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The Four Horsemen – The Backhands of Federer, Gasquet, Wawrinka and Almagro

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Today we’re going to look at one-handed backhands. Specifically, the best four one-handed backhands in the world – those of Federer, Gasquet, Wawrinka and Almagro. Tommy Haas fans don’t despair – he certainly belongs in the conversation but as of the time of writing these four gentlemen are the highest ranked players with one-handed backhands and certainly all four have beautiful strokes in their own right. Purists of the game certainly decry the lack of one-handed backhands in tennis today, but let’s not plan funeral services just yet. With three of the top ten players in the world sporting one-handers ¬†rumors of its demise are greatly exaggerated! The point of today’s article is really two-fold: 1) to give people a better understanding of the key positions in a classic one-handed backhand and 2) to hopefully point out the subtle differences in the stroke of these four players so we can understand why they have different outcomes on the court. So without further ado, let’s dive right in.

Overview

Before we get too much into the technical aspects of the stroke, let’s establish a couple of ideas regarding the four backhands we will examine. Each of these four have a reputation that differs slightly from the others and covers a spectrum. Almagro hits a comparatively flat, extremely powerful driving ball with little variation. Wawrinka’s one-hander is slightly heavier, and more steady than Almagro’s. Federer generally hits a heavier spin ball with less pace than Almagro or Wawrinka, and his backhand is also more prone to go ‘off the rails’. Then there is Gasquet, who has probably the highest ‘top end’ of the four with the ability to hit pretty much everything with it – he can drive the ball with great pace, he can hit incredible spin for a one-hander, and everything in-between. So let’s take a look at the strokes and see what makes them tick. Note that there are subtle differences in each of the four shots these photos are taken from – we couldn’t exactly get Gasquet, Federer, Almagro and Wawrinka out on court with the ball machine for an hour to get photos of them hitting identical shots off the same ball. So bear that in mind as we look at the images.

The Chamber

The preparation phase of any stroke is, as the name suggests, the setup period. This is where the player puts the pieces in place for the kinetic chain that will soon be initiated. The preparation phase finishes in what I like to call the ‘chamber’ – where everything is prepared and ready to fire.

Almagro (left) and Gasquet (right) in their chambered positions on the backhand

Almagro (left) and Gasquet (right) in their chambered positions on the backhand

A couple of things to notice quickly here about the differences in their chamber positions. First of all, Gasquet has a more exaggerated wrist position – his wrist is rotated further up towards his forearm than Almagro’s. This opens the racket face up more, and together with the increased tilt in the racket head will provide for a more whip-like motion through the backswing generating more spin. Gasquet and Almagro both have relatively high hand positions in this frame.

Wawrinka (left) and Federer (right) in the chamber position on their one-handed backhands

Wawrinka (left) and Federer (right) in the chamber position on their one-handed backhands

It is a little uncanny just how identical Wawrinka and Federer’s positions are at this point in the swing. Note the relatively upright racket position standing almost perpendicular to the ground. Both Federer and Wawrinka’s rackets are more upright at this stage, whereas Gasquet and Almagro have laid the racket head back slightly. The two Swiss men also hold their forearms essentially parallel to the ground, with the right hand slung lower than Almagro and Gasquet. All four players have a good positive shoulder turn, have the left hand holding the throat of the racket for more positive racket control, and are looking to hit from a neutral or slightly closed stance.

The Bottom

From the chamber position the one-handed backhand will feature a dropping of the racket head as a part of the acceleration towards contact. This dropping of the racket head is critical for generating the topspin needed to hit the ball with real velocity and keep it in play.

Almagro (left) and Gasquet (right) at the bottom of their swings

Almagro (left) and Gasquet (right) at the bottom of their swings

Here we can see both players have extended their arm to either straight (Almagro) or a micro-bend (Gasquet) as they dropped the racket head down. Notice the upright position of the torso for both players, even though Gasquet is lunging for his shot in a wider hitting stance. Almagro releases the frame with the left hand a little earlier than Gasquet, but this shouldn’t have any real impact on the outcome of the swing.

Wawrinka (left) and Federer (right) reach the bottom of their swing

Wawrinka (left) and Federer (right) reach the bottom of their swing

In this frame we can see Federer start to differ from the others slightly. First, note the greater bend in the arm compared to Wawrinka. Secondly we can see that Federer has drawn the racket further around his body rotationally, with the string-bed essentially pointing to the back of the court. In comparison Wawrinka and Almagro have angled theirs back a moderate amount while Gasquet has angled his only slightly. This means that Federer will ‘uncoil’ through his swing more than the others – his backhand will swing out from his body with more of an arc compared with a more linear swing from the other three. This greater swing curvature does complicate the timing slightly. Add in the increased bend in the arm (something which we notice will disappear later in the swing) and we begin to see why Federer’s backhand is generally less steady in many respects (Almagro’s poor decision-making notwithstanding). His mechanics require more precise timing than the other three, and hence he is apt to mis-hit more balls than them. The final thing to note is how the hips for all four players have essentially not moved from the previous stage in the chamber position.

