By Paul Wachter
The obituary for serve-and-volley tennis was written long ago. When Andre Agassi, the hard-hitting baseliner, won Wimbledon in 1992, it was considered an anomaly, since the rest of the decade belonged to net chargers like Michael Stich, Richard Krajicek and Pete Sampras. But that era ended in 2002, when Lleyton Hewitt repeated Agassi's feat on the grass. All subsequent champions -- both men and women -- have won largely from the baseline, including Roger Federer, who in his first few appearances at Wimbledon had been a serve-and-volleyer.
As Wimbledon enters its second week, it's worth noting another classic tennis style that has one foot in the grave: the one-handed topspin backhand, arguably the game's most beautiful shot. Of the top 50 men's players as of earlier in June, only 12 have one-handed backhands. And on the women's side, only two of the top 50 have one-handers. Among juniors, the one-handed backhand is even more rare. Of the Tennis Recruiting Network's 21 highest-ranked American boys' players ("Blue Chips") who graduated high school this year, only one, University of Kentucky-bound Tyler Yates, has a one-hander. And none of the 24 Blue Chip girls have one-handers.
Long ago, it was the two-hander that was an oddity in the game. Perhaps the first professional to employ it was Australian Vivian McGrath, winner of the 1937 men's Australian Championships (now known as the Australian Open). Opponents saw his backhand as a weakness, but today it's the one-hander that's facing extinction.
The decline of serve-and-volley tennis is easy to explain. The tennis powers grew tired of big-serving, one- or two-shot rallies that defined grass-court -- and even much of hard-court -- tennis through the 1990s. (Revisit the Sampras-Krajicek 1996 Wimbledon quarterfinal for an example of the reigning style.) Surfaces and even tennis balls were changed to ensure slower play. Meanwhile, racquet and string technologies were evolving, allowing players to hit ever more topspin. It became far easier to hit passing shots from once-unthinkable angles and routine to dip the ball at an incoming player's feet. Today, a serve-and-volleyer may be able to win a round or two at a major tournament -- see Sergiy Stakhovsky's shocking upset of Federer at last year's Wimbledon -- but has little chance of winning the title.
The reasons for the decline of the one-hander are less clear. After all, Federer, the Grand Slam-title record holder, has a one-handed backhand. Admittedly, it's his weaker side and especially vulnerable to Rafael Nadal's extreme lefty topspin forehand. But Nadal couldn't crack Stan Wawrinka's one-hander, probably the best in the game, in this year's Australian Open final.
Nonetheless, it's clear that the two-hander has technical advantages, says former professional Brad Gilbert, who has coached two of the best two-handers in the game, Agassi and defending Wimbledon champion Andy Murray. (Gilbert plays with a one-hander, though.)
"The biggest advantage the two-hander has is on the return of serve," Gilbert says. "I've never seen anyone in my life with a consistently great one-handed return."
"Some one-handed backhand players can have a good block return off a first serve, like Tim Henman had, or chip it like Federer does, but it's hard to go for an aggressive shot against a big serve with a one-hander," Gilbert continues. "With a two-hander you can blunt the power of a serve and actually hit an aggressive shot." Witness Djokovic on the men's side, and Serena Williams and Maria Sharapova on the women's.
There are technical reasons for this. Players no longer hit backhands and forehands with the same continental grip as was the case in the genteel, pants-wearing early days of the sport. (For a continental grip, start with the racquet head perpendicular to the ground and take the grip in hand as if you were delivering a handshake. The continental is still used for volleys, serves and slice backhands.) Most modern players hit their forehands with a semi-Western or Western grip, a full 90-degree tilt away from the continental. And to hit a topspin backhand, most players employ an Eastern grip, twisting their grip back past the continental. When returning, there's only a split-second to make the switch, and it's a transition that's a lot easier with both hands placed on the racquet handle. What's more, sometimes a transition isn't necessary given that a two-handed player can rely on their off-hand to help direct the racquet. In contrast, one-handers often reconcile themselves to favoring a forehand grip and then simply chipping the ball back in play if the serve comes to their backhand, or vice versa. (Federer, for instance, slices many backhand returns, while Wawrinka often chips his forehands.)
Most of the current top pros that employ one-handers are on the far side of thirty, but there are a few younger men, including 13th-ranked Grigor Dimitrov, a 23-year-old Bulgarian who's often called "Baby Fed," and 55th-ranked Dominic Thiem, a 20-year-old Austrian. But it's when you look at the junior level that the bleak future of the one-hander becomes undeniable.
Earlier this month, I visited Brad Stine's 360 Tennis Academy in Fresno, Calif. Stine has coached professionals with sublime (Mardy Fish) and shaky (Jim Courier) two-handers. A one-handed backhand player himself, Stine retains a sentimental attachment to the stroke. "If I'm at a junior tournament, and I see the rare kid with a wonderful one-handed backhand, I'm always drawn to watch," he says. But on the day I visit, nine boys are practicing, and all have two-handers, including Stine's top student, Billy Griffith, the third-ranked recruit in the nation, who will play for the University of California-Berkeley this fall.
"By the time the kids come here, they've already got the basic strokes," Stine says. And as Gilbert explains, "It's so much easier to have instant success hitting a two-handed backhand, especially if you're five or six years old and the biggest issue is strength."
Pete Sampras famously switched from hitting a two-handed backhand to a one-hander, but almost no one makes that switch today. "I can only think of one kid that I had switch to a-one hander," Stine says. "In his case, his two-hander was very stiff, and he wasn't getting a lot on the ball. So I had him hit one-handed backhands and his whole body opened up, and there was a huge increase in racquet-head speed. But that was the exception."
Misha Kouznetsov, who coaches perhaps the country's top young talent, 16-year-old Francis Tiafoe (who has a two-hander), says he doesn't envision a comeback for the one-hander. "It still has some advantages," he says. "With the one-hander, you have more reach and can hit more angles without a second hand on the racquet. But those are outweighed by the disadvantages. A one-hander breaks down easier, especially on the return if the ball is kicking over your head. Today, the game is so physical, and the two-hander handles power more reliably."
Kouznetsov says that about 90 percent of the young players that train with him at Maryland's Junior Tennis Champions Center have two-handed backhands. And in his native country, Russia, the one-hander is all but gone. "In Russia, 99 percent of the good players have two-handers." Neither of us could think of a single Russian professional with a one-hander.
There's still a future for the slice one-hander. The three top two-handers in the men's game -- Nadal, Djokovic and Murray -- have developed highly proficient one-handed slices to complement their topspin arsenals. It's a useful defensive tool and can even unsettle an opponent who's accustomed to topspin. In Fresno, Stine had his players practice the shot in a long drill. It was as though someone had taken away the teenagers' iPhones and replaced them with Walkmen. While their two-handed backhands had been efficient and effortless, they struggled to control the slices and grew frustrated.
As for the one-handed drive, the shot made beautiful by such greats as Stefan Edberg, Gabriela Sabatini and Justine Henin, no one is predicting a comeback. Gilbert, the sport's great iconoclastic thinker, says it could resurface as a possible hybrid stroke. "I could see a player using a two-hander on returns and then driving the ball with a one-hander during rallies," he says. (France's Jo-Wilfried Tsonga, a two-hander, occasionally tries a one-handed drive when he's stretched out wide, though the results are mixed at best.)
It appears that the two-hander is the shot of the present and future, unless one takes Gilbert's thinking a further step. What if you could eliminate the backhand altogether? Perhaps the next great champion will be ambidextrous and able to whack forehands with both hands.
Paul Wachter has written about sports for The New York Times Magazine, Harper's, and Grantland, among other publications. He lives in California.