Chapter 9: The One-Handed Backhand

This chapter will teach you both the flat and the topspin one-handed backhand.

If you have decided to hit your backhand two-handed, you don’t need to go through this chapter at all. Skip it and go directly to Chapter Ten, “The Serve.”

The one-handed backhand could be likened to hitting the ball with the back of the hand, as shown in the photograph below.

  

(CAUTION: Don’t try this with the regular ball because it hurts the hand. You can practice this with a sponge ball, as shown above)

The body should definitely be sideways to the net during this stroke, turning back towards the center of the court only with the finish. This stroke is best executed by pulling the shoulder blades together in your back, rather that moving the wrist (which should be locked with the racquet perpendicular to the arm, even while rotating the forearm to achieve more topspin.

To learn this backhand quickly, put the thumb of your right hand against the strings, as shown in the photograph below.

As soon as you succeed hitting the ball this way 2 or 3 ft. over the net, you can switch your grip to the handle of the racquet, as shown above. Keep the racquet perpendicular to your arm, with the arm pointing in the direction you want the ball.
 

DRILL #1: Stand about eight to ten feet from the net. Have your friend stand on the other side of the net, tossing easy balls toward your left side. Meet the ball well in front of you and gently push it up and over the net, toward the open court. Finish with your arm fully extended and up. Eventually, you can move your grip to the end and have the thumb around the grip, as shown here.

This is an upward effort, both to lift the ball and the arm.

Don’t resort to hitting the ball hard to get it over the net. Just push the ball upward more than forward, sending it a few feet above the net.

After a few shots turn slightly to your left. See if this helps your swing.

Leave the arm up at the finish for a couple of seconds to build the relationship between your finish and the placement of your shot in your opponent’s court.

If you have good control of the ball, you can hit it slowly toward your friend, who will catch it and toss it to you again.

The following drills are similar to the ones you did while learning the forehand.

DRILL #2: Have your friend toss some shorter balls. Move up to the ball, find it, and hit it gently, up and over the net.

DRILL #3: Hit several backhands while walking from your right sideline to the left sideline, with your friend tossing the ball short and a bit to your front. Meet the ball toward the right side of your body, as in Picture 2 above, and extend your arm upward in the direction of your opponent’s court, as in Picture 3.

DRILL #4: Hit backhands while walking backward, from the left sideline to your right sideline. Your friend tosses the ball in your direction so that you have to move back to hit. Keep the right arm up at the end of your swing for a short while, as in the prior drills. Your friend shouldn’t rush you by feeding the next ball too soon.

You could also do a combination of these last two drills, hitting four or five backhands while walking forward, and four or five backhands while walking backward.

As you gain confidence in your shots, gradually start moving your hand toward the grip of the racquet. Your left hand will help you support the racquet prior to your swing.

You don’t need to move your right hand all the way onto the racquet handle early in your development. Keep your hand wherever it feels comfortable.

If you feel confident that you are ready and are finding the ball well, you can place your right hand on the grip, but keep the angle between the racquet and your arm close to perpendicular. Otherwise you’ll get used to “breaking” your wrist, following through with your racquet only, instead of fully extending the arm.

DRILL #5: Put the can of balls in the center of the court, near the service line. Round the can to your left, looking at your friend who is ready to toss you a ball toward your backhand side.

Turn to your left and start walking toward the left side of your court.

Your friend tosses the ball slightly in front of you, making sure it bounces well before it gets to you. Get near the ball, finding it toward the right side of your body, your right arm fully extended. As you touch the ball, accelerate your arm upward and lift the ball over the net.

You end up with your right arm fully extended toward the net, while your left arm extends backward to keep your balance.

After finishing your swing, turn to your right, with the arm still up. When you finish your turn, bring the racquet back to both hands, while walking back toward the center of the court. Round the can again and repeat the process over and over.

Don’t turn your back toward your opponent’s court. After you hit, turn to your right. Round the can turning to your left.

In this drill it is best to use the backhand grip all the time in order to get used to it. Small changes and adjustments will occur, both in your grip and your swing. This is okay, because you are developing a better feel and the most efficient swing possible.

As long as you are clearing the net safely and have the ball speed under control, keep lifting away.

Gradually move away from the net and toward the backcourt, continuing this drill from farther back.

You can leave your thumb against the backside of the grip, or you can drop it all the way around it. As players get very good, they usually end up with the thumb down and around the grip.

The flat and the topspin one-handed backhands are similar. Topspin will be a natural consequence of your lift.

Ideally, your ball should be rotating with topspin from an early stage in your learning.

It is easier to muscle the ball with topspin using your forehand. To develop the same strong feel in your backhand you’ll need to practice until you develop your back and shoulder muscles.

