Just like in each other ball-hitting sport, biomechanics play a very important role in tennis. Not only during a serve, as we highlighted before, but also during a ‘normal’ forehand and of course backhand. The backhand is considered to be the weak spot of many tennis players. Scientifically and tactically spoken: “more points are won with a forehand, while more points are lost with the backhand”.
But what is the reason behind the preference of the forehand with respect to the backhand? First of all, the backhand requires more strength. An additional advantage of a forehand is that the resulting ball velocity seems to be higher. Nonetheless, sometimes there is simply no time for a forehand and one’s forced to play the backhand.
And then there is the ever-lasting question: single or double-handed backhand? Is one better than the other? When it comes to accuracy, ball velocity or racquet velocity, there seems to be no difference between both kinds of backhands. Although all those factors are all very important, there are more variables to take into account.
The backhand: a sequence of movements
The resulting and important racquet velocity is dependent on several factors. As the serve, the backhand is a kinematic chain: rotation and energy of a chain of segments result in the ultimate racquet movement. A correct movement chain, resulting in energy transmission from one segment to the other, will lead to an optimal stroke and hit. Therefore, “the backhand movement” is actually a sequence of movements, which is roughly divided into three phases:
-preparation phase: backward movements – reverse direction
-acceleration phase: forward movement – ball contact
-follow-through phase: ball contact – end racquet forward movement
The external rotation is bigger in the single-handed backhand, compared to the double-handed. This was true for the shoulder, as well as the hip rotation. For a single-handed backhand a correlation exists: the bigger the external rotation angles during the preparation phase, the higher the ball velocity.
During the acceleration phase, the double-handed backhand requires more shoulder rotation compared to the single-handed one. The trunk twist is higher as well. The double-handed backhand relies more on the trunk twist, whereas the single-handed backhand is more dependent on the rotations of the upper limb joints of the upper arm.
The follow-through is important for peak racquet velocity at ball impact and subsequently for the arm slow-down. Although little research has been done regarding this topic, it’s an important phase with respect to injury prevention. Slowing down of the arm is crucial, but requires high eccentric forces. When the eccentric strength is insufficient, this might result in injuries.
An additional difference between both backhand variants, is the elbow angle at ball impact. During the double-handed backhand, the dominant side mainly stabilizes the movement. This results in a pronounced elbow bent and wrist stretch of the dominant arm. Furthermore, the overall muscle activation seems to be higher in the double-handed backhand, with exception of the triceps. Whereas the double-handed backhand is dependent on multiple muscles, the single-handed backhand mainly depends on the triceps activation.
Therefore, a lot of burden is put on the triceps during a single-handed backhand. An incorrect single-handed backhand may explain up to 90% of the tennis elbow injuries. Especially when the single-handed backhand is performed with a flexed, or bent wrist, it might result in tennis elbow injuries.
So, when teaching the single-handed backhand, one needs to focus on the correct order of joint movements. This is important for performance, and for injury prevention. The double-handed backhand seems to be the easier way out, since the single-handed backhand requires more strength and more coordination. Especially in younger tennis players, this might be a reason to go for the double-handed backhand.
Nevertheless, the single-handed backhand also has some advantages. For example, the single-handed backhand is easier to adapt to a backhand spin etc. For this reason, baseline players seem to prefer the double-handed backhand, whereas all-court players seem to prefer a single-handed backhand to be able to adopt a fast transition to slices and backhand volleys. Whatever your preference is, make sure you’ll execute it right to optimize performance and prevent nasty injuries!
Genevois C, Reid M, Rogowski I, Crespo M. Performance factors related to the different tennis backhand groundstrokes: a review. Journal of sports science & medicine. 2015;14(1):194.