Sports & Games

Perfect Your Tennis Backhand Technique With Tips From Serena Williams

Written by MasterClass

Sep 4, 2019 • 6 min read

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Serena Williams Teaches Tennis

In the game of tennis, a backhand is a tennis stroke in which the racket travels across the player’s body, striking the ball with the palm facing towards the chest and the back of hand moving towards the opponent on the follow through.

In tennis, a backhand stroke can be one handed or two handed. There are advantages to each. With steady practice, aspiring tennis players can develop their backhand to be just as useful as their forehand.

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What Is a Tennis Backhand?

A tennis backhand is a groundstroke in which the player’s arm crosses their body to swing at the ball, with the back of their palm moving towards their opponent. Its complimentary groundstroke, the tennis forehand, is its exact opposite. Learn more about perfecting your tennis forehand here.

  • Since the dominant hand pulls towards the ball as opposed to pushing (as is the case in a forehand), it typically lacks the same power that characterizes the forehand as the racket does not have as much speed when it makes contact with the ball.
  • Backhands can be one-handed or two-handed, with different players adopting each version based on the particulars of their game.
  • It is possible to have perfect tennis technique with either version of the shot, since neither is inherently better than the other.
  • Since the pull of the dominant hand is helped by the push of the non-dominant hand, generally two-handed backhands have more power than one-handed backhands, yet for this same reason they are also harder to set up.

3 Advantages of a Two-Handed Backhand

Two-handed backhands have become increasingly popular over the past twenty years or so, with more and more players opting for the backhand technique. Much of this has to do with the influence Serena WIlliams and her sister Venus Williams have had on women’s tennis: both regularly hit backhand winners with extreme power and accuracy.

This is in contrast to tennis stars of previous generations, like Martina Navratalova and Steffi Graff, who both hit one-handers.

There are several advantages of a two-handed backhand:

  1. Power. The two-handed backhand generates more power typically than its one-handed counterpart. WIth both hands on the racquet, the dominant hand pulls toward the ball while the nondominant hand pushes, giving more power to the groundstroke. A topspin backhand generally has more depth and movement with the two-handed stroke.
  2. Control. The two-handed backhand gives players much more control of where the ball is going, improving accuracy.
  3. Angles. The two-handed backhand is by necessity a more compact stroke with much less arm extension. With a tighter stroke (where the racquet is close to the body, not extended), it is far easier to hit tight angles from anywhere on the court. Inside-out backhands, for example, in which the ball is hit to the opposite side of the court but not across the players body, are much easier to hit with two hands.

3 Advantages of a One-Handed Backhand

While the two-handed backhand is enjoying increasing popularity, some players in today’s game use one-handed backhands (Roger Federer is one such player).

The one handed backhand has several advantages over the two-hander:

  1. Reach. It is far easier to extend for a shot with only one hand on the racquet. When a ball is several steps away from a player with a two-handed backhand, they often take one hand off the racquet and switch to a one-handed backhand, which is unnatural for them and against their tennis instincts. One-handed players are already comfortable with only one hand on the backhand side and are thus better at extending for balls quickly and with accuracy.
  2. Slice. In a tennis match, a slice is a backspin groundstroke that sits lower to the ground and does not move as quickly towards the opposing player. This change-of-pace shot, often used as an approach shot when a player plans on advancing to the net, is much easier to execute with a one-handed backhand since the racquet head angle required to execute it is much easier to achieve with only one hand on the racquet. A backhand slice can help set up power shots later in the rally.
  3. Disguise. With a slice backhand, drop shots, lobs and other high balls, and other changeup strokes meant to interrupt the opponent’s flow, disguise is paramount—you never want your opponent to know what type of shot you are hitting until the very last possible second. With one hand on the racquet, such deception is far easier—two-handed backhands often telegraph to opponents the type of shot that is about to come their way.

2 Grips For Perfecting Your One-Handed Backhand

Among one-handed backhands there are two primary grips to choose from:

  • Eastern backhand grip. In the eastern backhand grip, the player places their hand so that the base knuckle of the index finger and heel of the hand are right on the racket’s first bevel. This grip allows for a good amount of spin and control.
  • Semi-western backhand grip. This grip is obtained by locating the hand so that the base knuckle of the index finger is right on the eighth racquet bevel. Compared to the Continental grip (which is only suitable for serves and volleys as it doesn’t allow for spin), the blade rotates ninety-degrees clockwise, forcing the wrist in an uncomfortable twist that allows for the maximum possible spin.

1 Grip For Perfecting Your Two-Handed Backhand

With two-handed backhands, the grip choices are reduced since both hands must fit on the racquet.

  • The standard two-handed backhand grip. The basic two-handed grip for a right handed player is made by grabbing the racquet in a regular Continental grip like an axe with the right hand, then placing the left hand above holding it in a left-handed semi-western forehand grip. While all grips begin this way, there are varieties with positioning of the two hands, particularly among those whose dominant hand is on the left side or the right side.

Serena Williams’s Tips for Improving Your Tennis Backhand

Backhand can be a shot that for many tennis players is their weak shot, but Serena Williams has practiced so much on hers that it has become one of her strongest shots. She has the below tips for players who want to improve their backhand.

  • Pay attention to your stance. Williams turns fast, drops her racquet, naturally going into her open stance. This stance gives her better movement in her knees, she gets more rotation on the ball.
  • Hit leftie. Perhaps the most important thing about a good backhand is your left hand. Williams notes that the best tennis players have strong backhands, with long follow throughs, almost like in a forehand. If she notices her backhand is off, she will have her hitter feed balls to her so that she can practice hitting with her left hand and make her shot stronger and more consistent. She hits leftie until her shot is strong and then she simply adds her other hand to the racquet.
  • Practice until you’re consistent. Because the foundation of a great, consistent backhand is your left hand, the best way to work on improving your backhand is to practice playing leftie. Try playing for the first part of your practice every day and track your progress in your notebook. Have you noticed an improvement in your backhand? Over time, playing leftie will give your left arm consistent power and accuracy for your backhand.

Whether you’re just starting out on the court or dreaming big about going professional, playing tennis is as challenging as it is rewarding. Serena Williams, the world’s #1 ranked women’s tennis player and winner of 23 Grand Slam singles titles, has spent years honing her craft. In Serena Williams’s MasterClass on tennis technique, she reveals all she knows about mastering the game.

Want to become a better athlete? The MasterClass All-Access Pass provides exclusive video lessons from master athletes, including Serena Williams and Steph Curry.

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