How did Roger Federer win 20 majors with a one-handed backhand?

March 3, 2024

If there’s a need to add some luster back to the Swiss star’s Slams, the continued decline of the one-handed backhand in his absence should do it.

How did Roger Federer win 20 majors with a one-handed backhand?

Eight years ago, Martina Navratilova summed up the problem with the one-handed backhand in today’s game: “It practically takes a genius to hit [one],” she said.

The great Czech-American champion used a single-hander herself to win 18 Grand Slam singles titles from 1978 to 1990. But by the time she spoke those words, in 2016, the stroke had been declining - in use, though not in popularity - for nearly half a century. Last week, that downhill slide reached another milestone when Stefanos Tsitsipas dropped out of the ATP’s Top 10 and left it with no one-handed backhands for the first time since the start of computer rankings in 1973. The state of the stroke is even more dire on the women’s side, where 47th-ranked, 36-year-old Tatjana Maria has the only one-hander among the Top 60.

Navratilova was right: As the sport evolved, and players spent more time slugging from the baseline, it became increasingly difficult to survive the ground-stoke onslaught with just one hand.

For most of the 20th century, when net-rushing was the norm, the one-handed backhand was usually a slice or a flat drive. It was especially effective on approach shots and returns of serve. But as baseline battles heated up in the 21st-century, using a one-hander has meant generating enough racquet-head speed, and timing the ball well enough, to match the pace and topspin of the ground strokes coming from the other side of the net. Watching Roger Federer or Justine Henin whip through their swings so rapidly and gracefully, you can understand what Navratilova meant when she said that it takes a genius just to execute the shot today.

Aesthetically, the effort was worth it. There were stylish one-handers in the serve-and-volley era; Ken Rosewall’s hard chop and Evonne Goolagong’s biting whisper of a slice are two of the great strokes of any era. But in general, the harder the one-hander became to use, the more elaborate, and beautiful, it became to watch. Federer, Henin, Stan Wawrinka, Richard Gasquet, Carla Suarez Navarro, Nicolas Almagro, Gustavo Kuerten, Tommy Haas, Amelie Mauresmo and Dominic Thiem are among the modern-day players who have had memorably elegant one-handers. In fact, few fans today swoon over any shot other than a long, liquid single-handed backhand. The appeal of most serves, forehands, volleys, and two-handed backhands comes from how well they work. Only the one-hander, with its extended follow-through up and away from the body, gives us something extra - something done seemingly for beauty’s sake alone - to appreciate.

The decline of the one-hander was predictable. Bigger racquets, slower courts, grippier strings and, most important, the rise of the less-difficult two-handed backhand, seemed to spell the stroke’s doom as far back as the 1990s. Federer, Wawrinka, Henin, Thiem, and a few others managed to keep the shot in the major-title mix, while Ash Barty rose to No. 1 after making her single-handed slice her go-to shot from that side. But the latest group of contenders on both tours - Carlos Alcaraz, Jannik Sinner, Iga Swiatek, Aryna Sabalenka, Daniil Medvedev - all have excellent two-handed backhands.

That’s because, as much as we love to watch a one-hander, using one is a tough trade-off.

The shot does have its upsides. You have a more natural slice, you can drop the ball short or come to net behind it, and, because the grip is similar to a backhand volley grip, it makes it easier to play the net.

The more difficult the one-handed backhand became to use, the more beautiful it became to watch.

But judging from the results at the pro level, the minuses outweigh the pluses these days. You won’t return serve as well with one hand on the racquet, and you’ll be at a disadvantage from the baseline against a two-handed opponent. Thiem and Denis Shapovalov are examples of guys who have had success with single-handers, but who don’t come to net enough to take full advantage of it. Their backhands are among the most spectacular strokes in the sport, but they don’t get any extra points for style. If their opponent needs a point, he’s going to serve to their backhand side. Since 2019, Thiem is the only player to win a Slam with a one-handed backhand, but he’s now ranked 92nd. Shapovalov is 121st.

The one-hander appears to be a thing of the past on the WTA side, where the two-handed backhand is so often a player’s most reliable weapon. But it’s not quite dead among the men. Tsitsipas could be back in the Top 10 soon, and he made a major final as recently as last January. Grigor Dimitrov and his one-hander are still in the Top 15. And 21-year-old Lorenzo Musetti is keeping the shot’s crowd-pleasing tradition alive. Still, it’s Musetti’s two-handed countryman, Sinner, who has risen much farther in the rankings.

An all-two-handed ATP Top 10 brings up a question in my mind: How did Federer do it? How did he win 20 majors with one hand? By the time he retired, he could be described as the last great men’s player of the 20th century. He learned the game in the ‘90s, watching Stefan Edberg, Pete Sampras, Boris Becker - all guys who won with one-handed backhands - and by serving and volleying. Federer, by contrast, won the 21st century way, (mostly) from the baseline, with a backhand from another era.

If Federer had come along 10 years later, he might have used a two-hander. If so, his game probably wouldn’t have been as flowing or varied or artistic as the one we knew. Lucky for us - but maybe harder for him - that he arrived when he did. He had to be, as Navratilova would say, practically a genius to make that shot work, and we had a chance to see him do it. —

How did Roger Federer win 20 majors with a one-handed backhand?