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Coaching Tips - Backhand Groundstrokes

Get a grip and let it rip!

How can I hit a more powerful backhand without sending the ball out?

Eastern backhand grip If you want to hit your backhand with power, you've got to use a grip that ensures the racket face is not open when you make contact with the ball. To all intents and purposes, this means placing your palm almost on top of the racket handle.

Assuming you're right-handed (otherwise, reverse what I say!), hold the throat of the racket in your left hand and point it out in front of you in edge-down position. Now extend your right hand out flat and lower it down towards the handle, grasping it in such a way that your thumb wraps around the left side.

Brush the strings up the back of the ball to impart some topspin and you can now start letting it rip!

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Don't stop to think - you might forget to start again!

How can I avoid my whole game going to pot when my backhand won't fire?

I have a similar problem, except that with me it's the serve. When my serve doesn't fire, I focus too much attention on it and the rest of my game deteriorates.

The fact is, when things go wrong, some of us are inclined to get hung up on technique ("is my backswing too long?", "is my grip right?", "are my shoulders opening too early?", etc). There is a time and a place for correcting technique and it's NOT when you're a set and 1-2 down in a match. Actually, I'd say you should avoid thinking about technique altogether during matchplay. At least, avoid anything more technical than simple basics such as "move your feet", "watch the ball", "prepare early", etc.

If you stop to think about your shots, you might forget to start again! Instead of worrying about how to hit the ball, focus on where to hit it!

It may also help to focus on moving better rather than hitting better. Stay on your toes and try to get to every ball on time and on balance. You're not going to correct your technique under the pressure of matchplay, so don't even think about it!

Of course, there are times when a particular stroke completely falls apart. Brad Gilbert describes the moment as "when your backhand gets so bad you're running around it even to pick up a towel"!

Faced with this nightmare scenario, you've arrived at "fix-up time" as Brad calls it. It's time to compromise and lower your expectations. Just get the ball back over the net. Keep it in play! At least you won't be handing your opponent points on a plate! Again, it's a question of controlling and directing the ball rather than trying to emulate the power play of Venus Williams or Gustavo Kuerten.

The practice court is the place to iron out those problems with your technique. When it comes to matchplay, remember to think WHERE and not HOW!

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Wait 'n' straighten!

How can I hit my backhand slice with more pace?

When you prepare for your backhand slice, your racket arm is bent. The moment at which you extend it pretty much determines the speed of the shot.

If your shot lacks pace, try extending just a little bit later, reaching out just before the point of impact.

Be careful though, because this will probably make the shot a little more difficult to control. Try it out on the practice court first!

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I'm having trouble playing my double-hander on the run. Should I change to a one-handed backhand?

That might be just a bit drastic, don't you think? Maybe you could try a couple of simpler things first - things like an earlier "wind up", i.e. get your racket back straight away, don't wait till you're in position for the shot.

However, I thought it might be a good idea to refer your question to a two-hander, so I asked my son, Mark, who is a licensed LTA coach (and has a two-handed backhand!). Here's Mark's advice:

"Firstly, if you are used to using a two-handed backhand then I would not recommend making the switch to a single-handed backhand - unless you are prepared for many weeks of hard practice! Lack of reach is obviously a limitation of the two-handed backhand. However, in light of its significant advantages, for example generating power and disguise, it is probably not a good idea to make the change unless you are really sure that that is what you want. The problem you have described is possibly related to movement rather than shot technique. If you are forced wide by your opponent, try moving diagonally forwards towards the ball as well as sideways, rather than just scampering horizontally across the baseline.In other words, try not to become glued to the baseline. This is a technique employed by many of the pros and it allows you to cut off the angle and save yourself a couple of vital steps to the ball! If you are able to do this then you should find yourself getting to the ball in plenty of time and on balance ready to play your shot.

In terms of the shot itself, what I would suggest is that you make sure that you have your racket back and your shoulders turned whilst you move to the ball rather than running to the ball and then having to prepare once you get there. This should also save you time and allow for a more efficent movement.

Both the single-handed and the double-handed backhand have their advantages and they also have their limitations. We could debate for ever about which is more effective, but as a general rule neither is preferable over the other. It simply depends on what feels most comfortable for you, what surface you play on and a little bit on your own physique. This is why you will see many young players starting out with a double-handed backhand, as it allows them to generate a little more power than they would otherwise be able to."

