Ranking the Best Backhands in Men's Tennis History
Men's tennis has a long history of great backhands peppering the sport. One-handers, two-fisters, tops and spins have all had their places. Artists like Richard Gasquet and powerhouses like Stanislas Wawrinka represent the current editions of this fine stroke.
Before them, though, were five players whose talents ran the gamut of the backhand.
Unlike the black-and-white assessments of wins and losses, a set of criteria must be chosen here to rate these professionals' efforts. While also relying upon this writer's opinion and observations, the ratings are based upon the following:
- Historical players are included, while current players are excluded
- Career consistency must trump singular results
- The statements of respected analysts always carry weight
Here they are, then—the best bashers of the backhand.
No. 5: Bjorn Borg
Bjorn Borg's two-handed backhand was a looping marvel. The remarkably slow takeback on his "off" wing was mesmerizing, as if one could take two entire breaths, waiting for the stroke to develop.
And then it just took off.
The topspin that he was able to impart forced his opponents back behind the baseline, ever chasing. It worked on clay and grass equally, leading to multiple French and Wimbledon championships. Sadly, that never quite was the case on the hard courts of New York, perhaps because he didn't have the time for that beautiful backswing.
Not that he would have changed a thing about the shot. CNN quotes Borg's rebellious attitude this way:
The difference with my backhand was that I was playing it with top spin which was something of a revolution. People kept telling me I couldn't play them top spin and had to play the shots flat. I remember a guy once gave me a book on tennis and said 'read this, it shows you how you are supposed to play' -- but you know I am a bit stubborn and did not listen, so I carried on playing my backhand with top spin and that is how the whole thing started.
That "whole thing" turned out pretty well.
No. 4: Stefan Edberg
When Stefan Edberg was an up-and-coming player in the Swedish pantheon, he was looked at as a player with a weak forehand and a few strengths.
The backhand was one of them.
After a long and successful career, Edberg will always be most known for his backhand. Descriptions from two analysts best sum up the range and power of this controlling element.
The first is from Robin Finn of The New York Times. He wrote that while dismissing John McEnroe forever from Wimbledon in the 1989 semifinal, the Swede did so with a backhand return that was "so well angled that the server [McEnroe] did not bother to chase it."
Ohm Youngmisuk of The Baltimore Sun recalled yet another afternoon when Edberg's backhand passed a net rusher at will. This time the victim was Australian Pat Rafter at the Legg Mason Classic in 1995.
Noting that the stroke was not only one of the "most beautiful strokes in tennis" but also "deadly," he could not help but quote Edberg's assessment of the match: "I was a little surprised [that Rafter went to his backhand]...that's nice when they hit it to that side."
No. 3: Ken Rosewall
Longtime tennis analyst Steve Flink is taken with Ken Rosewall's backhand. After reviewing his lively descriptions of the Aussie's golden stroke, it's no wonder.
Writing for The Tennis Channel in an interview with Rosewall, Flink vowed to disagree with his interviewee's assessment that he would not compete well in the contemporary game due to lack of power. Flink noted just how applicable the shot would be, even today:
Rosewall’s immaculate backhand slice was one of the single greatest shots the game has ever seen because it was so versatile; he could rally and continually probe with it, he could return beautifully off that side, he could approach forcefully and keep his shots exceedingly low, and even pass brilliantly with that majestic backhand.
No matter that Rosewall humbly replied with "...I must have seen the ball better on that side. The backhand was just a natural shot for me.”
It didn't convince Flink then, and it wouldn't later, either.
World Tennis Magazine later quoted him from his book, The Greatest Tennis Matches of All Time. He's still in awe of the Rosewall backhand, calling it "unmistakably elegant."
No. 2: Jimmy Connors
Jimmy Connors had a forehand. Really. That seems somewhat silly to say, but it almost needs to be pointed out.
Because of his backhand.
Connors' version is nearly always described as a two-fisted backhand, not a two-handed one. It was purely and simply aggressive. It was almost as if the feisty American was actually reaching out with those fists to pummel his opponents even while striking the ball.
And to think, Frank Deford pointed out in Sports Illustrated that the stroke was once considered by Connors' family to be "childish" in nature.
That's right, childish. It seems that they took "Jimbo" outside one day to teach him the one-hander.
After watching the failed efforts for a while, they decided to leave it alone after all, thinking that, "By the time he's 19 or 20 he should be able to tear tennis apart with the two-handed backhand."
Turns out they knew what they were talking about.
After relating this seminal event in tennis groundstroke history, Deford offered his own opinion. The American's backhand was not only great, but "one of the three or four best shots in tennis history."
No. 1: Don Budge
Don Budge won a lot of tennis matches, with many of them coming in a short period of time. His Grand Slam accomplishment stands right at the top of tennis history along with Rod Laver's Gran Slam-sweeping feats.
Budge's backhand is what made the difference.
In his book The Greatest Tennis Matches of All Time, (h/t World Tennis Magazine), Steve Flink puts it this way:
When he captured the Grand Slam in 1938—the first player ever to realize that feat—Budge had it all, but the single biggest strength in his game was his majestic backhand. Most of those players who preceded Budge at the top of tennis were better off the forehand, but his backhand was the first of its kind. His aggressiveness off that side was ground breaking in many ways. He drove the backhand essentially flat and all students of the game marveled at its magical simplicity.
Neil Amdur of The New York Times agrees wholeheartedly. He calls Budge's backhand "The Shot for the Ages." He famously quotes one of Budge's rivals George Lott, as saying, "When you came in against Budge's backhand, he hit such a heavy ball, you'd swear you were volleying a piano.''
That's a pretty strong statement.
In the end, Don Budge's backhand stroke is the masterclass. His Grand Slam depended on its strength and consistency, and analysts and fellow competitors remain in awe of it, even today.