Just keep pulling up your swing, brushing up on the ball. Start with the racquet head below the ball and pull it upward toward the sky.

Do it gently, slowly building up your strength. Do not use much force. Get feel and control first.

DRILL #6: After you have excellent control and get every ball over the net and in the court, get rid of the can of balls.

Go onto the center of the court, behind the service line. Have your friend feed a ball to your forehand side. Get to the ball and hit a forehand. Turn to your left. Change to your backhand grip. Pointing the butt of the racquet toward the ball in your friend’s hand will help this process.
Your friend then feeds a ball to your backhand side, close to your reach. Get to it and hit a backhand. Leave the racquet up while you turn to your right. Then put the racquet butt near your bellybutton, changing to your forehand grip.

Your friend now feeds a ball to your forehand side. Get to it and hit a forehand, turn to your left, and so on.

Your left hand can help you get your backhand grip by pulling back from the throat of the racquet. At the same time the grip slides inside your right hand, while you set your fingers closer together.

Do not look at your grip while changing from forehand to backhand or vice versa. The grip needs to be felt, not seen.

If you are experiencing any trouble, take a few minutes and practice this grip change with your eyes closed. Face the net with your forehand grip. Turn your shoulders to your left, while pulling back from the racquet throat with your left hand and slightly loosening your right hand grip. Point the racquet butt to an imaginary ball coming to your backhand side and tighten your right hand grip again. This sequence will change your grip inside your right hand.

After that tighten your arms and shoulders as if you were preparing for a backhand stroke. Then face the net again, centering your forehand grip by your bellybutton.

Do this back and forth until the grip change becomes automatic, together with your turning to your left and to your right.

Some players, including many professionals, bring their shoulders around, right shoulder toward the ball in the backhand, left shoulder toward the ball in the forehand. This is good (it keeps the body moving), as long as you keep finding the ball with your hand, not your shoulder.

DRILL #7: Now your friend can mix up forehands and backhands. He can also slowly step up the difficulty of the drill. Always feel in control, otherwise cut the difficulty back.

Do this drill until you are getting every ball smoothly into your opponent’s court.

Rallying

Now you are ready to hit back and forth. You’ll need someone to hit with that has good control. Start at a slow pace, keeping the ball in play as long as you can.

This is not a game yet. You are still developing your strokes and you want to keep the same feel of control and finish of your stroke.

If you lose the feel of your swing or you lose your confidence, find the ball well and exaggerate the finish of your swing. It should come right back.

Control (For those who skipped the previous chapter)

Keep the ball in play at a medium or slow pace that allows you to find the ball easily and to get it back to the other player with a full and controlled stroke.

I say a controlled stroke because that is the emphasis when learning with this method. You’ll very quickly see the relationship between your swing and the ball’s velocity and placement.

You can experiment, but be careful not to stray very far from the essence of this technique. Should you start to make wild strokes, or the other player feed or return the ball wildly, it can severely damage both your swing and your confidence.

Confidence

Confidence is built by hitting the same shot over and over a few hundred times. You get to know that you caused it with a specific movement, a specific technique.

Trial and error as a learning method doesn’t work well in tennis. There are a million ways of striking the ball, but very, very few of them are really effective.

With the type of stroke I am teaching you, topspin is an easy thing to develop both for the forehand and the backhand. If you can hit topspin consistently from the backcourt, at a medium pace, three to six feet over the net, you are on the way to becoming a good player.

In following junior tennis at the world-ranking level for many years, I have seen that the great majority of top players in the last fifteen years are those who had plenty of topspin in at least one of their strokes in their developing years.

Although topspin has been widely accepted by the best players, most of the various teaching techniques seem to avoid it altogether.

On the contrary, I encourage you to use it right from the beginning. I like to provide students with the best equipment for their stroke, to teach them to play like a pro, to be as consistent as a pro.
You may be using topspin defensively to start with, but sooner or later you’ll learn powerful offensive shots that will need a lot of topspin to stay in the court.

I purposely took away the power in the early learning stages with my teaching methods. You focused on feel and control. Now the power will gradually come into your game.

As you gain confidence you’ll stroke harder. With a lot of topspin, you can hit as hard as you like. As long as the ball keeps clearing the net and going into the opposite court, this process shouldn’t be disturbed.

Advanced Topspin

Many top players can hit tremendous one-handed topspin backhands from almost any position. Prior to the shot they point the butt of the racquet to the incoming ball, lowering the racquet below the ball. From there they hit upward, getting plenty of lift and ball rotation, while still hitting the ball very hard.

Depending on the racquet face angle, they can achieve–with the same stroke–a low passing shot, a forceful crosscourt, a high and deep looping shot, or a deceiving topspin lob.It isn’t hard to do. It is just a question of being far enough below the ball to create plenty of lift.