The shot that won the French Open: Stan Wawrinka's sublime one-handed backhand

Novak Djokovic, clearly the best player in the world and riding a 28-game winning streak, was ashen faced. Few had envisaged he would be so rattled during the French Open final he entered as hot favourite.

Djokovic’s perfectly put together game, where he has no evident weakness and is one of the greatest ever defensive players, was brutalised by Stan Wawrinka in the final. This wasn’t in the script. Djokovic wasn’t just a sure-shot to complete a career Grand Slam, some believed he was on a pathway to achieve the hallowed calendar Grand Slam.

 The shot that won the French Open: Stan Wawrinkas sublime one-handed backhand

Stan Wawrinka unleashes a backhand drive. Getty Sports

While Wawrinka beat Djokovic in a thrilling five-setter in the quarter-finals on his way to winning last year’s Australian Open in 2014, his career record against Djokovic stood at 3-17.

But after winning the opening set, and appearing inevitably headed for his maiden French Open title, Djokovic was dismantled over the next three sets by Wawrinka’s high-octane firepower.

Heading into the final, Wawrinka said that he needed to play “his best tennis to win”. Cliché aside, it was understandable to roll your eyes at this because no one’s “best tennis” seemed to be on Djokovic’s mesmerising level. He had only lost twice this year and eviscerated the ‘King of Clay’ Nadal in the quarter-final. Djokovic was at the absolute peak of his magical powers.

But Wawrinka was right to be bullish about his ability because his game has an unbelievable touch to it. He is mercurial. When he is in rhythm and confident, Wawrinka can produce shots that no one, not even a superhero like Djokovic, can counter.

What makes Wawrinka so entertaining is that he is freewheeling against the top players. Smartly, he realises the only chance to beat them is by going into all-out attack mode. He overwhelmed Djokovic with a frenetic battery of blistering shots; Wawrinka hit twice as many winners in the match - 60 to 30.

The Swiss possesses the most lethal shot in tennis right now – his astounding one-handed backhand. Not only is it deadly, Wawrinka’s backhand is the most beautiful shot in the game. Every time he loads up on his backhand side, you expect something magical to happen. And incredibly in the final, he repeatedly conjured the miraculous. Djokovic, who is an athletic marvel crossed with a fearless warrior, could only helplessly watch the ball pass him repeatedly for winners and shake his head in disbelief.

Wawrinka produced so many unbelievable shots in the final it’s hard to separate them, but the absolute standout came when he unleashed a backhand on the run and somehow sent the ball around the outside of the net post. It was hit like a tracer bullet and curved with precision into the court for a clean winner. Djokovic, who has produced his fair share of spellbinding shots over the years, looked baffled. It was hard to blame him.

After the match, Djokovic was effusive and said “He (Wawrinka) has probably the best one-handed backhand on the tour. No question, one of the best one-handed backhands that I have seen in tennis”.

Wawrinka’s backhand drive is hit with plenty of topspin and his flowing racquet perfectly combines power and timing. The shot is ferocious but creates a lot of spin putting opponents immediately on the defensive. Importantly, Wawrinka boasts versatility with his backhand as he can hit the ball flat down the line but also has the expertise to menacingly slice either short or long.

What makes Wawrinka’s prowess even more remarkable is that the one-hander is fading from the professional game with most modern players favouring the two-handed backhand. Roger Federer aside - perhaps the one-handed backhand is still in vogue in Switzerland – the one-hander is fast going the way of wooden rackets.

The two-hander is seen to be more reliable and compact, particularly in combating high-bouncing, top spinning shots that have become key weapons for many top players. The two hander is also seen to be more dependable for returning serve and defensive play.

In cricket parlance, the one-hander is like a batsman having an exaggerated high bat-lift, like in the manner of Brian Lara. It’s perhaps dangerous, but in the grip of an expert, the technique and resulting shot making is aesthetically breathtaking.

Long overshadowed by compatriot Roger Federer, Wawrinka, who recently turned 30 has achieved an astounding last 18 months, during which he has beaten Nadal and Djokovic in Grand Slam finals, and was the fulcrum of Switzerland’s Davis Cup victory.

He’s unlikely to consistently dominate but Wawrinka is making men’s tennis more entertaining. He’s probably the only player on tour who legitimately terrifies the so-called ‘Big Four’.

But perhaps his greatest legacy could be in rekindling a desire to play the one-handed backhand – the single most gorgeous shot in tennis - in a new generation of players.

Updated Date: Jun 08, 2015 16:09:13 IST