Firstpost Masterclass: Rohan Bopanna breaks down intricacies, technique behind much-loved single handed backhand
In this edition of Firstpost Masterclass, Bopanna breaks down the single handed backhand, the technique behind it, how it differs from surface to surface, the love affair that fans have with it and much more.
Editor's note: Professional sport is as much a scientific pursuit as it is a recreational wonder. What appears routinely mundane is a result of the hours spent honing the craft and deciphering the body mechanics till it becomes a monotonous muscle memory. In Firstpost Masterclass, our latest weekly series, we look at precisely these aspects that make sport a far more intriguing act than we know.
There is a certain level of fascination and romance with the single handed backhand in tennis. It comes in all shapes and sizes: from Roger Federer, Stan Wawrinka and Richard Gasquet to the youngsters in Dominic Thiem, Stefanos Tsitsipas and Denis Shapovalov. Is it the novelty factor? Most of the tennis players in the 1970s and 1980s used the single hander until the likes of Chris Evert, Bjorn Borg and Jimmy Connors brought the double hander to the picture.
In terms of technique, Canadian Shapovalov has a unique follow through that sees him complete a 360 degree arc for plenty of force. Not missing out on any force in his single handed backhand also is his doubles partner Rohan Bopanna. The 2017 Roland Garros mixed doubles champion, Bopanna comes from the school where single hander was the norm and double hander not even a consideration.
In this edition of Firstpost Masterclass, Bopanna breaks down the single handed backhand, the technique behind it, how it differs from surface to surface, the love affair that fans have with it and much more.
How did you enter tennis? Who were your early guides and inspiration?
I was a brought up in Coorg. So I've lived my first 14 years of my life there. When I started playing tennis at age 10. Actually, my parents are the ones who put me into the sport and gave me that opportunity. There was a club very close to my my house and they used to play tennis at the club level. So they took me there. And that actually transformed from me slowly liking the sport to watching all the members play there and then slowly picking it up myself. That's kind of how the journey started. It all started in a small country club in Coorg.
Did you have any early inspirations or players you looked up to when you started?
Not at all. As I said, just some club members, my parents, everyone playing tennis and I think me as a kid just enjoyed being outdoors. I love playing sports. I mean, whatever sport it may have been, I loved playing. Unfortunately in school we did not have tennis. So this was the closest. Every time after school finished, we would go to the tennis court because my parents used to play tennis. I would watch them, started out being a ball boy before I even picked up a tennis racket. One day my father gave me the tennis racket, he wanted to see how I pick up this sport. He says that I instantly fell in love with the sport. From then on, he would take me to the tennis court before school, after school, maybe twice a week for about six months before we started doing a lot more.
It's a very, very small club with about 60-70 members. So it's more like a family club. So we hear each and every person out there playing. They always encourage all the children who are out playing whether it be badminton or tennis. It made a lot of difference. Even if you hit one ball over the net, everyone would clap, that really helped.
Jumping from quite a long back to now. You shared a video of returning to training recently. Did it feel any different? How long has it been since you last played?
Last time I played tennis was on the 7 March in Croatia in the Davis Cup tie. After that it's been so long. I was in Coorg with my entire family during the lockdown and I was hitting there against the wall. it brought back memories from my childhood. As a kid I used to do the same thing. It is the same wall I used to hit when I was 12, 13 or 14 years old. It was nice to do something similar and get back some fond memories. And it was a happy time. I mean the sport has given me so much in my career and I've learned so much from it. Suddenly when you know you're in a situation to play and the love for the sport is there but unfortunately the situation is such that it demands you to be at home, stay away from everything.. It's really nice to be back, hit a couple of tennis balls. I think all the kids at the academy (Rohan Bopanna Tennis Academy) were really happy to be back and I was hitting with academy kids so that's always a special feeling.
Even after all these years, do you have that itching to hit the courts once again?
Yes, absolutely. I think all of us miss competing, miss being out there at the end of the day, even though it's been many, many years. As a tennis player, that's what I do best. I mean, that's my forte, my go to thing to do. So definitely was very excited to be there. Even the coaches at the academy, they were really happy to be back. You feel like a kid yourself when you're on that court and it definitely felt like that for me.
Shifting focus to the skill, we're going to be dwelling upon: the single handed backhand. When do you remember taking up the shot as a player?
You know, when I started tennis, majority of people, I'm talking about the 90s, majority of the players back then had single handed backhands. Even my dad who watched a lot of tennis, and the one who actually taught me the basics of tennis. Back then there was no double handed backhand players as such. I mean there were but majority were single handed backhands. Automatically, I was taught to play a single handed backhand and that's how slowly it all started. I don't think there was an option when I started off even hitting double backhand, because like I said, I don't think my dad knew anything about that. That's how I got started to (playing) the single handed backhand.
Has there ever been a suggestion that you could probably play the double hander as well?
