Very few tennis players actively relish dealing with high-bouncing balls on their backhand side.
At club level this tactic can produce relatively weak, ineffective returns, and even at professional level it can force an opponent into giving an opportunity to strike a winner.
Nonetheless, it is possible to learn how to combat this type of shot effectively, either by neutralising its effect or counter-attacking.
In this article, I will look at the art of the high bouncing ball backhand and answer some of the most frequently asked questions.
How To Return A High Ball On The Backhand Side
The first and most important aim when you are dealing with a high ball on the backhand side is to simply return the ball. If you are too ambitious, or overly aggressive, you may fail to keep the ball in court, allowing your opponent to win a point by simply looping a high ball into the corner. This is not a good pattern, as it is rarely helpful to make things easier for your opponent than they are for you.
There are three fairly simple ways to hit a high ball backhand which will neutralise the effect of the looping ball. All of these can be executed with either a single or double-handed shot.
1. Reply in kind
In other words, if they hit a high, topspun ball to your backhand, give them exactly the same kind of ball back.
To do this, the easiest way is to step back a couple of metres behind the baseline and, with your weight on your back foot, hit a high shot with plenty of topspin.
This shot needs to be struck in a fairly aggressive, relaxed way with plenty of racket head speed.
Lob is particularly useful if the player hitting the high ball to your backhand is doing so with a view to finishing the point at the net.
You will normally have time to hit an aggressive topspin lob, which can be executed similarly to the shot described in the previous paragraph but with a slightly greater shift onto the back foot.
If you are under pressure in the rally, an accurate slice lob can also give you time to regain your position.
3. Controlled counter-hit
In this case, you will normally remain around one metre behind the baseline (perhaps closer if you use a double-handed shot), and will strike the ball while it is still rising. You will need to maintain a balanced posture and will avoid hitting the ball downwards (likely to strike the net) or upwards (likely to result in a weaker version of the ‘reply in kind’). By striking it horizontally forwards you produce a relatively positive shot, and rely on gravity to bring the ball down.
Hit A High Bounce with One-Handed Backhand
Each type of backhand offers its own benefits and drawbacks. For a single-handed player, it is relatively difficult to consistently take the ball early, as this requires the strength to consistently and accurately execute a shortened swing.
It is, however, far easier to put large amounts of spin on the ball with a one-handed backhand. The high percentage options for a single-handed player are therefore to reply in kind, or to lob.
The controlled counter-hit is a slightly more positive alternative for the single-handed player. Without taking any undue risks they can use this approach to hit a positive shot which can rush their opponent. They just need to remember to stay well balanced and not to be too aggressive.
Nadal Forehand to Federer Backhand Explained
If Federer could not take charge of the point at an early stage, as he often could on faster surfaces, Nadal would be able to pressure him with heavily sun shots to the backhand, opening up an opportunity for a winning groundstroke or volley.
In the last few years, Roger has clearly decided that ‘neutralising’ returns of Rafa’s high topspins to his backhand are not sufficient to stop Nadal taking charge of the point. He has therefore adapted the way in which he counter-hits to produce more consistent success.
Instead of what was previously a fairly ‘whippy’ shot, Roger now keeps his wrist firmer. This change gives him more control, and allows him to hit aggressive backhands, when taking the ball early, with much more reliability.
The change in Federer’s backhand led to him being confident to take the ball early and counter attack against both Nadal’s wide serve and high topspin cross-court forehand.
Suddenly Nadal could no longer use these ploys to put himself in charge of rallies, and he found himself under far more pressure from Roger’s aggressive backhand counter-hits.
A further advantage Federer has is that he has an exceptional ability to hit half-volleys, allowing him to take the ball as early as he wishes.
Practice A One-Handed Backhand From A High Ball
The most suitable type of practice depends upon the shot you aim to hit. Practising to reply in kind or lob simply requires you to ask someone to feed you high, topspun balls to your backhand corner.
To keep it realistic, move back to an appropriate distance behind the baseline for each shot, recovering towards the centre of the court after each feed.
The shots should be executed from a sideways-on position (closed stance) with your weight on the back foot and plenty of racket head speed, contacting the ball at around shoulder height. Place some cones on the court to mark out your target area.
To practice a more aggressive type of shot, a couple of swing changes will be needed.
- Firstly, you will prepare the racket a little higher, as you are going to contact the ball at a higher point than usual.
- Secondly, you will swing slightly more across your body than usual as you follow through.
For these shots, you will load up on the back leg and jump as you make contact, landing on the front foot. You can then practice this with a range of topspin feeds.
If you aim to be really aggressive, you will be taking the ball so early that it is nearly a half-volley. To practice this, ask someone to feed topspin balls into your service box and hit them on the half-volley with a modest amount of topspin, mimicking Federer’s preferred technique.
Slice Backhand From A High Ball
This tactic will generally only be successful on a quick, low-bouncing court. Essentially, it is possible to play a controlled slice which passes low over the net and which limits your opponent’s options.
However, if the slice is allowed to float a little too high over the net, your opponent will be able to move in and take charge of the point with a volley, so it is a risky and difficult play.
The other use for a sliced shot from a high ball is to produce an accurate defensive lob. This can give you time to recover when you are under pressure in a rally, and if you disguise it well it may deceive an opponent who was intending to move to the net to hit a volley.
Whichever sliced option is being considered, racket preparation needs to be high to allow the ball to be played with a slight downward movement. Keeping your wrist firm will aid control.
Handle The High Ball With A Double-Handed Backhand
Players with a double-handed backhand often take a more attacking approach to dealing with high balls on the backhand side than those with a single hander. This is because it is easier for them to make a compact, aggressive swing with two hands on the racket, and this enables them to take the ball on the rise and play an aggressive shot.
As explained earlier, a closed stance is best for attacking balls on the rise, and your weight should shift from your back leg to your front foot as you hit the ball. You should try to strike the ball when it is in front of you, as this makes it easier to swing smoothly and direct the ball accurately.
Andre Agassi Backhand High Ball
Agassi was a great exponent of the aggressive two-handed backhand. He would shuffle around energetically, remaining close to the baseline. If a high ball came to his backhand side, and there was no opportunity to drive volley it, he was very likely to take it early and attempt to take charge of the rally.
Novak Djokovic Backhand High Ball
Djokovic is renowned for his mobility, flexibility, and all-round solidity. When he is playing well it looks almost impossible to make him miss. He relishes high balls to the backhand, and will jump as necessary to find the best contact point.
For this reason, he is one of the few players who looks capable of dealing comfortably with Nadal’s forehand on a slow court. Djokovic is happy to set up a little further back than Agassi did, but he is still capable of a strong counter-attack.
Two Handed Backhand Grip For A High Ball
Most players will not change their grip to hit a high ball. The majority will hold the racket in a continental grip with their dominant hand, and some kind of forehand grip with their non-dominant hand. Typically the latter may be an Eastern grip, but Djokovic, for example, prefers to use a Semi-Western which allows him to impart additional spin if he so wishes.
High Bounce to Backhand Summary
The high bouncing ball to the backhand side is tricky to deal with for many players. There are several effective ways of dealing with it.
- Lob, either topspin or with slice.
- Reply in kind, by giving your opponent a high ball to their backhand.
- Controlled counter-hit, keeping balanced and smooth.
- Aggressive early ball with a compact swing, as exemplified by Federer and Agassi.
- Controlled low slice, but this is difficult to hit with the necessary precision.
- For a two-handed player, Novak Djokovic illustrates how to execute the counter-hit effectively.
Do you have trouble with the high ball to the backhand? Do you have a favourite way of dealing with it? Let us know via the comments.