One of history’s legendary tennis players, Ken Rosewall of Australia possessed a wonderful backhand. Hit one-handed with underspin, his backhand shots had a flat, bullet-like trajectory that were beautiful to watch. Always hit with great depth and with unerring accuracy, Rosewall’s backhand is considered by many to be the greatest in the history of the game. Nevertheless, few coaches would recommend the stroke to players of any skill level.
Rosewall’s backhand was hit with underspin. Most tennis coaches would much prefer that their students hit all groundstrokes with topspin, which acts to pull the ball down in flight. This allows a player to arc the ball higher over the net, thereby reducing the chance that a player might lose a point by inadvertently hitting the ball into the net.
Since topspin pulls the ball down, a drive hit with topspin can be hit much harder than a drive hit with underspin, and still stay in the court. Moreover, a passing shot hit with topspin can be made to dip below the level of the net almost as soon as the ball crosses it. This opens up angles for passing shots and generally makes a volley much more difficult for an opponent to play effectively.
On the other hand, a ball hit with underspin will tend to arc less and carry farther. To be hit with reasonable pace a shot hit with underspin must skim the net closely. This obviously increases the chance that the ball will fall into the net, resulting in immediate loss of the point. Too, a passing shot hit with underspin won’t dip crossing the net. Consequently, it will be more difficult to obtain a good angle for a passing shot and an opponent will generally have less difficulty playing a volley.
The advantages to driving the ball with topspin, as opposed to slicing the ball with underspin, are both fundamental and undeniable. Rosewall, however, did not hit his backhand with topspin. How, then, could his backhand have been so good as to be universally acclaimed one of the finest in the history of the game?
Although there is a strong consensus in the tennis community that topspin is more advantageous overall, nevertheless there are some benefits to using underspin. For one thing, a shot hit with underspin will tend to skid off most court surfaces and stay low, whereas a shot hit with topspin will tend to bounce high, and of course a shot that bounces high is generally easier to play back. In addition, because underspin makes the ball carry farther in flight, a shot hit with underspin will tend to land more deeply in the backcourt, and this will also make the return shot more difficult for an opponent to play. Rosewall made the fullest possible use of these benefits.
In addition, Rosewall developed strategic alternatives to powerfully angled passing shots. For instance, he noted that a player at the net has a “blind spot”, about the size of a dinner plate, where he cannot effectively play a volley. For a right handed player, this would be an incoming shot to his right hip. Rosewall could hit such a target with deadly accuracy.
Moreover, Rosewall could modify his backhand stroke at the very last microsecond to play an extremely discombobulating offensive lob. If Rosewall saw that his opponent was stationed in good volleying position and consequently Rosewall found himself lacking an effective angle for a passing shot, he would quickly flick the ball over his opponent’s head. Time and again, spectators would watch Rosewall’s opponent racing back frantically after a lob that was just out of his reach only to manage, at best, a weak defensive lob in reply. Rosewall would then put away the overhead with machinelike precision.
Defensively, Rosewall’s backhand was a fortress wall that could not be breached. Offensively, a ball hit short to Rosewall’s backhand would be driven with pinpoint accuracy into one of the corners, whereupon Rosewall would plant himself at the net in textbook-perfect volleying position. At such times one might well suspect that the dimunitive Rosewall must appear to his opponent as some primeval giant out of myth and legend.
Unquestionably, Ken Rosewall’s backhand was one of the game’s great strokes, but it is not a shot to be emulated. Lacking Rosewall’s fantastic agility and reflexes, an underspin backhand simply leaves a player at too much of a disadvantage. Watch video of Rosewall carving up his opponents with what was perhaps the greatest backhand in the history of the game, and marvel. But don’t try this at home!