The Contact Point

Almagro (left) and Gasquet (right) at contact

Almagro (left) and Gasquet (right) at contact

What might leap out at you first from this image is just how far in front of the body Gasquet is making contact with the ball. The second thing you might note is just how extreme his grip is compared to Almagro. He is almost past an eastern backhand grip, with the first knuckle of his index finger approaching the back-diagonal bevel of his grip. This grip is part of the reason why Gasquet is able to attack the high ball so well off his backhand side (something he does better than the other three). However it also forces his hips into a slightly more open position at contact, something we can see in the picture also. Speaking of hips, Almagro’s have opened slightly from the chamber and dropped positions.

Wawrinka (left) and Federer (right) at contact

Wawrinka (left) and Federer (right) at contact

In the previous frame we had pointed out the greater bend in Federer’s arm compared to the other three. Now at contact we can see that his arm, like all the others’, is straight. Federer also is making contact very far out in front of the body, although this is partly due to the fact that the ball he is hitting is higher than that of Wawrinka’s. It is surprising to see just how much Wawrinka has opened up in this frame – although we expect some opening of the hips to allow the arm to come through and the shoulders to clear, Wawrinka’s position is slightly exaggerated compared to the others. One common theme to note is the position of the left hand – all four player release their left hand from the racket throat close to their own left hip – a position their hand now stays in until after contact. This is to help anchor the shoulders in position and prevent opening up too much too early.

Much is often made by commentators about the way that Federer seemingly tracks the ball until it makes contact with the strings. Meanwhile scientists claim that the moment of impact happens so quickly that it cannot be captured by the naked eye. What the image above seems to suggest however is that Federer truly isn’t seeing the contact itself in the way that people think. What is critical is the stability of the head during the contact phase. Most players will lift their head to track the ball off the strings but Federer’s gaze lingers considerably longer. This keeps his head locked in place, a positive thing for any budding tennis players to copy.

Follow-Through

Almagro (left) and Gasquet (right) mid-way through their follow-through

Almagro (left) and Gasquet (right) mid-way through their follow-through

The arm positions of both players here are remarkably similar. The critical difference to notice again is the increased openness of Gasquet’s hips – again likely due to the more extreme grip he uses. In contrast Almagro has actually moved his left hand backwards slightly, which helps to keep the shoulders from opening too much too quickly.

Wawrinka (left) and Federer (rigth) post-contact

Wawrinka (left) and Federer (rigth) post-contact

It is a shame that the video for Wawrinka cut off his racket here, but we can see he has a slightly more open position compared to Federer or Almagro. Both players have straight arms, and whereas Wawrinka has begun to raise his gaze and hence his head, Federer’s vision is still locked in on the same space it was a moment before. Notice how Federer’s left leg is kicked backwards, somewhat similar to that of a bowler (ten pin) after releasing the ball. This is designed to serve as a counter-weight to the arm and racket rotating in the opposite direction and helps anchor the hips in place to stop them from opening.

Five Points To Take Away

1) Get the racket up during your backswing. All four players hit an almost identical chamber position.

2) Locking the arm out earlier is a good thing. We can see Federer is late to straight his out and it simply adds one more complication to the timing of the stroke. It also creates a slightly less consistent stroke path compared to the other three.

3) Keep the hips closed until right before contact, and only open them a little. Players can use a countering motion with their left hand and left foot to help keep hips and shoulders closed.

4) Get the ball out in front. The higher the ball is, the further in front you need to catch it.

5) The differences are small. While we don’t know what shot each player hit off the images in question (heavy topspin vs flat, passing shot vs lob etc etc) we can say with certainty that the differences between all four backhands are subtle. Picking them out in real-time with the naked eye becomes extremely difficult if not impossible.

To be honest before starting this article I expected greater visual differences between the four of them. It’s clear that most of the differences in their hitting styles are more a matter of choice than technical limitation. Gasquet’s grip and consequent opening of the hips and shoulders at contact is the most significant difference between them all. Almagro and Wawrinka probably hit harder and flatter, not because they can’t hit more topspin, but because neither moves as well as Federer and hence must keep the initiative off that side. Federer prefers a heavier, more rolling ball because it buys him time to run around his backhand and hit forehands. Gasquet can do it all because he is a phenomenally talented ball striker with a technically fantastic backhand. We can see a couple of the small technical flaws that make Federer’s backhand more susceptible to error than the other three. Although Almagro might make more mistakes off that wing at times, his are less likely to be mishits and are rather just missed targets resulting from a significantly more aggressive attitude off that side than Federer is wont to swow.

