The quality of your backhand can be a crucial factor in many matches. Any opponent that does not know your game is likely to attack this side in the hope of finding a weakness. A solid, reliable backhand will nullify this tactic and will allow you to counter-attack when the opportunity arises.
At professional level, many of the top players have outstanding backhands which rarely break down and can produce numerous winners. Some of these, however, are reliant on a degree of flexibility and dynamic movement which senior players will not be able to match.
In this article I will look at some of the options for backhand technique and associated grips, with a view to finding the best backhand for senior tennis.
(This section appears in other articles in this series concerning the forehand and the serve, but is reproduced here for convenience). The way you grip the racket is absolutely fundamental to how you hit the ball. Before we discuss the grip in detail, we need to find a clear way to explain the differences between various grip types.
A racket handle has an octagonal (8-sided) profile, so the easiest way to describe a grip is to explain how these sides, or ‘bevels’ as they are known, sit in your hand. The bevels are illustrated and labelled in the diagram below.
The numbering of the bevels differs for right and left-handers, as they hit the ball with opposite sides of the racket. Most players will hold the racket reasonably firmly in their dominant hand, with the thumb and index-finger making a ‘V’. The index finger will be in a kind of ‘trigger’ position, with the rest of the fingers staying close together as they wrap around the handle.
Types Of Backhand Grip
The first thing to consider is whether you want to play your backhand with one or two hands on the racket. I will discuss the pros and cons of these options later, but the popular choices of grip are discussed here.
Grips For A Single-Handed Backhand
For an Eastern backhand grip, the index knuckle and heel of the hand are placed on bevel 1. This allows a significant amount of spin to be developed. If you use an Eastern grip for your forehand, holding the racket this way means that you will use the opposite faces for forehand and backhand. If, however, you are one of those rare seniors who uses a full Western grip for their forehand you will be able to use the same side of the racket for both forehand and backhand, as was famously exemplified by Spanish professional Alberto Berasetegui.
The more extreme Western backhand grip requires you to place your index knuckle and the heel of your hand somewhere between bevels 8 and 1. By changing the angle of the racket at impact, this allows you to develop even more spin than using an Eastern Grip. Frenchman Richard Gasquet, renowned for his aggressive, heavily topspun backhands, is a prominent exponent of the Western backhand grip.
Grips For A Double-Handed Backhand
There are two commonly used alternatives here. In all cases, the dominant hand will hold the racket in a continental grip, meaning that the index knuckle and heel of the hand will sit approximately on bevel 2. The options for the non-dominant hand are as follows.
For the Eastern grip, the index knuckle and heel of the non-dominant hand are placed on bevel 8. This grip is quite popular among the bulk of players who see the two-handed backhand primarily as a flat, aggressive shot.
The Semi-Western grip requires the index knuckle and heel of the non-dominant hand to be placed somewhere between bevels 6 and 7. This grip enables players to hit the two-handed backhand with more topspin, offering the option to hit clever angles.
Stroke Mechanics of Different Backhand Grips for Seniors
Single-Handed Topspin Backhand
You will not be able to teach yourself a backhand from scratch without expert analysis of what you are doing. If you are a beginner, consider the type of shot you would like to play, and find a good coach to work with. If you are a more experienced senior player, you will probably have a well-established technique to which you are unlikely to benefit from making radical changes.
Nonetheless, as you move up the age-groups there are certain refinements that you may benefit from considering.
Firstly, your shot should be simple. Extravagant, Gasquet-like flourishes are unlikely to do your body any good.
Secondly, it should be smooth. An aggressive, jerky motion is likely to lead to inconsistency and injury.
The best way to develop your backhand for senior players is therefore to work with your coach on making it simpler and smoother, in order to improve consistency and accuracy, as well as protecting you against injury.
For the higher age-groups, you will probably want to consider moving to an Eastern grip if you currently use something more extreme. This has the advantage of allowing you to develop more power in the absence of high racket-head speed, and also minimises the grip change necessary if you choose to move to the net.
Single-Handed Slice Backhand
A sliced backhand is normally played with a continental grip, as described earlier. The racket moves from high to low and the follow-through heads in the direction in which you were aiming the shot.
The sliced backhand is useful for defense on any surface, and can be useful for approach shots on faster surfaces. It is the default backhand in seniors when you are not in the ideal position to hit an attacking shot, which means that it is used increasingly in older age groups.
Much of the work, when hitting a double-handed backhand, is done with your body. You need to get into a position closer to the ball than would be appropriate for a single-handed backhand, and rotate effectively.
Once again, any technical adjustments are best discussed with a coach, but the double-hander has the innate advantage of already being, by definition, a fairly simple stroke. It is also far easier for seniors to develop power using this method than it is using a single-hander.
The downside is that your reach is reduced. The choice of grip for this shot depends upon whether you want power or finesse. The latter is probably best applied using a Semi-Western grip for your non-dominant hand, whereas an Eastern grip will be better if you are looking for power.
Which Backhand Is Best?
As you age, you may want to change your backhand in order to improve your competitiveness. Where once an aggressive two-hander may have been your choice, you may find that you are less frequently in position to hit attacking shots with it as your movement slows.
Similarly, you might struggle to reach wide balls which you would previously have reached. The same is likely to apply to a lesser extent with the single-handed topspin backhand. The latter requires a well-balanced stance if you are to hit it properly, and, if you are not getting into position as quickly as you once did, you will find the shot becoming less and less effective.
The answer for many seniors is to play most of their backhands with slice. This gives you a greater reach, and can be played effectively from poorer positions. It can also aid in getting to the net to shorten rallies. It does not rule out hitting more aggressive backhands from time to time, but the balance is likely to be strongly in favour of the slice.
Basing your game on a sliced backhand also has the advantage of offering good disguise for variations such as the drop-shot and lob, which can be very effective in older age-groups.
If your topspin backhand has always been your best shot, there is certainly no reason to stop using it as you get older. The key point is that as your mobility reduces you may need to hit more slices, so it is really important to work hard to make your slice into a high quality shot. You also need to understand that the slice can be a very effective attacking shot, so using it need not be indicative of a negative mindset.
Best Advice on Backhand for Senior Tennis Players
There are three main choices when deciding which type of backhand to hit.
- Single-handed topspin
- Single-handed slice
Any of these can be effective in the right circumstances.
For the topspin backhands, an Eastern grip offers more power, whilst a more Western grip gives the opportunity to apply more spin and control.
For a slice, the continental grip is best. As you get older and less mobile, base your game around the slice, but hit a topspin if you can when you are in a good position to do so.
Whichever shot you hit, focus on keeping your technique simple and smooth.
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