So, go single-handed for a bit longer - at least try Mark's advice and see how you get on. If the problem remains and you're determined to switch, you'll probably need to work with a coach to see you through the transition.

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Sharpen up to improve that slice!

How can I stop my sliced backhand sailing out?

Firstly, change your grip to a backhand grip (or at least a continental grip) and start with a high take-back position, supporting the throat of the racket with your non-racket hand. Stay sideways and aim towards the top of the ball (instead of the bottom of it) with a slightly high-to-low swing, keeping your wrist fairly firm. Lean into the shot, maintaining your balance by keeping your non-racket hand behind you. Follow through in the direction of the shot.

Avoid "dishing" your racket under the ball and/or playing with the racket face completely open.

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Practise playing with your wrong hand!

How can I improve my two-handed backhand?

  Preparation Ideally you should be balanced, weight slightly forward, elbows and knees slightly bent, racket in front of you. Your non-dominant hand lightly supports the throat of the racket until you see that the next shot will be a backhand. At that point, your dominant hand adopts your preferred grip - preferably with the palm almost on top of the grip. Your non-dominant hand slides down the handle close to your dominant hand. Take the racket back by rotating your hips and shoulders away from the net - if you've got a logo on the front of your shirt, hide it from your opponent!
  The swing Step towards your target, keeping your arms slightly away from your body. Relax enough to accelerate the head of the racket. Swing through, extending your non-dominant arm straight out through the ball, making contact just in front of your leading leg. If your shots lack depth, lower your racket head and hit low-to-high on the forward swing. Make sure you have a full follow-through out to the target area before you wrap your racket around your shoulder. If your shots lack power, make sure you're not making contact too far in front of your leading leg. Once you're reasonably comfortable with the shot, develop it by making more use of your non-dominant hand - try to think of the shot as a forehand hit with your non-dominant hand. In other words, if you're right-handed, think of it as hitting left-handed forehands (with your right hand just having a supporting role). In particular, you should strive to achieve full extension with your left arm at contact. Practise hitting some left-handed forehands (one-handed) just for fun occasionally - it will help! Eventually, your non-dominant hand should become the dominant hand when you play your two-handed backhand.
  Follow through At the end of the stroke, your elbows should be bent and pointing at the net and the racket head should be over your shoulder. The back foot should come around with the hips after contact, so your feet and shoulders finish up fairly square to the net.

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Give your opponent the problem!

How do you deal with a high ball to the backhand?

It's probably not a great idea to try to hit a high backhand with topspin. It depends how high your contact is going to be, but unless you possess great strength and timing, you'll find it difficult to brush up the ball and get any sort of forward penetration once the ball gets up around shoulder height. Better to go for slice.

Better still to take the ball on the rise with a flat stroke. And that's the point really - your best option is to avoid letting the ball get high in the first place. Don't let the high looper get onto you. Work your feet, take it early and try to make contact in front of your body. If you're fast enough, consider running around and hitting an off-forehand on the rise, again trying to make contact in front of your body.

If you get caught out and you've simply got to take the ball at shoulder height or higher, step into the shot, but lean away slightly at the waist so that you can get your arm up high enough to swing at the ball.

High backhands are notoriously difficult to deal with effectively. In fact, although you're reading this to find out how to deal with them, you'll benefit just as much by turning the problem on its head and making your opponent deal with them! This is particularly so if your opponent has a single-handed backhand and doesn't move well enough to hit an off-forehand.

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One hand or two?

What's better - a one-handed or a two-handed backhand?

The double-handed backhand came to prominence in the 1970's when Chris Evert, Jimmy Connors and Bjorn Borg inspired young players throughout the world to adopt a technique which seemed to produce much more power than the traditional one-handed backhand. It pretty much dominated for a couple of decades, especially in the women's game, but the aesthetic appeal of the one-handers used by Justine Henin and Gustavo Kuerten (amongst others) is now encouraging more and more players to emulate them.

There are basically just two major body actions involved in producing the two-hander - legs and hips working together and then trunk and arms moving together. So it's easier to acquire the skill. It also offers greater racket stability and enables easier generation of topspin. The two-hander will always remain popular for these reasons. It used to be the case that the two-hander offered a greater degree of disguise as well. But one-handed players now use more open stances and don't give away the intended direction of their shots so much.

