The slice backhand; is it the most overrated or underrated shot in tennis; the most overused or underused?
Well, it is my position that the slice backhand is the most underrated and underused shot in tennis today. The great news is that thanks to Roger Federer, the use of the slice backhand is making a comeback in a big way and Federer is showing the world all the valuable benefits of using this too often dismissed asset.
In today’s game of pure unadulterated power, it is a breath of fresh air to watch Federer as he transports us back in time to a place when players actually had to build and develop points using a variety of pace, spin, and location.
He is the Bobby Fischer of tennis and a delightful shot in the arm from the past. One might say Federer is “Old School” millennium style. If you ever get the chance to watch him in person, take the opportunity, as he will rouse your imagination with his artistry and shot-making prowess like no one since John McEnroe’s artistry and ingenuity dominated the net.
Federer’s artistry flows from every part of the court and his creativity appears with spontaneous ingenuity time and time again. My hope is that he will inspire you to more creativity on court as he has done for me, both as a player and a coach.
Today, along with a few other players, we are going to examine one specific part of Federer’s game that resides in his vast repertoire of chess openings…the slice backhand.
Mimic the square position the racquet, forearm and upper arm make during the final preparation position represented by the yellow arrows. Note that Federer and Haas below achieve the same position as you see Johannson achieve in the above illustration
There have been many a great slicer’s in the day and many players in the past used their slice backhands in their own special way. Graf used her slice to set up her huge forehand, Rosewall made his slice the foundation of his game, Edberg and Rafter used their slice predominantly to get into the net.
Wilander incorporated the slice backhand midway through his career to neutralise his opponent’s power and change the rhythm of the points. This, he claims, added a whole new dimension to his game and led him to three Grand Slam victories in a single year.
In my opinion, however, no player in history has utilized the slice backhand more completely and more effectively than Roger Federer. Roger has the uncanny ability to block chip Andy Roddick,s 150 mph serves at his feet on the grass. He can hit the running lunge slice better than any player I have ever seen and it gets him out of seemingly impossible situations time and time again. He can chip the softest of short angle shots to draw players into the net in order to rifle blistering passing shots by them on the very next ball.
Roger uses the floating slice return down the middle to frustrate the big power hitters, he chips and charges the net at will putting constant pressure on opponents, he drives his slice crosscourt and down the line equally well, and most importantly Federer can rocket a topspin one-handed backhand down the line or rip an angle right past his opponent and that makes his slice backhand all the more effective.
It is not that Federer’s technique is superior to all the greats of the past. It is the variation and completeness in which he utilises his slice backhand that sets him apart from all others. He can punish and confuse his opponents in so many ways. So the next time you are watching Federer play a match, take note of how and when he uses his slice. Observe not only his immaculate and effortless technique, but also note the many variations of underspin, targets, and initiatives he employs.
Now let’s get to the good stuff. We will now use biomechanics to break down the slice backhand technique into three easy to learn steps consisting of the specific biomechanical reference points that all the best slice backhands achieve throughout the execution of the preparation, hitting zone, and ending phases of the stroke.
The first thing to note before we get going is the grip. The continental or eastern backhand grip should be used for the slice backhand.
The first reference point and the most important to master is the position of the racquet, forearm, and upper arm during the final preparation position. I call this the “Square” position. When you observe all three players in the illustrations you will notice during the final preparation position, the racquet, forearm, and upper arm form the “Square” shape or right angles at their intersections illustrated by the yellow arrows.
This is the single most important position in the preparation phase. The upper arm should hang naturally and be parallel to the ground, the forearm should be approximately 45 degrees to the ground(the height will be determined by the bounce height of the incoming ball- the higher the bounce the higher the degree the forearm will approach sometimes near 90 degrees), and the racquet should be pointing over the left shoulder to the side fence behind you as you see Haas and Federer demonstrate.
Once you master this reference point position the rest is easy. Practice over and over in the mirror without hitting a ball and look for the ” square” position until you have it down.
The second reference point is the position of the racquet face in the final preparation phase. Notice that the racquet face along with the backside of the palm is pointing towards the net.
A common mistake at all levels is to point the racquet face up towards the sky in the final preparation position. This can often lead to a fluff or floating slice because when starting from this position the racquet face tends to open too much at contact leaving insufficient string surface area to make contact with the ball. Positioning the racquet with the face (contact side of the strings) pointing towards the net will make it easier to carve the backhand in a “C” like swing action..
These specific reference points are fundamental commonalities in all technically sound slice backhands demonstrated by Federer, Haas, and Johannson in the pictures above.
The third reference point during the final preparation position is the position of the upper torso. Notice that the racquet has been taken back with the body, and specifically the shoulders turned 45 degrees to the net.
It is a common mistake among all levels of players to use the arm to take the racquet back. I occasionally even see professional players on tour and high-level juniors wrapping their arms around their necks on the racquet take back. The proper take back is to set the racquet into the square position right after the split step and then coil the upper torso to take the racquet back utilizing the body.
