The Art and Science of Victory
One Handed Topspin Backhand

The one handed, topspin backhand is the most beautiful stroke in the game. Rife with fluid movement and graceful lines it rivals the dance for pure expression in motion. It is also an effective stroke that can be used on defense or offense with equal bite. Combining it with the slice backhand you can keep your opponent in a constant state of confusion with balls alternatively bouncing down at their ankles and up at their noses.

Compared to the two-handed topspin, the one-hander is easier on the body, uses less energy, has better reach, is more versatile and is better on the volley. On the other hand the one handed backhand is a long,fluid stroke that requires very early and economical preparation. This cannot be overstated; the principal reason for failure to learn the one-hander or for its reputation as a less reliable stroke than the slice backhand, two hander or forehand, is late or inefficient preparation. Prepare early and well and the one-hander will be your most reliable and natural stroke.

The one-handed backhand is not capable of hitting excessive topspin. The stroke has no equivalent of the 'buggy whip' variation on the forehand side. This has to do with the links in the kinetic chain that the stroke relies on to achieve topspin; forearm supination, wrist extension and shoulder external rotation and elevation all of which are weaker than the corresponding links on the forehand side. The two-handed topspin backhand recruits elbow flexion, forearm pronation and shoulder rotation of the left arm to enhance topspin. If your game depends on the topspin lob or your style is completely defensive then hit with two hands.

The preferred grip for the one-handed topspin backhand is the eastern backhand grip. This grip maximizes the conversion of forearm supination and shoulder external rotation into topspin. Reliable topspin the the key to the defensive qualities of the shot; consistency and dippiness.

Overview

One-handed topspin backhand -

The keys to the one handed backhand topspin:

  • Back to the ball
  • Follow-through at he target.
  • Low to high
  • Economical preparation
  • Head Down
  • Eastern backhand grip
Back to the Ball

Back to the ball - all one-handed backhand strokes benefit from a closed stance - essentially showing your back to the opponent. This puts the shoulder in its strongest position at the point of contact with the ball.

This is the essential component of any one-handed backhand stroke including the volley and the backhand overhead. On the backhand side, pulling is stronger than pushing. As you begin the shoulder turn you pull the arm around the body. When the shoulders stop turning, the arm uncoils like a whip generating tremendous racquet head speed. If the stance is too open, you are pushing the racquet at the ball and cannot achieve pace or topspin. Try doing a pushup with your arms crossed and you will get the idea.

To close the stance you plant the left foot then step across an imaginary line extending from the left toe to your target. This plus the backswing presents your back to your opponent; the opponent should be able to read a logo on the back of your shirt. At he end of the follow through your shoulders should be slightly open your opponent should have trouble reading the logo on the front of your shirt. Best to think of the front of your shirt containing instructions on how best to handle your topspin backhand.

 

Follow-Through at Target .

Follow-through at the target - at the end of your follow through you should be sighting the the line of flight of the ball along your right thumb

The racquet hand finishes at eye level and you can (and should) site the target of the shot over your right thumb at he end of the follow through. This will assure that you don't follow through too far and open your stance, or not far enough because you don't fully turn your shoulders.
Low to High

Low to High - to achieve topspin the head of the racquet must pass through a point below the point of contact with the ball and end much higher. The racquet is pointing into the court but moving low to high - this results in reliable topspin.

This principal is the fundamental basis of all topspin ground strokes but it sometimes forgotten when hitting the one-handed backhand. If you don't get the racquet head below the ball there will be no topspin, no matter how high you follow through.

Paradoxically it is easier to remember to drop the racquet head below the ball if it starts higher - at the level of the shoulder. That way it has to come down to get to the point of contact.

Remember that if you don't get the racquet back far enough you will not have time to get it below the point of contact and there will be no topspin - therefore early and complete preparation is essential. A slice backhand is essentially the same as a topspin except that the racquet comes down through the point of contact in the slice as opposed to below then up through the point of contact in the slice.

Economical Preparation

Economical preparation - comprises holding the backhand grip, starting the backswing early (run with the racquet back) and running with a purpose i.e. dancing into position.