There are some disadvantages associated with the two-hander. For one thing, it's not easy to produce slice, which is an issue for would-be serve-volleyers. For another, there's the obvious handicap of limited reach on short and wide balls.

Martina Navratilova recently commented: "I think for a serve and volleyer, it's better to have the one-handed backhand. But really if I was teaching someone to play these days, I would teach the two-handed backhand and one-handed slice and one-handed volley. The two-hander is just a more secure ball."

On balance, I think I'd go along with that.

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Getting outside-in to the net!

I want to keep my backhand approach shot low, but how do you do it?

You need to use backspin to keep the ball low after it bounces. To do this, you need to deliver a kind of high-to-low glancing blow - but be sure not to come down on the ball too severely, otherwise you'll end up just chopping it and losing the pace.

Players like Pete Sampras often add sidespin to the sliced approach. This is produced by moving the racket across the ball with an outside-in action, i.e. from outside the line of the ball's flight to inside the line, as well as high-to-low. This makes the ball skid low and away from a right-hander's backhand.

Make a full shoulder turn and take your racket back at around shoulder height, with the face slightly open. Support the throat of the racket with the fingers of your non-racket hand and keep your wrist firm. As you swing through the ball high-to-low and outside-in, keep the racket face slightly open and try to get a l-o-n-g contact. Extend your non-racket hand back behind you for balance and keep your knees flexed throughout. Avoid opening your shoulders.

It's generally a good idea to aim your approach shots parallel to the sidelines. That gives you your best chance of covering the angles on your opponent's passing shot. But you should vary it occasionally, especially if your opponent is weak on the backhand.

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Help yourself to a bigger slice!

I only have a slice backhand. Should I learn to play a two-hander?

Players with one-handed slice backhands sometimes feel frustrated and envious when they see the top pros cracking two-handed backhand winners. They tell me they don't want a slice backhand any more - they want a slice of the action!

However, I never advocate switching from a one-handed backhand to a two-hander. In my opinion, that's a backward step. The two-handed stroke presents you with problems in terms of reach and there's absolutely no guarantee that you'll compensate by producing more power. It's not that I'm against two-handed backhands per se, far from it. It's just that players with effective two-handers typically start at an age when they lack sufficient strength in the arm and wrist for a one-hander. It's forced on them. The best of these players develop the shot and develop the athleticism to make up for the reach restrictions. But if you're used to playing with a one-hander and you can execute it with a reasonable degree of competence, you should stick with it and try to make it more reliable and more versatile.

The slice backhand is not a purely defensive shot. Used as an approach shot, it skids low and forces your opponent to lift the ball for you to put away with a comfortable volley. Slice makes the ball float further in the air allowing you to dominate your opponent by maintaining good depth. So don't turn your nose up at it. Build up your appetite and help yourself to a bigger slice!

For more bite on the shot, prepare by coiling your upper body using a hip and shoulder turn and bend the elbow of your racket arm. Then straighten your arm as you hit through the ball. If you keep your elbow locked, you'll restrict your swing and end up chopping at the ball.

The slice backhand is least effective against a net-rusher. Instead of learning a two-hander, I recommend developing a flat or topspin one-handed drive to give yourself a better chance of making a pass or at least making your opponent contend with a dipping ball.

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Is time running out for the closed stance?

What are the benefits of an open stance two-hander and what's the correct technique?

Although most players still prefer to strike the two-handed backhand from a closed stance whenever possible, the success of the Williams sisters is encouraging more and more players to use an open stance. Venus and Serena use their tremendous leg and upper body strength to compensate for the loss of linear momentum. The technique enables them to cope better when they're rushed into playing a shot (e.g. a service return) and also to recover their court position efficiently by pushing off the outside leg to return towards the middle of the court.

Let's consider the grip first. Although you may be able to hit an effective two-handed backhand without moving your dominant hand from your forehand grip, you really ought to be using an eastern backhand grip (or at least a continental grip) if you want to use topspin and if you want to be able to hit the occasional one-handed shot. Your dominant hand really only provides support - it's your non-dominant hand that should actually provide the power for your two-hander and you should put it into the eastern forehand grip.

