My one handed students: younger, older, girls, boys.
In my first article in this series we took on the controversial issue of whether a one hander or two hander is somehow "better," and went into a detailed discussion of the positives and negatives of both strokes. My conclusion was that either stroke can be effective at all levels, depending on the player. (Click Here).
Now let's outline an assessment process for players and coaches to help in the decision of which to choose. Specifically, what are the underlying physical and psychological factors to consider in the decision making process?
Height and Wrist Strength
What I look for in the beginning are two things. First, height, and second, right arm/wrist strength. If the player is tall and strong, I usually consider the single-hander as an option. If the player is shorter and weaker, the two-hander is almost always the preferred way to go.
Both can be the correct choice for players somewhere in between. But I also have some very tall boys with two-handers and there are plenty of up-and-coming big, tall boys on the tour with two-handers.
As with juniors, some club players are definite one-handers.
I do tend to teach smaller boys two-handers, unless they show great aptitude and preference for the one-hander. But there are exceptions there as well based on the other factors outlined below.
It's the same for girls and for club players. It can all go either way. Male club players often are far better off with one hand, but I have even taught one-handers to beginning women.
Coordination is also a big factor. Some players are more right or left-side dominant. Kids that show a clear dominance or at least balance with their opposite side are great two-hander candidates.
Think of Rafa's backhand since he was naturally right handed. These players will show an immediate talent for the two-handed swing.
Some players literally may not be wired to synchronize both arms together. They just don't activate or coordinate their left side very well.
Being naturally right-handed contributes to Rafa's incredible two-hander.
These players will show aptitude for the one-hander if the coach lets them experiment. Unfortunately, most coaches in the US are taught to start pretty much everyone with two hands, so some natural one-handed players are forced into a standard double-handed mold, to their detriment.
Related to strength and coordination issues are certain technical elements of the strokes themselves. Generally the one-hander requires a longer swing path to generate the same power as the two-handed backhand.
The backswings of top, one-handed players on the tour often wraps around the body. For a developing player this can be a significant disadvantage.
Two-handed backswings on the other hand tend to be more compact or, "in the slot." These differences can make the one-hander difficult to time and can contribute to late contact in powerful exchanges.
They can limit the ability of the player to take the ball early and on the rise. The player will definitely have less strength on high balls and may have to slice balls that a two-hander could still easily drive. Unless the player is super strong, the one-hander will also create a challenge in the critical area of the return of serve.
There are major differences in the shape and length of the backswings between the one and two-hander at the world class level.
Two handers can take the ball later in the strike zone and still have strength and flexibility due to the left arm/wrist support. Many commentators believe this gives the two-hander the edge in disguising shots, especially shots taken later in the hitting zone, like counterpunching and passing shots.
Does the player want a one or two hander? Talk to the player and find out. This is a critical and unless the player eventually comes on board with the decision, the other factors are irrelevant.
Has the player dreamed since he was a child about having a Roger Federer backhand? Or does he admire Novak Djokovic's two hander? The dream and vision of the player is a very important factor.
Mental toughness is also important. In the 10's and 12's divisions, the one handed player can face tremendous adversity due to lack of strength and height.
To overcome this, one handed players have to be brave and rebellious. They must be willing to stand out from the herd.
I want players to experiment with both backhands for significant time.
They need to be iconoclasts with a strong self-image and self-belief, and a strong vision of themselves in the future. Timid or mentally fragile kids will generally be better served by having a solid two-hander, which doesn't expose them to as much adversity in younger years.
For all these reasons I often experiment with both backhands for a significant period. I take my time with the process. We experiment with both one and two-handers. Often the player can hit both beautifully. We play with it for a month or two, and ask the parents to respect this process.
At the end I have players go both ways then decide for themselves. Often it isn't an obvious decision. But it is a player centered approach that takes time, not just one lesson.
What About Female Players?
It's easy to understand why most girls play two-handed, if we consider the physiological and psychological factors mentioned previously. However, tall, strong, and mentally tough girls who crave a one-hander should not be denied!
Or even smaller female players if they are talented and determined. Remember Justin Henin? No doubt she had one of the great all time one-handed backhands. What if she had been forced into a two?
Justine Henin: one of the all time great one-handers.
It's funny but I was teaching my wife, who is a beginner, and she just hated hitting with two-hands. She experimented with the one-hander and loved the physical movement of the stroke. The two-hander felt constricting and tight for her.
