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Living with a weak backhand

Is your backhand your weaker side? Not to worry.

By Allen Fox

I have yet to meet a player who has two equally strong (or weak) sides. Everybody has a weaker side, sometimes a substantially weaker one, and it’s most commonly the backhand.

But this need not discourage you, nor stop you from winning – it hasn’t in the cases of Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal. The trick is to avoid letting its limitations frustrate or discourage you and to use it properly in matches.

The most important thing is to realize that you must not ask too much of the backhand. It should be used to keep the ball in play while you’re waiting for a forehand or an opponent’s error. It isn’t a shot to be hit for winners, at least not often. I noticed this as I watched two steady players battle it out at the local tennis club one afternoon. Neither could hit the ball very hard, but one had a terrible backhand on which he used a forehand grip and which he sliced softly and high. On one point they had a seemingly interminable exchange that ended when a ball was mishit and landed on the left side of his court, five feet from the net and shoulder high. It was the sitter of sitters.

He ran forward and, perhaps feeling he was obligated to do something strong with a ball this easy, went for the winner. Of course, the ball flew directly into the back fence, teaching him, I hope, that no ball is easy enough for him to hit a winner off his backhand. As Clint Eastwood said, “A man just has to know his limitations.”

Fernando González provided an example of this at the pro level. A great ball-striker, he was the hardest hitter on the tour. But he was also a sporadic performer, able to blow anybody off the court when he was on and lose to anyone when he wasn’t. It was only late in his career, when Larry Stefanki began coaching him, that he made the turn and became a consistent winner, reaching the final of the Australian Open in 2004 and achieving a career-high ranking of No. 5.

González had a huge forehand, a fearsome weapon that he could hit for consistent winners against anybody from any position. He could also whale winners with his backhand, but just not as consistently. The genius of Stefanki was realizing that hitting aggressive backhands was a low-percentage play – because it certainly wasn’t obvious, González having been consistently ranked among the world’s Top 20 for many years. While the old strategy was good, it wasn’t good enough to beat the top guys consistently, so Stefanki changed it.

He had González crowd the backhand side of his court, slice virtually every backhand deep cross-court and take no risk with the shot. In this way he became very steady. He was quick on his feet and could keep the ball in the court all afternoon. Eventually, his opponent would either miss, go down the line or let his shot drift over toward the center, where González could move around his backhand and unleash a forehand. Then and only then would González go for his big shot. He was like a boxer, using his backhand as a jab and his forehand for the knockout.

It goes without saying (though I am saying it) that you should position yourself to the left of center and use your forehand as often as possible while giving your opponent as small a target as possible on your vulnerable backhand side. Then hit your forehands inside out (to your opponent’s backhand) as deep as you can or maybe even high with topspin. Your objective is to put your good forehand up against your opponent’s backhand while hiding your own backhand. Having a weakness isn’t a problem as long as you don’t let your opponent get to it. If you can volley and hit overheads reasonably well, you can also cover up your backhand by coming to the net. Paul Annacone (who coached Federer and Pete Sampras) used to chip and charge on almost every shot. He wasn’t about to match his weak ground strokes up against the strong ones of his opponents.

A final suggestion would be to get instruction and spend extra practice time working to improve your backhand. Federer and Nadal both did this, even after they were world champions. There’s no reason you can’t improve your backhand, too.

Allen Fox, Ph.D., is a psychologist, coach, former Wimbledon quarterfinalist and author of "Tennis: Winning the Mental Match."



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