Category Archives: Backhands

Stubborn Richard and Fighting Flavia

We all know how great Richard Gasquet‘s backhand is.  It’s arguably the best one-hander in the game, and the down-the-line version is right up there with with any other men’s backhandweapon, one- or two-handed.

What has struck me in his last two matches is that, unlike virtually every other top player, he never runs around it.  Even Stanislas Wawrinka, another man with a claim on the “best one-hander” title, will frequently take several steps to get in position to hit a forehand from the backhand corner.

Gasquet doesn’t do that.  In 277 points yesterday, he ran all the way around a backhand once, and there were two or three other shots when he took a couple of steps to hit a forehand when he might have taken one to hit a backhand.  In other words, he’s totally comfortable hitting his backhand from anywhere on the court, against any spin, at any height, and he trusts it as his go-to offensive shot.

In my detailed stats tables, I added a chart last night showing shot types–how many each player hit, grouped into various categories.  Against David Ferrer, Gasquet hit 296 backhands (excluding slices) to 222 forehands, a ratio of 1.33.  Ferrer hit 274 to 297, a 0.923 ratio.  Ferrer is more typical.  He can hit solid crosscourt backhands all day long–even crush a down-the-line winner on occasion, but given the opportunity, he’ll move around it and hit a more powerful inside-out forehand.

Of the last five men’s matches I’ve charted, Gasquet’s backhand preference stands out.  Marcos Baghdatis vs Kevin Anderson: 0.58 for Baghdatis, 0.36 for Anderson.  Lleyton Hewitt vs Brian Baker?  0.72 for Hewitt, 0.86 for Baker. Tomas Berdych, 0.65, against Julien Benneteau, 0.73.  Against Denis Istomin, Andy Murray‘s ratio was 0.56.  Only Istomin is anywhere near Gasquet’s category, with a ratio of 1.15, and that may be more a testament to Murray’s ability to find his opponent’s backhand than anything else.

For all the beauty of Gasquet’s backhand, much of the time it is a simple rallying shot.  Move him deep into that corner, and he generally won’t hurt you. I’m not convinced all those backhands make up a wise tactical decision–perhaps more inside-out forehands would be in order.  Certainly, he’ll need to come up with something out of the ordinary when he faces Rafael Nadal on Saturday.

From the day the draw was announced, Flavia Pennetta‘s quarter was considered the wide-open section of the field.  Except, until yesterday, nobody thought of it as Pennetta’s quarter.  Technically it was fourth-seed Sara Errani‘s to lose, which she promptly did, to Pennetta in the second round.  It was also considered fair game for Caroline Wozniacki … who lost in the third round.  Then it was the domain of rising star Simona Halep … another Pennetta victim.

Surely Flavia’s run ends tomorrow at the hands of Victoria Azarenka.  In the meantime, let’s take a moment to celebrate a few amazing aspects of her accomplishment thus far.

Ranked 83rd–and ranked outside of the top 100 only six weeks ago–it took a late injury withdrawal to get her into the main draw.  Now, she is only the 10th woman in the Open era to reach a Grand Slam semifinal while ranked outside of the top 80.  Just one previous US Open semifinalist–Angelique Kerber two years ago–was ranked so low.

Another remarkable aspect of Pennetta’s run is that she has reached her first Slam semifinal at the age of 31.  Only three women–Gigi Fernandez, Nathalie Tauziat, and Wendy Turnbull–reached their first Slam semi after turning 30.  (Fernandez did it while ranked outside the top 80, making her the proto-Flavia.)  Turnbull is the only first-time semifinalist to have done so while older than Pennetta is now, by a couple of months.  She accomplished that feat at the 1984 US Open.  Amazingly, it wasn’t Turnbull’s only moment in the spotlight–she reached the semis of the Australian a few months later, beating a young Steffi Graf along the way.  She even reached the quarters at the following year’s US Open.

Finally, we may marvel at the fact that Pennetta, once a top-ten player, did not reach a semifinal until this, her 41st slam.  Also near the top of the all-time leaderboard, but not a record.  Francesca Schiavone had played 41 slams before reaching her first semi in the French Open a few years ago.  Tauziat makes another appearance here; she needed 44 tries before winning five straight matches.  The most dogged of all WTA players must be Elena Likhotseva, who played 56 career Slams, not making it to the semifinal in her 46th try.

Most of these precedents jibe with our intuition that, no matter how hot she is, Flavia doesn’t stand much of a chance against Vika.  But a couple of these cases–Schiavone with her two deep French open runs, and Turnbull with her pair of late-career semifinals–suggest that this could be more than a one-off for the Italian.

Rafael Nadal has yet to lose serve at the US Open, and has a string of 82 consecutive service holds going back to Cincinnati.  I plan to have more on this before his semifinal match.

Here’s a win-probability graph for yesterday’s Gasquet-Ferrer five-setter. And if you somehow missed it the last five times I linked to it, here are my detailed stats from that match.

I’ll chart one of the two men’s quarters today, though I’m not yet sure which one.  Keep an eye on my Twitter account, as I’ll post those stats after each set.

And last for today, here’s an example of thorough data collection that tennis organizations will almost certainly fail to follow.

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The State of the One-Handed Backhand

Don’t write the eulogy just yet. The one-handed backhand isn’t the common sight that it used to be, but there are still plenty of them out there.  When the current generation retires, however, we might have an endangered species on our hands.  Here’s a quick look at the prevalence of the one-hander in today’s men’s game.

About 1 in 5 players (62 of the top 300) at the ATP and Challenger level use a one-handed backhand.  To focus more narrowly: 10 of the top 50, 14 of those ranked 51-100, 13 from 101 to 150, 9 between 151 and 200, and 8 each in ranges 201-250 and 251-300.

One-handed backhands are slightly more popular among righties than lefties.  Among the top 200, there are 28 lefties, six of whom (21.4%) have one-handers.   That compares to 23.3% among righties.

When we split the top 300 into quartiles by age, a distinct preference appears.  About 30% of the oldest half of the top 300 (those born in 1986 or before) use one-handed backhands: 23 of the oldest 75 and 22 of the next-oldest quartile.  Of the second-youngest quartile–those born between the beginning of 1987 and July 1989, there are only 10 one-handers, or 13.3%.  The youngest quartile is bleakest, with only seven one-handers among the 75 players. Six of the seven are Europeans, including the youngest man in the top 300Dominic Thiem. The only non-European is the American Daniel Kosakowski.

To summarize more concisely if a bit less dramatically, the average age of those with one-handed backhands in the top 300 is 28 years, 63 days, while the average age of two-handers is 26 years, 103 days.  Given the number of second tier players clustered in the late-20s range, that is a bigger difference than it might sound.

Last year there were 137 matches at the ATP level between two players with one-handed backhands.  At all 137 of those matches, someone was heard to say, “Two one-handed backhands! You don’t see that much anymore.”

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