You may have wondered why some people (perhaps you) can put the ball on a dime in practice but spray it all over creation in a match. You are a victim of poor preparation my friend. Your opponents are always trying to to rush you into making errors, They jerk the ball around, hit it low and with pace, put it where you aren't. In a match you don't have time to run to the ball then set your feet then pull your racquet back then turn your shoulders - you must do them all at the same time. That way if you can reach the ball you can get off a good, topspin backhand that will rush them.

In the one handed topspin backhand there is a lot to do before one can address the ball. Getting into the closed stance takes longer than the open stance. A full backswing is absolutely necessary so that there is enough swing time before the moment of contact to allow the racquet head to fall below the level of the ball. Finally the eastern backhand grip is somewhat extreme and it takes time to get there from the forehand grip, especially from the semi-western grip. Thus the one-handed topspin backhand preparation is a bit 'high maintenance' so it is critical that you start your back swing as early as possible (as soon as you recognize that the ball is headed for your backhand) and perform it with no wasted time or motion.

You should also hold a backhand grip (eastern or continental) in the ready position and return to that grip between hits as it is usually easier to find the forehand grip than the backhand.

Technique:

  • Run with Purpose - Footwork should begin with the first step. As you move to the ball you should be getting low, finding your balance and measuring your steps so that when you get there your feet are in position, you are on balance and ready to hit. You should dance to the ball, not sprint for it then scramble to set your feet.
  • Start the Backswing Early - the moment you recognize that the ball is going to your backhand your racquet should start to come back. Get it all the way back as soon as possible and get used to running with it back. Keep the backswing simple and the same for the slice as the topspin - bring the right hand straight bach to your left nipple.
  • Hold a Backhand Grip between hits and when waiting for the ball.
Head Down

Head down - the one handed backhand is a "fire-and-forget" stroke like the drive in golf or the slap shot in hockey. The head stays down directed towards the point of contact until the very end of the follow through. This helps to prevent the stance from opening up before the moment of contact

The hardest thing to do after you pour your heart and soul into a beautiful topspin passing shot is to not watch it go. After all, your eyes were glued to the ball as it approached, Now is the fun part - you want nothing more than to watch your shot careen past your hapless opponent.

Sorry, but you can't. If you lift your head to follow the flight of the ball you will most likely see it heading for the net or the back fence. The one handed backhand is an obligatory "fire-and-forget" shot - a trait it shares with the golf drive and the hockey slap-shot. You must keep your head down through most of the follow through as if staring at the point of contact. Bring the head up and you open the shoulders during the stroke and that is bad. Very bad. It essentially undoes everything that you accomplish by closing your stance and turning your back on the ball. Looking up results in a weak, inconsistent backhand.

To master the tendency to look up and follow the ball, embrace the fact that the follow through is more important than the backswing (this is true of most strokes actually). Even though the ball is long gone, you are still influencing the outcome by what you do after it leaves your racquet.

 

Eastern Backhand Grip

Eastern Backhand grip - the preferred grip for the one-handed topspin backhand because it puts the thumb behind and below the grip (for power and spin respectively).

If you want to generate maximum topspin, the eastern backhand grip is essential. The position of the thumb under the racquet provides excellent leverage for the production of topspin and the meaty part of the hand behind the racquet results in a meaty, powerful stroke.

The Continental grip can also be used to produce topspin on the backhand, but the revolutions per minute will be less. That does not mean that one should not hit topspin with the Continental grip, only that you should not employ the Continental grip if you really want to hit topspin. This distinction may seem a bit semantic, but it is actually important. If you live and die by topspin - i.e. you are a defensive base liner - then the Eastern is the only backhand grip you need, so perfect it. If you play a more offensive game then you should be hitting more flat and slice balls anyway, so the continental grip is fine. The continental is also a unigrip, do you don't have to switch it to hit a forehand, volley, or overhead and offensive players often find themselves in tight spots with little time for grip switching.

The Eastern backhand can also be a unigrip if you use the full western grip for your forehand grip. All you have to do is flip your forearm over and hit the forehand with the other same side of the racquet as on the backhand. if you have ever tried to hit a low volley with a western grip you will understand why I discourage this grip system.