End of an era! One-handed backhand’s 52-year reign in the ATP Top 10 over after Tsitsipas’ exit

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Fifty years ago, in 1974, nine of the top ten ranked ATP players were one-handed players; this number has slowly been decreasing until now, when it’s reached zero.

Is this the end of the one-handed backhand’s legacy on the ATP Tour? Is the style of play going out of fashion or, rather, becoming obsolete? Well, the signs of its decline have been noticeable for the last couple of decades. Ever since the early 1980s, when racket technology in tennis improved, players have been moving away from the retro style of play.

How the one-handed backhand lost its relevance

We can go 50 years back and look at former ATP World No. 1 Jimmy Connors if we see the effectiveness of the double-handed backhanded. But the start of the end for the one-handed backhanded can be equated to Andre Agassi. The stylish American became the first man to win all four slams in the Open Era (since 1968) in 1999 and was known for his incredible two-handed backhand that was hailed as the best backhand the tennis world had seen until Novak Djokovic took over that mantle.

By the end of the 1990s, we could see a change, with Marat Safin and Agassi starting to win more while Pete Sampras continued to be the force to be reckoned with throughout the decade. But it turned out that the 1990s were the start. Roger Federer kept the one-handed backhand alive in the 2000s; it was only him who carried the style of play with little assistance from Stan Wawrinka and Dominic Thiem since 2010.

Since 2000, we have seen multiple Grand Slam champions with a two-handed backhand, with Rafael Nadal and Novak Djokovic being the standouts with 46 Slams combined. While we have had some talented one-handers in the last couple of years in Stefanos Tsitsipas, Grigor Dimitrov, and Denis Shapovalov, only Thiem has found major success.

With Tsitsipas moving out of the Top 10 in the ATP Tour’s 52-year history, the oldest and most elegant style of play in tennis has reached rock bottom.

Why is the one-handed backhand going out of fashion?

As mentioned above, racket technology played a huge role in the double-handed backhand’s rise. As rackets evolved from wood to carbon fiber or graphite in the 1980s, players got to play with a bigger and better sweet spot, and the change in the size of the racket helped them play with more topspin.

This meant that you didn’t need more precision or timing but rather could start playing using power. This allowed players to stay back and not rush to the net to finish points. As we went into the 1990s and 2000s, the improvement started to get better and better, and the one-handed backend explosiveness started being exploited by consistent double-handers.

This, coupled with slower courts and a decrease in grass courts, saw players evolve into double-handers. The pendulum has swung so much that the one-hander is now seen as a disadvantage even before watching someone play.

Despite Federer winning 20 Grand Slams, people have often considered his one-handed backhand to be a weakness. The disturbing thing is that there is some truth in the statement. While a one-hander gives players some power and explosiveness, it also takes away consistency due to a bigger backhand swing and a high-bouncing topside ball.

Ranking Progression: One-handed backhand players in the ATP Top 10

2024: No player

2014: Roger Federer (2) and Stan Wawrinka (4)

2004: Roger Federer (1), Tim Henman (6), Gaston Gaudion (10)

1994: Pete Sampras (1), Boris Becker (3), Stefan Edberg (7), Alberto Berasategui (8), Michael Stich (9)

1984: John McEnroe (1), Ivan Lendl (3), Andres Gomez (5), Henrik Sundstrom, (7), Eliot Teltscher (8), Yannick Noah (9), Pat Cash (10)

1974: John Newcombe (2), Bjorn Borg (3), Rod Laver (4), Guillermo Vilas (5), Tom Okker (6), Arthur Ashe (7), Stan Smith (8), Ken Rosewall (9), Ilie Nastase (10)

*All the rankings, apart from 2024, are year-end.

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