Maria Sharapova preparing for a backhand Load your weight onto your left foot (assuming you're right-handed) and coil your hips and shoulders (as demonstrated here by Maria Sharapova). The amount of backswing depends on what you want to achieve. Typically, a shorter backswing will facilitate more control and a longer backswing will generate more power. Keeping your head as still as possible to control the uncoiling of your hips and shoulders, extend your racket out towards your target for control and depth. Complete the shot with a full wrap-around follow-through and push off to recover for your next shot.

If, like Venus and Serena, you have the required athleticism, you might want to make open stance groundstrokes the basis of your game, but even if you don't, practise an open stance two-hander and you'll be able to compensate effectively when you're rushed for time.

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Back to basics

What are the basics for a good backhand?

The first major consideration is the grip. When you play forehands, the palm of your hand is behind the racket and is the primary source of strength and support. Unless you're some kind of contortionist, this is not possible on the backhand, so your thumb takes over that role. From your normal ready position with your racket pointing towards the net, turn your racket hand until the palm is pretty much on top of the grip. If you use a two-handed backhand, place your other hand in front of your racket hand using an eastern forehand grip (as if you were going to hit a left-handed forehand).

Having selected your grip, you can now begin your backswing. If you're a single-handed player, use your free hand to support the throat of the racket and draw it back as you perform a full turn of your hips and shoulders. Make sure you get a really full shoulder turn, otherwise your body gets in the way of your backswing. It's up to you whether you take the racket back straight or take it back high (as part of a loop action). A straight backswing is easier to control, though a loop allows for greater racket head speed. The back of your leading shoulder should be facing the oncoming ball once you're fully in position.

Step in and transfer your weight onto your front foot, dropping your racket head below the level of the oncoming ball as you start to swing forwards. Single-handed players should try to to keep the back of the leading shoulder facing the net through contact. To help you achieve this, extend your free hand back behind you as a kind of counter-balance. Drive your racket and knuckles through with a low-to-high swing, watching the ball all the way and making contact in front of your leading leg.

One-handed players should finish with the chest half-turned to the net. Two handers should finish up with the chest facing the net and the racket wrapped around the shoulders.

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An IntoNet solution!

Why do I keep netting my backhands?

Let's assume your footwork is okay and you're setting yourself on balance for your shots. And let's also assume you're making contact with the ball at a reasonable height (between knee and waist). Well then, you might try to eliminate the problem by means of the following:

Prepare early and try to meet the ball more in front of you - if you play single-handed backhands, your contact point should be slightly further forward than on your forehand side.

If you're using slice, open the racket face a bit more (or reduce the downward angle of your stroke).

If you're not using slice, get your racket below the ball and aim higher - at least three feet above the net. Higher still if you use a lot of topspin.

Netting backhands is sometimes the result of rolling over the ball. You should try to create topspin by brushing up the back of the ball with a vertical racket face - don't roll it!

If you use a two-handed backhand, try moving your dominant hand round just a smidgeon clockwise towards a 'continental' grip position.

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Give me a one-armed coach!

I have a two-handed backhand and can't cope with low-bouncing balls. Please help.

By the time players consider the advantages and disadvantages of their two-handed backhand, it's usually too late - they're committed to it. Not that I've got anything against it. On the contrary, I believe Jimmy Connors, Bjorn Borg and Chris Evert transformed tennis in the 1970s into a more accessible and powerful game with their two-fisted shots. More accessible, because the two-handed backhand is quicker and easier to learn than the one-handed version. More powerful, because it allows a more open stance and increased shoulder and trunk rotation.

Lack of reach is an obvious limitation and most two-handed players struggle to deal with low-bouncing balls. Even though his two-hander was his best shot as a junior, Pete Sampras switched to a single-handed backhand at the age of 13 because it fitted the style of game that eventually brought him seven Wimbledon titles. The double-handed backhand is great for topspin, but not so great for slice. Although Connors and Evert were not averse to applying slice with both hands on the racket, it's a much better shot played with one hand. You also tend to find that one-handers generally volley better on the backhand side than two-handers.

So there we are. On the one hand, two-handers can hit more powerful topspin drives from the back of the court and they can disguise the direction of their shots. On the other hand, well, yes, there are those disadvantages. Exasperated by equivocating advisors who repeatedly said "On the one hand, Mr President ... , but on the other hand ...", US President Harry Truman is once said to have appealed for a one-armed advisor! Before you throw up both your hands (or maybe just one!) in similar frustration, I can reveal there is a solution!