Looking back at it now, with the the amount of power and the pace the ball has, especially the guys serving at 230-240 kilometres (per hour), sometimes it is surely an advantage (when I'm playing doubles) to have double handed backhand because you can use your non-dominant hand to help you return that ball. But having said that, there are pros and cons of both sides, of using single or double handed backhand. With a single handed backhand you will have the advantage of reaching for that extra couple of inches. If you're double handed, you need to be much quicker on your feet to get positioned better. Now if you see, single handed backhand guys if they're playing singles, most of them just block the return back. Back then you could not just block the return back because a lot of the guys served and volley-ed so you had to hit it. It was a different style when I started playing tennis, but if I had to start tennis all over again today, I think there's a good chance I would have gone with a double handed backhand.
Is there a specific training regimen that is required just for the single hander?
Definitely there is a lot of different muscles, especially your back muscles, that need to be strong. A lot of people think everything comes with using your arm but a lot of the power and control comes from your legs and the back. And that is something which you need to constantly focus on, make sure it is strong. That helps you hit with a lot of topspin, especially on the clay courts. On a fast court or a grass court you can get away with it. Because the courts are faster you don't need to generate that much of pace, the court is giving you that pace on the ball, but on a clay court or a hard court, if you want to generate pace you have to have strong back muscles and I think that is really key especially today with players hitting with a lot of topspin. Of course your shoulder needs to be extremely strong, hence the same way I would say also the back muscles are extremely important for you to be using the single handed backhand.
Is there extra gym work activity that you need to do to strengthen the back muscles as well?
There's a lot of cable exercises you can do or use thera bands for your shoulder to practice how you hit the backhand, because those are the areas which you know nowadays with the guy's hitting, like I said, heavy topspin and heavy kick serve. So it's always bouncing above the shoulders almost, you know, pretty high up there. So those are the few exercises which constantly builds those muscles and work on those muscles. I mean, it's like shadowing your backhand, but using bands or cables and constantly doing it every single day so that your muscle memory is built, your strength is built to replicate on the tennis court.
The challenge that a lot of players mention between the single and the double handed backhand is that the single handed has the power but it does not have the control. Can you talk more about that?
Yeah absolutely. The double handed is an advantage in terms of having your non-dominant hand also to control the shot. With the single handed backhand, even if you're fraction of a second late to hit the ball, it could go sideways and you end up mistiming it. So that's why, definitely, double handed gives you better accuracy, but constantly practicing of where you're timing the ball (helps). If I'm hitting a single handed backhand and I have my right leg in front, the idea is to take the left leg all the way behind your body. So it gives you space from your legs and your hands before you hit the single handed backhand. The main thing in a single handed backhand is to make the contact away from the body and hit the ball in front. And you also need to take your back leg away from your body so you can time it better. Sometimes you do end up mis-timing it or mis-hitting it, if you're not positioned well enough. That's where the accuracy goes away and it is harder to control the ball.
Does it also differ whether you're a right handed player or a left handed player considering you play with Denis Shapovalov who is a leftie?
The dynamics are pretty much the same whether it is a left-handed or a right handed player. It is the same concept, I don't think that really differs.
Your backhand travels rather flat with little topspin, others like a Federer, Wawrinka, Gasquet play with a topspin heavy backhand. What is the difference effectively for the opponent in the end?
Obviously, hitting topspin backhand are much better. You have more control. The way I hit my backhand, the day it's not really working well it's tough to control the ball and make sure it falls in. It flies too much because it's too flat. Obviously when the balls are high above your shoulder, it's tough to hit flat, you have to hit with a lot of top spin. So over the years I've tried to you know, start using a little bit of top spin but still... For me to to ensure I hit a clean backhand, I need to be very, very well in position to hit those flat backhands. For that I have to constantly make sure I do a lot of feet movement in terms of positioning. Positioning of where I am whether it's a return, or the second or third shots. For a single handed backhand, where you position yourself is very, very important and that I think gives you enough idea to whether to time the ball well or you can do whatever you want with the ball.
How much of a role does the weight of the racket play in opting for the single or double handed backhand? I mean, the rackets earlier were much heavier, now they're much lighter, so we're seeing quite a lot of single handed backhand players.
The racket is a pure individual feeling of whether he likes it heavy or lighter. Today, even in the lighter rackets, they use a lot of lead tape and balance it out really well according to the specification you want. I don't think that has to do anything with that. Back then the tradition was to play with the single handed backhand. So a lot of the guys who started in the late 80s, early 90s were using a lot of single handed backhands. And today, double handed backhand is dominating tennis in a big way. So I think all the youngsters look at that and they want to play the double handed backhand. I don't think it has anything to do with the weight of the racket.
Did you ever consider switching from the single handed backhand to the double and was it ever a suggestion maybe from some of the coaches?
No, actually, it was never any of the suggestions from the coaches because they knew you know how sound my backhand was. But then sometimes I would tell myself, yes, when returning serves, it would have been great to have had a double handed backhand, especially now playing doubles.
Sometimes the accuracy on the return can be a little more difficult, you know, with the pace of the guys hitting serves. I would have loved to have an extra hand out there to guide me on those returns, but too late in my career to really make a change. I mean that's about it but none of the coaches ever mentioned that.
So how do you deal with balls that are on the higher side when you're playing the single handed backhand. I mean, it does help with your height obviously.
