The one-handed backhand in tennis is as elegant a shot as it is endangered in today’s times.
While the likes of Roger Federer and Dominic Thiem keep it viable at the top level on the ATP tour, women’s tennis has not seen an effective single-handed backhand at the highest level since Justine Henin, Steffi Graf, Francesca Schiavone and Amelie Mauresmo.
Of the WTA top 30, only world No 23 Carla Suarez Navarro plays it while there are a few more in the lower rungs of the ranking such as Naomi Broady, Tatjana Maria and Conny Perrin.
So when Margarita Gasparyan played her crisp, one-handed backhand shot at the ongoing L&T Mumbai Open, most fans took notice. At little over 6 feet tall, the Russian was almost picture-perfect when she whipped her backhand, which especially served her well in her run to the semi-finals.
However, the sixth seed’s campaign came to an end against another player with an unusual armoury of strokes, Thailand’s Luksika Kumkhum who plays a two-handed forehand. She went down 6-2, 6-4 in the semi-finals, after a change is gameplan against the tiny Thai player backfired.
But even as her run came to an end, her stroke-making found plenty of fans in the crowd at the Cricket Club of India where she was cheered every time she hit a backhand winner. Chatter in the stands made instant connections to Federer and Pete Sampras, among the most successful single-handed backhands in tennis.
Incidentally, the 24-year-old’s backhand is also inspired by Roger Federer, who used it to full effect in the three-set thriller in the Paris Masters semi-final against Novak Djokovic.
“All my life it was my dream, because I started with double backhand. But after six years I decided to change. When I was about 11 maybe, I came to my house and told my parents I want to change, switch my backhand. They said ‘okay no problem’, and that’s it,” Gasparyan told Scroll.in on the sidelines of the Mumbai Open.
Prod her further about why and she simply states: “Because my favourite player is Federer and I always watched him on TV and I loved the shot. And really, I didn’t feel comfortable with the double handed backhand I wanted to keep the left there. It was not easy but after a few months, I felt good.”
As effortless as it looks, nobody can claim that the one-handed backhand is easy. In fact, Federer himself one said that he would advise younsgters to go with a two-hander. Two hands give more power and control with the kind of courts and spin required in tennis today.
But the Russian feels that her unique action gives her advantage. “When you have a single backhand, you are doing better slice and you can do drop shots and you feel better when you are playing at the net.
“Of course, sometimes it is tough, but I have a different... how can I say? I can do whatever I want. Some girls cannot play slice at all. It is not about power, you can hit like crazy but not put the ball inside,” she explained.
The Russian has endured a roller-coaster of a season – returning to action two months ago after being sidelined for almost two years with three knee surgeries. In September, ranked world No 299, she became the second-lowest ranked WTA champion as she lifted her second title at Tashkent Open after entering it with a Protected Ranking. In October, she scored the first Top 10 win of her career in a three-set stunner to down No.2 seed Kiki Bertens and reach the quarterfinals Linz.
“It has been an unbelievable year because I started at zero and didn’t play much so or me every WTA tournament is special and I try to enjoy even though it is tough to enjoy because you have to suffer a little bit,” she said with a laugh.
After starting the year unranked, she is now 110 in the world. Now, her goal is to enter the main draw at the Australian Open for the first time since 2016. Back then, she had reached the fourth round in Melbourne, hitting a career high of No 41 that February before she had to have her three knee surgeries.
“I will be honest, my goal is to play in the main draw of the Australian Open tournament that is why am here. It was tough for me because I didn’t recover well after Luxembourg. I just had six days in between and I wasn’t sure if I should or nor but finally my coach said let’s go and try, if you do well here maybe you can finish the season early,” she added.
Currently training in Barcelona with Carlos Martinez, who was earlier with Svetlana Kuznestsova, the Russian has Anastasia Myskina, former world No 2 and French Open champion, travelling with her in Mumbai. Myskina is also fond of the young Russian, agreeing to come with her when her coach couldn’t.
Fully fit, with a backing as strong and a versatile array of strokes, there is a good chance that the 24-year-old Gasprayan can go on to make a mark in the coming season.
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