Among groundstrokes, the backhand is perhaps the most challenging shot to master. Unlike the forehand which follows a more natural trajectory forward on a player’s dominant side, the backhand requires the player to reverse the motion of the swing on their non-dominant side.
The backhand stroke is performed either with a one-handed or two-handed backhand grip. Start in a ready position with knees slightly bent and turn your body sideways as soon as possible to perform the stroke. The motion of the swing follows a high-low-high trajectory. Hold your racket head high at the start, then drop the head of the racket and swing through the point of contact. Follow through fully across your body to complete the shot.
While the backhand tends to be the weak side for most players, persistent practice and development of muscle memory will eventually lead to the proper development of the stroke. Developing a strong backhand can give you an added advantage over your opponents.
Shadowing and Short Court Practice
When starting out, it is a good idea to first get comfortable with the stroke by shadowing the motion without a racket.
Turn your body sideways, bring your arm back, and swing forward in a swooping (high-low-high) motion. Be sure to follow through fully. Do this a few times to get a feel for how the stroke works.
Once you’ve taken a few swings to get comfortable with the motion, you can pick up the racket and repeat the motion gripping the handle.
When just starting out, rather than playing the full court, it’s a great idea to play within the service box area with a partner and just get used to making good contact, hitting the ball over the net, keeping your eye on the ball, and placing it where you intended.
Because you are playing in a more confined space, your swing will be somewhat contrived. You will not be following through fully. This is fine for now, you just want to get comfortable with the swing.
You should practice this way for a good period of time. Gradually increase your distance from the net when you find the stroke is becoming easier to perform. Eventually, you will feel more comfortable playing the full court.
The One-Handed Backhand
The one-handed backhand is the classical backhand used in the game of tennis. If executed correctly, it is a very elegant stroke. However, the form and technique also take a lot of time to master.
Developing a good one-handed backhand requires constant repetition to get comfortable with the motion and to strengthen the specific arm muscles involved in the stroke.
In addition to practice and repetition, you want to make sure that you start out with the correct fundamentals. Focus on your grip, body and racket positioning, footwork, and proper follow-through.
One-Handed Backhand Grip
A good grip to use when starting out on your backhand is either the continental or the eastern backhand grip. This will allow you to put some topspin on the ball but is less extreme than the semi-western backhand grip.
The continental grip works well for backhand slices, or for drop shots. The eastern backhand grip offers greater topspin potential, but if you prefer to play with the continental grip, it can certainly produce plenty of topspin as long as you swing low to high and your mechanics are sound.
For more information on grip positioning, see the article on how to hold a tennis racket. It details the various types of grips available and when to use each one.
Power and heavy topspin should not be a concern when first starting out. These techniques can be improved on as you progress and become more comfortable with the swing.
Likewise, once you are more comfortable with your backhand, if you want to, you can begin to experiment with more extreme grip positions like the semi-western for added topspin.
Work your way into more extreme grips little by little, you don’t necessarily have to go from one to another in one shot. There are steps in between that you can take. Even the pros often times use grips that are in between.
Positioning and Footwork
For now, focus on the path of trajectory and the correct placement of your feet and upper body. You want to be turned sideways with the shoulder of your dominant side facing the net. For a right-handed player, the right shoulder would face the net.
Likewise, the outside of your front foot should face the net. Keep your knees bent with your feet separated more than shoulder-width apart to create a solid base to work from.
Your weight will initially be on your back foot as you begin. However, as you move to make contact with the ball your weight will shift forward (towards the net) in the process.
During play, you should turn sideways as soon as you see the ball is coming to your backhand side. This will allow you to make any adjustments more quickly since it’s easier to move forward towards the ball than sidestep to adjust.
Guiding the Racket Head Back
You should use your non-hitting hand to help guide the racket back. This will help you better position the racket before you begin your swing. It also allows you to focus on one direction of the swing rather than two.
As you hold your racket behind your body (towards your back foot) with the non-hitting hand, be sure the racket head is positioned higher than the handle.
Holding the racket head high will help you generate more power and create a natural arc of trajectory when you initiate your swing. It will also position your racket for both a topspin shot or an underspin shot.
The Forward Swing Motion
Once you are set up with the racket behind you, initiate the forward swing as soon as the ball strikes the ground. At this point, you have the option of either hitting a topspin backhand shot or an underspin shot.
For a topspin backhand, start by quickly dropping the racket head lower (about a foot) and then following in a forward and upward trajectory to create topspin on the ball.
Keep your elbow relatively close to your body in a locked position as you swing through. Brush up on the ball at the end of the follow-through to generate added topspin.
If you opt for a slice backhand, angle the racket head a bit so you are leading with the bottom edge of the racket. Move the racket forward from high to low in a smooth continuous fashion and then finish back up slightly after contact.
For more information on executing an underspin/slice shot, be sure to check out the article on how to hit a slice shot. It will break down the mechanics involved in greater detail.
Use the Non-Hitting Arm for Counterbalance
As you swing forward, your non-hitting arm should swing back in the opposite direction. This helps counterbalance the forward momentum of the hitting arm.
As you perform this motion, stick out your chest a bit. This will help the motion in opposite direction feel more natural and will improve the trajectory of swing.