It does help but the idea is to take the ball earlier, before it bounces above your shoulder. And for that you need to understand and position yourself much better because you need to read the play accordingly. The minute you spot a kick serve coming, the idea is to try and take a couple of steps forward, anticipating the kick serve so it doesn't bounce too high above your shoulder, which makes it tougher. So I think those adjustments have to be done by reading what your opponent is throwing at you and the key is to play it as early as possible with a single handed backhand. I'm purely talking about it from being a doubles player. As a singles player, you can go all the way back, let the ball bounce a little lower and then hit it because the guys are not there at the net there to finish it. So you have time to actually do something like that.
Does the single handed backhand work differently on different surfaces? A lot of players say that it helps on clay that you're able to get a better angle than the double handed players can. So does it work on other surfaces the same way as well?
I would say the single handed backhand works best on the grass court because you can use a lot of slices. There's a big advantage there and hitting flat backhands takes a lot of time away from your opponent. On the grass court it is actually very, very effective because the ball doesn't bounce too high. So always keeping it low. That helps single handed backhands a lot. The faster courts definitely has an advantage for single handed backhands than slow, high-bouncing courts where all the balls are bouncing above your shoulder height which makes it much harder for single handed backhand.
Has the slowing down on courts over the years changed the impact?
It has changed but at the same time the biggest difference is the fact that nobody is serving and volleying. That has really made the change there and that has helped.
Does using a single handed backhand also make an impact in how better you volley? In the sense that you're able to approach the net much easier than you could with the double handed, I would say.
Yeah, absolutely. I mean, it does because it's a natural thing whether to slice or to approach the net. It is definitely a lot more easier and more natural. When you're used to hitting double handed backhands it is very rare for people to approach the net hitting with two hands. They always try to slice and come into it by taking their hand out. Always an advantage for a single handed backhand player when he's approaching the net, I think more than somebody who is using a double handed backhand.
Would you say it's also a very male dominant shot? On the women side, there are only two top singles players who use the single handed backhand.
I think everybody back then was more comfortable using the two hands because it gives them a lot more power and better accuracy using the double handed. I don't think there's any thing to do with who's dominant or who's not I think it was just a pure comfort wise of how they hit it, how they felt and started controlling the ball when they started playing tennis.
Same question for Indian tennis. The newer, younger tennis players that are coming up in the country; not many play the single handed backhand. Why do you think that is?
It doesn't have to do with India or the world. I think because of the surface, it's become much slower, you have more time to set up and use your double handed backhand. You can control it a lot better. And like I said, I mean with the guys hitting bigger serves, there's a lot more time for them to control and use those two-handed backhands. And I think that's something similar to what it has been around the world.
From a fan perspective, there is a lot of love for the single handed backhand. Why do you think the fans love the groundstroke so much?
I think majority of the crowd who really support and watch tennis are from a little bit older generations. I think they have all watched guys like McEnroe, Edberg, Becker, Sampras, all these guys who have been playing and dominated tennis for such a long time and they love the single handed backhand. Now slowly the new generation are changing and they are liking the different styles of play like Novak, Nadal and everybody but I think one of the reasons the majority of the crowd love to see a nice single handed backhand is because they themselves are playing with a single handed backhand.
Did you look up to somebody's backhand when growing up? Like Tsitsipas looked up to Sampras' backhand. Somebody you were trying to emulate?
I mean Stefan Edberg was always my role model, the way he played, the way he served and volleyed, the approach to the net. It was a treat to watch every single time I saw him play. He was someone I always looked up to.
Do you see the single handed backhand die in a few years?
No, I don't think so. I think it will be very much there. A lot of youngsters now who are using that, so I don't think it's going to be dying anytime soon.
Switching gears. How do you decide when to move from singles to doubles? At one stage in your career, you also had to make that choice. So, how do you make that decision and how challenging is it for you give up singles tennis?
Firstly, I don't think every player can do the transition. I mean you need to have that ability to do that. I made that decision only when I was 30 years old. It was a big difference in my ranking in terms of my doubles and singles. Singles I was still playing Challengers. Doubles I was playing the tour events and everything so I had to make a call about the sport that I loved and enjoyed so much. Better to continue playing doubles... It's not something overnight you can tell yourself that 'I'll become a doubles player'. It is extremely difficult to get into tournaments especially with everybody playing doubles, the ranking cutoffs are so high. It's not an easy and it's a pure decision you need to decide when you feel it is right to make that call. If you think at the age of 25, you want to become a doubles professional, you need to focus and try and really see how good you can be on that. Or maybe later in the career. But it all depends individual to individual.
When making that decision, are you looking purely at your results at the moment? Are you looking at your body? Are you looking at longevity of your career? What are the aspects that you're looking at when trying to make that transition?
I can give you my example in terms of when I made that decision at 30. I needed to take the call whether 'Am I making a living out of this sport?' If at 30 playing Challengers is not really cutting it for me and you know whether I need to find something else and do something else or try and make it in doubles, that can be lucrative and see if that goes well. It is an individual decision, you need to decide that yourself, you want to switch to doubles only or keep trying singles as hard as you can.
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