This is by far the hardest stroke to rank. By far. With so many variations on one shot, each player on this list and even those who missed out can easily make a claim as one of the best backhands on tour. A few questions need to be answered when we take the microscope to the best backhands in the business:
- Ability to hit winners – the hallmark of any great shot, the backhand can’t simply be used as a defensive weapon
- Defensive capabilities – in the modern game, defence is almost as important as hitting winners, and one handed backhands are more easily attacked in this regard
- Slice – Must have a slice, and not only in a defensive position, the slice must be able to be used to mix the play up, varying depth and pace through to the opposition
After you sift through these questions, you’ll have a pretty decent idea of who’ll be featuring on our list. But then another question begs: one handed or two handed backhand? Without question, the one handed backhand winner gets you squirming in your seat more than any other shot in the game, but it can also be attacked more easily, simply because you’ve got one less hand on the racquet.
Baby Fed, a backhand modelled on Federer simply can’t be better than the original. Even though he can hit through the ball a bit more easily, he’s prone to unforced errors still early in his career. Give him 5 years and he’ll be a lock for this list
Some of the best backhands I’ve seen have come from this man’s racquet, but he just isn’t consistent enough with it. Whether that’s a temperament issue or not is for another discussion, but those flashy winners aren’t enough to get him into the top 5.
5. Roger Federer
Strengths: Very few unforced errors, slice, accuracy
Weaknesses: Strength, hard to control above shoulder height
Debate amongst us here at Blindside whether or not Federer should even be in the top 5, but it’s the whole package that’s gets him over the line. This is Federer’s most solid shot – his forehand may go astray at times, but never the backhand. Always a rock. Throw in the best slice on tour and he’s hard to break down simply by stretching him wide.
In full flight, this is the most aesthetically pleasing shot I’ve seen. Taking the ball early and on the rise he can go anywhere. The backhand for Federer is the shot that usually prevails when he wins big matches. Victories over Nadal in recent times (not that there’s been many) have come through going after any short ball Nadal tends to offer and going either hard down the line or cross court.
As a whole package, and against every player not named Rafael Nadal, he would probably be in the top 3, but the physical edge he gives up on backhands above his shoulder is the only flaw in an almost perfect game. Aggression is the key here, and by avoiding higher balls to this side there will be more encouraging results.
4. Rafael Nadal
Strengths: Impenetrable, passing shots, power
Weaknesses: Slice, unforced errors into the net
With arms that big, it’s no wonder opponents have a hard time pushing Nadal around out of position, especially on the backhand side. It’s hard to think of any shot in the history of tennis with so much power behind it, but when Rafa is head to head in a baseline rally, he is dictating play. The most incredible thing about this shot is his strength in defensive positions. On so many occasions the opposition has put in a quality approach shot pushing Rafa wide on the backhand, only to be passed at the net with even more power.
The only thing keeping him at number 4 on the list is the slice. Not that it’s a weakness, but it just doesn’t have the attacking capabilities some other players have. More of a chip in defensive positions, his slice on the defensive end is prone to sitting up nicely for the opposition to pounce on. A great slice, like Federer or Wawrinka’s can easily turn a defensive position into a neutral one, or better still, manoeuvre an opponent into a weaker position. Nadal’s slice simply doesn’t do this.
It may not be the most elegant shot, and definitely has a look of a ‘constructed stroke’ but with the sheer destructive force from the Nadal backhand, it certainly deserves a place at number 4 on our list.
3. Richard Gasquet
Strengths: Jaw-dropping winners, accuracy, generating own pace
Weaknesses: Strength on defence
This is actually really painful putting Gasquet this low on the list given the absurd nature of his backhand, but when you sit back and analyse his whole backhand wing, he doesn’t have the defensive capabilities of the two men ahead of him on this list.
Let’s focus on how insanely awesome this backhand is though. On the front foot and driving into the court, this backhand is like no other on tour. This is a video game backhand. One of those shots that will never go off and can be hit with great effect from any position on the court. In saying this though, when stretched to all these different areas on the court, most opponents are sitting pretty in the rally. His options when pushed into a bad position are either a mediocre slice that sits up nicely for opponents to attack, or an all-out assault on a topspin backhand going for broke. It’s these instances, that while they may be flashy and absolutely mind-boggling, he’ll come unstuck against the players either ranked above him, or a power hitter pushing him deep to the backhand.
Enough of the criticism though, this backhand is so freakishly beautiful to watch. He may never win a big tournament, but this backhand will no doubt go down in history as one of the greatest shots ever.
2. Stanislas Wawrinka
Strengths: Power, slice, defensive recovery, changing direction
Weaknesses: Slight weakness on the run, needs time to set up
This may be an unpopular ranking for the newly crowned Australian Open champion, considering he beat the man ranked above him in the quarter finals. Even writing this I’m still debating this position on the list, but I think this may be a sentimental thing. Everyone loves Stan the Man, and the pure joy of seeing a one handed backhand hit with such power is something to behold. The point ending ability of this stroke is probably unmatched on tour, and as everyone has seen in the past 18 months, his ability to change direction, especially up the line, really makes life difficult for the opposing player.
We’re clutching at straws to find any weakness on the Wawrinka backhand, given he covers everything the two single handers before him on the list lack in their shot. Noticeably bigger than Federer, Stan can afford to lose some ground on the baseline and completely avoid those awkward shots above shoulder height by generating huge pace slightly deeper in the court. In the slice department, Stan is in a different league to Gasquet. A knifing slice probably only second to Federer, Stan uses his defensive slice as an attacking option – Gasquet simply doesn’t have this. If we were to take a stab at any weakness, it would be an apparent weakness in setting up for the shot. This may explain why he has never progressed past the fourth round at Wimbledon. He needs time to set up for his big backhands, and those epic running backhands he would hit down the line in Melbourne just simply won’t happen at Wimbledon with the lower bounce.
1. Novak Djokovic
Strengths: Defensive recovery, changing direction, never breaks down
Weaknesses: Lacks high end power
It pains me to put a double handed backhand at number one on this list, but there’s really no arguing that it’s the best backhand on tour. Djokovic’s success in the past 3 years can be attributed to his whole defensive game, but particularly his backhand. The rock of his game, this shot never breaks down. In fact, I can’t think of a more stable shot in tennis. Quite simply, it is perfection.
The defensive capabilities of this shot are unrivalled. No one can hit through Djokovic on the backhand side. The hardest hitters on tour can’t even break it down. His movement out to this side, combined with the sliding on all surfaces is something that hasn’t been seen before. The only time I’ve seen him struggle on this side is when his shoes weren’t allowing him to slide. His other main strength on this side is the changing of direction. Again, like no other, Djokovic can take a cross court backhand rally and switch it up the line with such ease. For those tennis players out there, this may be one of the hardest shots to execute, especially with the tremendous pace the ball is hit at these days. His ability to do this takes time away from opponents, where he can move into the court more and end the point.
One weakness though, which I think may arise when he gets on in age. He lacks the high end power that everyone else on this list possesses. At the moment, at the peak of his powers, he can work the ball around the court with ease, moving freely and setting up the point. Hitting behind opponents and creating an unbalanced feel for the opposition is what Djokovic does best, but I feel he may need to add a bit more power towards the end of his career once he starts to slow down and lose some defensive capabilities.
With that weakness seemingly something to worry about down the track, Djokovic has very few worries on the backhand wing, and is a deserved number one ranked backhand on tour.