S. for many years, the opening of the stance has made this less of an issue.

The real reason, however, why the forehand has always been an easier stroke to hit than the backhand is because when hitting a forehand, a player uses larger muscles, including the pectorals, biceps and deltoids, while the backhand uses weaker muscles such as the triceps, lats and the back part of the shoulder. It is also easier to open the hips on a forehand, which provide a great deal of mass for any shot.

What has this to do with our discussion of the backhand?

Most top players today (as high as 80 percent of top touring pros, according to DTB research) use a two-handed backhand, but not the same two-hander originally popularized during the advent of Open tennis.

Unlike the right-hand dominant (for right-handed players) two-handed backhand of Borg, et al., which use the second (left) hand to give support to the racquet, today's two-handed backhand has evolved into a left-hand dominant backhand -- in essence turning this shot into a left-handed forehand.

The left hand now accelerates the racquet, taking advantage of the same, large muscles used for the forehand, turning the backhand into a significant weapon, rather than simply a defensive shot.

For this reason, top experts agree, the two-handed backhand is a much better choice for almost all level players, including world-class players.

This is not to say that the one-handed backhand isn't a legitimate choice for any player. The realities of coordination, mechanics and physiology, however, allow most players to reach more of their potential and hit a much better shot using a two-handed backhand.

Cons of the Two-Handed Backhand

The main argument against the two-handed backhand is that it limits the reach, or extension, of the player using it.

A player using a two-handed backhanded, opponents say, will have to stretch for wide balls, using a very defensive shot (one-handed backhand they do not normally use) when they are in trouble – exactly the time they need a stronger shot.

This is true.

However, proponents of the one-handed backhanded argue that it's inappropriate to teach a player a stroke that is only more efficient to use during the 10 to 15 percent of shots when they are in trouble, rather than build a stroke that will allow them to play it offensively 85 to 90 percent of the time.

A one-handed backhand is necessary in order to develop slice, for use in defensive lobs, passing shots and approach shots. The backhand volley should also be played with one hand. Coaches should work with players who use two-handed backhands to develop a one-handed backhand, as well, for those situations.

Gustavo Kuerten recently won the French Open using a one-handed backhand with an extreme Eastern grip. Sampras uses a one-handed backhand. So do Safin and a few other top pros. After that, however, top pros using a one-handed backhand come few and far between.

Pros of the Two-Handed Backhand

As stated earlier, the two-handed backhand allows players to use larger muscles and requires less coordination.

These factors lead to the backhand becoming an offensive weapon. Serve and volleyers will have a harder time against players with two-handed backhands since their returns are now much more effective. Passing shots are also made easier with two-hands, decreasing an all-court player's or serve and volleyer's effectiveness.

Balls which bounce high (shoulder level or higher) are more difficult to hit with a one-handed backhand, and require the player to use a slice shot to play these high balls. High balls to a player with a two-handed backhand, however, are right in their strike zone.

Summary

During the early 1990s, the German Tennis Federation traveled the world tour, videotaping 110 of the top 200 men's players, and 110 of the top 200 women's players, taping four games of each player and analyzing the results.

Their conclusions were clear – whether players are developed in South America, Asia, the U.S., Europe or anywhere else, the vast majority independently develop two-handed backhands because of the ease and power this stroke affords over the one-handed stroke. This is true for all levels of play.

While certain shots (approach, volley, slice) are more effective with a one-handed back-handed, the majority of strokes a player will hit in a tennis march are better played with a two-handed backhand.