A good way to practice this is to simply stand up get yourself into ready position with your racquet already in the square position, but still facing the net then split step and pivot and let the body take the racquet back into the final preparation position. Coil the upper body until your right shoulder is 45 degrees to the net or to the computer if you were facing the computer while attempting this form.
The fourth reference point – the loading of the right leg. As demonstrated in the pictures, you should load all of your weight onto your right leg simultaneously as you achieve your final preparation position. This movement is very similar to a lunge and will actually be a full lunge if one is stretched out of their comfort zone. Just make sure when you step with the right foot to try and step at a 45-degree angle towards the net or towards the left net post for a visual reference to ensure proper weight transfer and better balance.
The Hitting Zone
The first reference point to achieve during the hitting zone phase is the formation of the racquet and wrist at contact.
Notice that the racquet head in all three illustrations is still above the wrist at contact represented by the green arrows in the above illustrations. The wrist is cocked back in a radial deviated position into position number one or the “square” position and as the wrist releases the racquet head will approach contact while still above the wrist at impact.
The racquet head will not catch up with the wrist or become even with the wrist until many times just after contact. This is a great visual for you to reference and you should kinetically try to feel for this reference point as you strike the ball (until it becomes habit). I suggest videoing yourself to review this one, as it will be hard to see with the naked eye.
The second reference point – the position of the right arm on the downswing through the hitting zone. The arm should be straight or nearly straight by the time of contact represented by the yellow arrows above.
The third reference point during the hitting zone is the contact point. By now if you have read any of my past technical articles you will know now that, of course, the contact point is always the key to consistency in all strokes no matter how poor your technique might or might not be. If you make contact with the ball at the same height off the ground at the same distance away from your body each and every time you strike the ball, then you will ultimately have a consistent stroke whether it is ugly or not.
The optimal contact point is represented by the highlighted area in the pictures above and the red arrows. It should always be between waist and chest height and out in front of the body at the right foot as demonstrated by all players in the above illustrations.
The fourth reference point to mimic is that the left leg should collapse as the weight shifts onto the right leg at contact represented by the blue graphics.
The fifth reference point is that the head should remain quiet or still through contact with the eyes fixated upon the ball represented by the aqua circle above.
**one thing to note that I did not graphically illustrate is that the shoulders will be approximately 45 degrees to the net at contact on a crosscourt shot and near perpendicular to the net at contact when hitting a down the line shot.
The ending for the slice backhand is very simple. I will give you only four reference points to focus upon that are fundamental commonalities in all great slice backhands.
The first reference point is the formation of the left and right arm during the final ending position of the stroke. Notice that the left and right arms of all three players are completely behind the back extending in opposite directions represented below by the yellow arrows.
observe how all three players meet the exact same reference points of palms facing down (aqua), left and right arms extending in opposite directions(yellow), weight loaded to right foot(blue), and strings facing towards the sky(green)
The key here is at contact, you should throw the left arm back as the right arm continues its forward progression through the shot. The left arm acts as a catalyst and will actually help increase the racquet heads force and throw the racquet through the ball with more ease.
While one is swinging through the ball with all this racquet speed, the left arm also acts as an anchor point for the body. When the racquet is accelerating through the hitting zone the left arm helps keep the body sideways or closed a fraction longer and also provides the body with more balance and stability through the stroke. Better balance will allow for faster footwork positional recovery after the stroke is completed.
A nice analogy you might be able to relate to is that the ending should look like the “Safe-Sign” in baseball. Another thing that helps me is to think of trying to touch my shoulder blades together as I end my stroke.
The second reference point during the ending phase of the slice backhand goes hand in hand with reference point number one. When you finish, the part of the racquet face that you made contact with the ball should be pointing towards the sky along with the knuckles of your right hand of which is represented above in the illustrated pictures by the green arrows.
The third reference point to mimic and another way of stating reference point number two is to say the opposite which I personally relate better to. Simply end with both palms facing the ground. This is a simple visual reference point that all great slice backhands achieve during the ending phase of their stroke.
So, in essence, the first three reference points are tied together however one of them might relate to you better than another so I encourage you to flirt with focusing on each of them and see which ones help you most.
The fourth reference point is simply that the weight should end completely loaded onto the right leg demonstrated by the blue boxes above.
So there you have it. WelI have neatly broken down the fundamental commonalities of some of the great technical slice backhands into an easy to learn 1, 2, 3 step system consisting of visual reference points for you to mimic during the preparation, hitting zone, and ending phases of the stroke of which you can immediately take and apply to your own game or coaching..
The easiest way to learn this technique is to focus on achieving the preparation position, swing straight through the ball, and then simply freeze in your ending and see if you ended with your palms down trying to touch your shoulder blades together. Don’t forget to achieve the “square” position in your preparation. Go practice achieving these exact same reference points that we have pointed out for you and let us know how it goes!