She loved the freedom of opening up her body with the one-hander. It felt more flowing and artistic to her. The two-hander just didn't fit her personality and brain wiring.
And that can be true of players at all levels. Some just don't like the "feel" what to them is the constricted, two handed swing. It just doesn't feel as creative or artistic and emotionally "handcuffs" the person.
As we have noted, the two handed backhand dominates junior tennis. And the dominance is almost universal among girls.
But then look at Mayo Hibi, a relatively slight player who caused a sensation by dominating the girls 18s at last year's Easter Bowl and winning 2 other ITF junior events. Check out her incredible flowing one-hander.
Mayo Hibi, a dominant junior with a gorgeous one-handed backhand.
So what are the clues for finding potential one-handed players in the crowd of two-handers? Or for deciding that a player really is better off with two?
Some players are just naturals. It appears that God himself has decreed the player should have a one-hander. With these players the stroke shows potential from the first try. Typically the player feels this immediately as well.
Another variation here is a multi-talented athlete who is able to hit two and one handed strokes with equal or near equal facility. This player could commit to one-hand based on personal predilection and other factors—or not, like my 9 year old.
Some players who have been taught two hands appear to be "arm wrestling" when hitting the two-handed shot. The arms seem to be fighting each other through the contact and extension phases of the swing.
These players are likely natural one-handers who have been boxed into swinging with two hands. Liberate these players by allowing them to swing with one hand, so the arms find peace rather than continued war!
Another candidate to change to one hand is a two hander who is obviously right arm dominant. Often his two hander is really a one hander in disguise.
The question is which arm is driving the swing—with a 10 year old Pete Sampras or with any junior.
Most of the work on the stroke is performed by the right arm and the left arm just seems to drag along for the ride. Take a look at the animation of young Pete Sampras hitting with two hands.
Which arm to you think is dominant and driving the shot? Too bad the film is in the days before high speed video.
Another clue is to look carefully at the left hand grip to see how much contribution is coming from the left arm. Often, in natural one-handers the left hand will be loose with the fingers barely gripping the racquet during the swing.
When the player is taught a one-hander, he or she feels liberated and the swing becomes fluid and faster without the non-dominant arm dragging along for the ride.
A two-handed player who naturally hits in an extreme closed stance and instinctively stays sideways through contact is also a potential one-handed candidate.
But what about established one handers who might be better off converting to two? If a player demonstrates weak grip and wrist strength at contact and cannot keep racket face strong he/or she is almost always going to be better off with a two-handed shot.
Another candidate to convert from one to two is the player with instinctive hip rotation. This player will consistently open the hips and shoulders too much when hitting a one-hander. This is a big indication that the player who would prefer a two-handed backhand.
The final answer is this. Make a judgment about physical characteristics and aptitude and question the player to gauge their psychological factors. Then if it seems indicated, experiment with both swings. See what feels more appropriate for you and your student, boy or girl.
For the right player, the one hander is definitely the right choice.
The one-hander definitely takes longer to develop for junior players and beginning adults. But for players that have traits of perseverance and a long-term vision, the one-hander can be the right choice.
It takes a trusting and mentally tough kid to go with a one-hander on the faith that when he is older it will be great. Players have to believe that In the long run it will be worth it.
With complete beginners I always experiment and teach both. For beginners this should include what I can "garage work," or shadow swinging, combined with feeding and live ball hitting. Look for clues in all these phases.
Always experiment with experienced players who are struggling with their two handers. They may natural one-handers who were never given the option. There are a lot of natural one-handers trapped in two handed swing molds out there!
In the end, remember that both the two-hander and one-hander can be developed to the world-class level and the disadvantages of each one can be mitigated with the proper training protocols during the development years.
Next: Let's begin discussing the specific technical reference points and building that world class one-hander from the ground up! Stay Tuned!
Chris Lewit is the director of the Chris Lewit Tennis Academy, with locations in the New York City area. He has coached numerous nationally and internationally ranked junior players, including several current top American players. After playing #1 singles for Cornell University, Chris competed on the ITF and USTA pro satellite and futures tours. He is a member of both the USPTA and PTR, and a graduate of the USTA High Performance Coaching program. In addition, Chris has traveled internationally to study the game with some of the world's top coaches. This article was adapted from his book, The Tennis Technique Bible, one of several current publication projects. A leading expert on the traditional and progressive Spanish methods of training, Chris's new book Secrets of Spanish Tennis will be published in 2014 by New Chapter Press.
Click Here to learn more about Chris's teaching system, his book projects, and his teaching academy.
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