This is particularly important when hitting a topspin backhand. You will notice when implementing this form that the extension of the non-hitting arm along with the chest protrusion helps keep the ball from floating off too high.
The counterbalance motion will help give you that spin effect you are looking for in a one-handed backhand topspin shot. It will also help you keep the ball in play.
Maintain Good Eye Contact with the Ball
In addition to setting up correctly, bending your knees, shifting your weight, and following through with proper technique, an important aspect of hitting a solid backhand is eye to ball coordination.
Good eye contact is essential in executing any shot in tennis. It is particularly important with the backhand since the movement of the arm is in reverse and making good contact with the center of the racket is more challenging.
You want to remain focused on the ball from the time you initiate the backhand to the time you make contact with the ball. Keep your head down the whole time, looking towards the oncoming ball.
You should not lift your head until you have finished the shot. Doing so will throw off your shot and you may end up mishitting the ball. Hold off on looking up until you are at the follow-through stage.
The Two-Handed Backhand
Many of the principles discussed for the one-handed backhand apply to the two-handed backhand as well.
You want to set up sideways with your dominant shoulder, hips, and outside of your foot towards the net. Your knees should be bent, feet separated more than shoulder-width with the front foot further in front.
The main difference is that now you will move the racket back with both hands on the handle as a unit. Both your shoulders should rotate to the side in unison.
The two-handed backhand is used primarily as a topspin shot. While it is possible to slice the ball, it’s more difficult to do and less efficient than using the one-handed backhand.
The Two-Handed Backhand Grip
Place your dominant hand on the bottom of the handle in a continental grip. The non-dominant hand should be on top of the handle in a semi-western grip position.
This grip combination is the most natural and will produce good results. More importantly, it will not put your arm muscles in an awkward position where they have to work harder. You can produce adequate amounts of topspin as long as you swing low to high and brush up on the ball.
For added topspin, you could use an eastern backhand grip on the dominant hand and a western backhand grip on the non-dominant hand. But, keep in mind that this is a more extreme grip and you should only use it once you’ve mastered the more standard continental/semi-western combination.
Arm Positioning and Torso Rotation
When performing the two-handed backhand you can either keep your arms straight in front of you or your elbows slightly bent closer to your body in a locked position.
Rotation during the swing will primarily be generated from your torso. Your weight should shift forward with your arms following through and brushing up on the ball for topspin.
One of the advantages of the two-handed backhand is that it locks your upper body in place. As you rotate around your torso, your shoulders rotate in tandem with your full upper body.
This is more difficult to achieve with the one-handed backhand since your arms are not combined during the motion. This is why it’s important to guide the racket back with your non-hitting hand when executing the one-handed backhand.
Start with the Racket Head High and Get Low on the Ball
Like the one-handed backhand where you start with the racket head higher, the two-handed backhand starts from a high position with a low-to-high forward swing finishing up towards the end of the stroke. Follow through fully during the swing to generate the most power.
Keep your eye on the ball from the time it approaches your backhand through the end of the shot. This will ensure you make the best contact with the ball. It also increases the likelihood you will strike the sweet spot of the racket head during the motion.
Don’t be afraid to get really low during the swing. You want to really bend your knees and use the low-to-high motion to generate good topspin. This will allow you to hit with power and keep the ball within the boundaries of the court while preventing your shot from hitting the net.
Bending your knees and getting low on the ball is particularly important on the backhand. While you can get away with not bending your knees as much on the forehand, the mechanics of the backhand require that you get low to initiate the swing.
As you swing through, your body should rise up through contact. This upward momentum will help you generate more pace on your shots and produce more topspin as well.
Here is a great video that walks you through the beginner two-handed backhand stroke:
Should You Use a One-Handed or Two-Handed Backhand?
The two-handed backhand stroke can feel a bit more mechanical than the one-handed backhand. This is because the two-handed grip tends to limit flexibility somewhat. However, the advantage is it can generate greater power. The more rigid mechanics involved in the swing can also result in greater consistency.
On the other hand, the one-handed backhand allows for increased reach and the ability to adjust the stroke more quickly if required.
While players usually will favor one backhand stroke over the other, there is no reason why you can’t alternate between the two when the situation calls for it.
For example, a player that favors the two-handed backhand for topspin groundstrokes, in particular, shots at shoulder level, may switch to a one-handed backhand on low balls or in situations that require last-minute reach.
Conversely, a player that generally favors the one-handed backhand may switch to a two-handed backhand for shots that require added power or on returns off very powerful serves.
Volley shots are usually taken using a one-handed backhand setup because of the quick adjustment advantage of the position. Occasionally players will use a two-handed backhand volley to really blast the shot towards their opponent.
Practice to Develop Consistency
Like any other shot, you want to practice the backhand stroke as much as possible. Your coach or instructor will likely feed you multiple backhand shots on a regular basis to help you improve and develop your technique.
If you have a practice partner, it’s helpful to hit backhands to one another and keep a rally going as long as possible. If not, you can always practice against the wall, a very effective way to improve your backhand and overall game.
While the backhand is usually perceived by most players to be their weakest stroke, it doesn’t have to be. With enough practice, it will begin to feel just as natural as any other stroke, and in fact, could eventually prove to be a better weapon than your forehand.
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