Mats Wilander was probably the first of the new breed of two-handers to add a one-handed slice to his game and he became a much more effective player when he did so. You'll often see someone like Andy Roddick use a one-handed backhand slice to approach the net or to vary the flight of the ball and make his opponent contend with a lower-bouncing ball. And there's the solution - if you have a two-handed backhand, you should also add a one-handed slice to your repertoire.

It's a fairly natural shot to master. Instead of opening your hips and rotating your shoulders as you would with your two-handed shot, you need to use a continental grip, stay sideways, keep your front shoulder closed and extend your non-racket hand out behind you.

Stick with your two-hander, but develop a one-handed backhand slice to mix things up, vary the spin, reach for wide balls, dig out low balls or approach the net.

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Avoid chin-ups!

What must I do to stop skying the ball with my one-handed topspin backhand?

Gustavo Kuerten Check your grip. Your problem could be related to the angle of your racket face on contact with the ball. Assuming you're right-handed, slot your racket under your left armpit (like a rolled-up newspaper) with the handle sticking out forwards. Take hold of the grip and pull the racket out - you will now be holding it with the correct grip.

Pulling up your head and shoulder on contact with the ball is another likely cause of your problem. Prepare early for the stroke by turning the back of your leading shoulder towards the ball. Keep your head still, focusing both eyes on the ball over your shoulder as you transfer your weight into the shot. And this is the important bit:- try to keep your chin over your leading foot until after you've accelerated your racket up through the ball. I know some of that sounds like an extract from a contortionist's handbook, but I'm sure you know what I mean!

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That's a bit steep, isn't it?

My slice backhands are more like drop shots. How can I get more depth?

Slice is generated by hitting the ball high-to-low. Some players assume that this high-to-low action should match the steepness of a topspin stroke, but that's not the case. There is no need to chop at the ball. The steeper the downward angle of the stroke, the more backspin you create. A really steep action will produce so much backspin that it will effectively turn into a drop shot.

Apart from flattening out the swing, you can ensure better depth on your slice shots by:

i. using a continental grip

ii. using a closed stance, i.e. sideways on to the net

iii. keeping a fairly firm wrist

iv. aiming towards the top of the ball (as opposed to the bottom of it), avoiding a "dishing" action by cutting slightly downwards through the ball in the direction of your target

v. leaning your weight into the shot

vi. making sure you stay sideways throughout the stroke, swinging your non-racket hand out behind you

vii. watching videos of players like Martina Navratilova, Steffi Graf, Jana Novotna, Tim Henman, Roger Federer.

If none of the above corrects the problem, try using an eastern backhand grip.

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The right way, the wrong way and the other way

As a coach, I'm confused by the different ways of hitting a two-handed backhand. Which method is correct?

There may be a right way and a wrong way to do things, but sometimes the wrong way is to try to get everybody to perform the right way. We coaches should remember that sometimes!

If you analyse the strokes produced by the top pros, you'll easily identify differences in style and technique. The two-handed backhand produced by Venus Williams, for example, bears so little resemblance to the one used by Lleyton Hewitt, it could have originated on a different planet. Some prepare by bending the wrists up, others bend them down. Some turn sideways, some not so much. Some follow through in the direction of the shot, others brush up the back of the ball. Individual style, body type and personality can serve to muddy the waters for coaches and players alike. With so much scope for variation, it can be very difficult to appreciate the core biomechanical principles necessary for efficient stroke production.

A groundstroke - any groundstroke - is essentially a kinetic chain of events allowing elastic energy stored in the preparation phase of the stroke to be transferred into racket head speed on impact. This flow of energy, transferred smoothly from muscle group to muscle group, typically starts with an upward drive of the legs and passes into rotation of the trunk before finding release at contact with the ball. If the sequence is incorrect, the result is often a weak or mistimed shot. Excessive loading of the wrong muscles at the wrong time must be avoided anyway as this poses the risk of injury.

Players tweak and modify aspects of this kinetic chain to facilitate more pace, more spin or more consistency, but the basic principles of timely preparation, transfer of weight and energy, comfortable contact point, balance and recovery are pretty much universal. These are the principles we have to put across as coaches.

And always remember, if it ain't broke don't fix it!

I'm indebted to my son, Mark, for his contribution to this article.

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© 2001-6 Dave Winship

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