The late great tennis writer Bud Collins called Justine Henin ‘The Little Backhand That Could’, alluding to the stroke’s breathtaking aesthetic and variety. A dreamy single-handed, down-the-line shot with topspin that propelled Henin to the number one ranking, seven Grand Slam titles and an Olympic gold. But who inspired the backhand, the one which left John McEnroe, he of the feisty one-hander, drooling?
“Steffi Graf. Even though she didn’t hit it like I did, she sliced it more,” Henin told The Indian Express. “Steffi, and Stefan Edberg.”
The Belgian was in the Capital to attend the fifth edition of Rendezvous a Roland-Garros, a junior wild card event won by Mann Maulik Shah and Humera Shaikh on Wednesday. Predictably, none of the 16 hopefuls who lined up for the three-day tournament at the DLTA complex wielded a single-handed backhand.
Encouraged by eager parents and coaches, and necessitated by racquets larger than their frames, child prodigies use two hands to improve consistency and increase power in their strokes. With the back of their shoulders not as developed as the front, two hands are often required for the backhand while one gets the job done on the forehand.
Speaking with The New York Times in 2014, Henin’s lifelong coach Carlos Rodriguez too asserted that the disappearance of the single-handed backhand was because youngsters were unwilling to sacrifice short-term results in order to develop the stroke.
“I took the racquet when I was 5 years old. I swung it like that, it came naturally to me,” says Henin. “And growing up, when I saw my idols play, I knew it was the right way. I never asked myself the question if I could develop more power using two hands.”
Rodriguez predicted that “Five or 10 years from now, it is going to be gone from the game.” It’s been five years since, and while it hasn’t gone from the game, a single-hander is increasingly seen as a vulnerability, less effective against high-velocity, high-bouncing shots. A second hand on the racquet makes it easier to parry pace and spin, the defining features of the modern game. Brute force drives today’s tennis, artful demonstrations be damned!
“It is probably what the players think and probably it is the reality. That there is more power and control using two handed-backhand,” says Henin. “I feel that in the future, the game is only going to get faster, stronger and harder. It is something I regret a little bit. And it makes me admire the survivors a lot.”
The men’s side has more. In the ATP top 50, there are 10 who use the single-handed backhand, a one-in-five minority led by 37-year-old Roger Federer. Among women, Spaniard Carla Suarez Navarro (world-ranked 27) , who hasn’t progressed further than the quarters at a Grand Slam, is the highest-ranked among the dying breed.
But the single-handed backhand, the final vestige of tennis as it was played back in the day, wasn’t the only trait that made Henin an anomaly. At 5-foot-5 and 125 pounds, she was regularly the smaller competitor against an Amazonian generation of power-hitters, marshalled by the Williams sisters. With five 5’10+ players among the women’s top 10 now, the average height has only increased.
“I was facing tall players all the time. But if you’re not tall, then it is down to what qualities you have and how you use them,” Henin says. “I was quick, I had a good vision of the game and my technique was good. So I worked on developing my power through technique and movement. If you have defence and you can move well, it shouldn’t matter how tall you are. The power too can come through technique. We see with (5’6” Simona) Halep that it is possible. But she is physical. Whether she can continue that style for long is something we will have to see. It is possible, even though it is harder from before.”
The gruelling physicality took its toll on the petite Henin, who retired in 2008 due to a chronic elbow problem, came back two years later before retiring for good. The 2011 Australian Open was her last tournament, and India’s Sania Mirza was her third-last opponent.
“I wasn’t in good shape. I won that first round match-up in three sets. That match was pretty tough. Sania has been such a great ambassador for India, and for us on the Tour, she was always a good girl, always smiling, always wanting to share and learn things,” recalls Henin. “I came back after retiring once but physically, I was over. It was due to injuries, and due to some choices I made physically in my career. If I wasn’t willing to make sacrifices and keep grinding, I would have stayed… maybe a number 10. The prevention, the science has improved a lot. And you see that in the longevity. But I have no regrets. I don’t live in the past.”
Also missing from today’s game is the consistency of Henin – the last unarguable No 1 before Serena who held the spot for 117 weeks between November 2006 and May 2008. The last nine Grand Slams have thrown up eight different female champions, with current No. 1 Naomi Osaka winning the last two.
“The field is much more open, and these are all great exciting talents. But tennis needs a strong champion, big names and big rivalries. So many different winners means a young girl cannot identify herself to a dominating champion,” she laughs. “Even one with a two-handed backhand.”