Tennis is the most popular individual sport in the planet (yes, I know about doubles, but that side of the sport is clearly not as adored). There is no other game which demands such athletic perfection from its participants as tennis does, and things are even tougher in grand slams with their five set matches. As with most sports, the rise in physicality has taken a toll on the style and artistry of the game, and something which is really under threat is the single handed backhand. The newer rackets can generate more spin on the ball, which means that the ball will rise higher after it bounces making it tougher to deal with one hand on the backhand side. That coupled with stronger players hitting two handers cross-court, it is but obvious that the young kids picking up tennis will have an inclination towards the double hander.
For the last ten years and a bit, Roger Federer has been the sole flag-bearer of the single hander, mainly because he was the only one to win grand slams with a single handed backhand. However, the G.O.A.T (Greatest of All Time) will be the first one to agree that he has principally used that shot as a means of continuing the rally and in defence, via the slice, moving to his forehand side at every opportunity. And his struggles against Rafael Nadal and his high top-spinning lefty forehand are very well documented. In fact, this particular attribute has established Rafael Nadal as the toughest test for people who only use one hand to play their backhands. However, this Australian Open, the single handed backhand gave itself a huge a shot in the arm.
Firstly, there was the man himself, Federer, even at 32 he remains the epitome of artistry, grace, and ease on the court. He hit full flight against Andy Murray and once again, the court was a canvass, as it was so regularly the case in 2004, 2005, 2006 and 2007…and 2009. Then there was Richard Gasquet, all French flamboyance and flair, impersonating a conductor every time to ball went to his backhand. Grigor Dimitrov, who plays a lot like Federer, hits the ball bigger and was two forehands away from taking a two sets to love lead against Nadal. Finally, there was Stanislas Wawrinka.
For a long, long time Wawrinka has been known for two things, a) being the second-best Swiss player b) being the owner of the best single-handed backhand in the business. People started taking him seriously after the 2009 Wimbledon when he pushed Andy Murray to five sets. In the Australian open of 2013 there was nothing to choose between him and Djokovic. They repeated the act in the US Open of 2013, with the same result. In between these two matches he had a win over Andy Murray in a grand slam. Everybody acknowledged that he always had the talent, it was the mental side of things that he needed to work on. Finally, at this year’s Australian Open, everything came together.
Where Stan is different from the other backhand exponents is the fact that he has a very strong down the line drive. This, to a certain extent, obviates the need to run around the ball to play the inside-in forehand, thus, giving him more time to line up his shots. Moreover, when he comes up against a player with comparable power (or in the case of Berdych, more power) moving forward to the net to volley or playing a slice is more natural because he doesn’t have to take the other hand off. His prowess at the net was critical in his semi-final clash. Even two handed players tend to defend with one hand when pushed to the corner, e.g. Nadal, but again, it’s more natural in the case of a single hander. That is what makes Stan such a good matchup against Djokovic, he has power, a big serve and very good defence to boot.
Still, the best performance of them all was the final. Before Rafa got injured, Wawrinka was playing like a man possessed. Belting everything in sight, hitting down the line lasers to Rafa’s backhand. It was almost unreal to see Nadal slice the ball to Stan’s backhand, devourer of single handed shots that he is. So conscious did Rafa become of avoiding this that he started directing traffic towards Wawrinka’s forehand, thus letting go of his tried and tested strategy. Wawrinka won the final by hitting a big serve and belting a forehand down the line.
Over the course of the fortnight, we were treated to some stellar tennis by the Champion. It was precise, powerful and effective at the same time. It was the coming of age story of someone with precocious talent, finally living up to his promises and boosting himself to World Number 3 in the process. More importantly, it gives hope to people who still want this most beautiful of shots, the single handed backhand, to stay in the game and flourish. Kudos to Stanislas Wawrinka, the win, and the SHOT, it was delightful!!