12 Comments
  1. Hi,

    Another great article. It would be interesting though to take more into account in your analysis the context of these backhands. You mentioned some important things in your last paragraph, but more would have been better. You notice for example that Federer’s backhand is more prone to mishit, but it seems to me that he also plays way closer to the baseline than the others, who often stand far of it (to far for their own good). An other difference between Fed and the other that you mentioned (but not enough) is that the backhand is not his stronger wing. I think the technical analysis of a stroke is better if her place in a game plan is fully taken into account.

  2. It’s an interesting point. The main focus on this article was to look at technical differences between the four. The fact that Federer’s backhand isn’t his strongest wing affects how he sets up his points, but it doesn’t really change what he does differently than the other three guys. I’m going to be doing some more articles along the lines of the ‘wide serve to the deuce court’ article where we take a shot and put it in some context. I think that’s a little more what you’re looking for!

  3. Is locking head Feds way really positive ? Cause he is looking almost at the side fence and not tracking ball after contact, its like looking at the train coming past you. May be “adding” to so many shanks.

  4. Is locking of the head Fed’s way really positive ? Cause he is not tracking the ball after contact, and looking almost at the side fence, its like looking at the train coming past you. May and actualy contributes to so many shanks too.

    • The stability of the head that Federer exhibits is generally a positive thing. Most players lift their head far too early – many of them *before* contact – which tends to pull their entire posture out of their hitting stance slightly. Fed doesn’t shank because he keeps his head still – he shanks because he plays very aggressive tennis against the best players in the world and as good as he is, he is not a robot!

  5. Everyone keeps head still, but position is different, Wawrinka looking almost straight at outgoing ball, Fed is looking at he side fence, thats the difference.

    • I think a fairer statement would be to say that everyone moves their head eventually. The question is when and to what degree. Understand that *nobody* is actually seeing the ball at contact. The time frame on which that happens is too quick for the human eye to process. What does happen is that the brain interpolates ball positions based off what it has seen prior to that point, and essentially creates fake images that make it feel like we watched the entire thing happen.

      If you look at the frames of all four at contact, you might notice that Federer’s shoulders are a little more closed than the others. The position of contact is still such that he can ‘see’ it with his eyes without needing to turn his head, but part of the reason for his increased head-turn position at contact is because of his more closed shoulder position (or perhaps it might be that his closed shoulder position is because of the increased head turn – chicken or the egg). Another thing that I think people discount when they look at the number of shanks off Federer’s backhand is that his backhand is probably the single most attacked shot in the history of the game. Even though his backhand is very good, his forehand is in-arguably one of the most dangerous and dominant shots in the history of the sport. Sampras had a somewhat similar disparity (while both his forehand and backhand are weaker than Federer’s, their relative strength to each other is similar) but he utilized serve and volley tactics far more than Federer does.

      So what we’re left with is that the entire tour knows that the one safe place you can go on the court against Federer is high to the backhand. It’s the most highly publicized ‘weakness’ in the game, and inevitably we see it get attacked, and as a result the mis-hits come.

      • well yes, shoulders more closed, so are the head/eyes turned away from the court. Definitely one hits cleaner ball with ball just in sight.
        Federer
        http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=n_M2xSmL0Ls
        Wawrinka
        http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=GgNASyLyGAg

      • Thats what i mean, more closed shoulders, eyes on side fence, at least such technique/position contributes a lot to shanks.
        Definitely one hitting with ball in sight (more opened shoulders, so is head/eyes looking almost straight at incoming/outgoing ball) has more cleaner hitting.
        Federer http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=n_M2xSmL0Ls
        Wawrinka http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=GgNASyLyGAg

        Will look tomorow, how Wawrinka will cope with Nadals relentless pounding to backhand.

        • I think perhaps you’re blowing Federer’s shanks somewhat out of proportion. Every tennis player shanks the ball, and if he does so slightly more than some other pros I think it has everything to do with the late stage at which he straightens his arm in this stroke, and nothing to do with his head/eye position at contact. Remember also that Federer tends to take balls a lot earlier than most players, and hit more shots on the rise. This complicates the timing and also results in more mis-hits.

  6. he “tracks” incoming ball, and turns his head/eyes too far away from the court/incoming ball to side fence, ball is traveling blazing fast with topspin, sidespin, like train coming past at 300 km/h. As forehand should be hit in front, so is backhand.

  7. great article – really liked the differences between Fed and Wawrinka. I think the basic reason Fed shanks the ball more often is because his bent arm and upward swing does not let him get his racquet strings behind the ball until nearly at contact. Wawrinka, in contrast, has his racquet strings directly behind the ball for a much longer time before contact. It’s all about the bent arm as you pointed out.

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