INDIAN WELLS – Let’s play a game of word association, tennis style.
Stan Wawrinka: sweet one-handed backhand
Dominic Thiem: sweet one-handed backhand
So when the veteran Swiss giant killer played the younger Austrian upstart at the BNP Paribas Open Thursday, it made sense to hype the match as a battle of the backhands.
Let’s just say it didn’t play out that way.
A fair amount has been written on the resurgence of the one-hander. Beginning with Federer 15 years ago, players from Richard Gasquet and Grigor Dimitrov to Wawrinka and Thiem have made tennis’ most perplexing stroke cool again.
In tennis, aesthetics matter. Compare Andy Murray or Andy Roddick’s two-handed bunt backhand to the flair of a Federer or Wawrinka full finish. If style matters to you, there’s really no comparison.
When it comes to utility during play though, even the most lethal one-handers prove inferior to their double-fisted counterparts.
The backhand battle between Wawrinka and Thiem Thursday quickly morphed into an inside-out battle (not unlike most men’s professional tennis matches). The players denied their fans their aesthetic fix, opting instead to bludgeon inside-out forehands from all over the court.
It was frustrating. I came for the backhands, so it was like going to a concert and the band not playing its best song.
It’s important to point out that even with all the great backhands on tour today, when players want to do damage from the back court it’s overwhelmingly from the forehand wing, often from running around their backhands.
ESPN confirmed this theory, showing a graphic of first balls hit after serving. Wawrinka hit over 60 per cent of his shots after the return on his forehand. Thiem hit … 88 per cent of his shots on his forehand. In the running-around-the-backhand-to-rip-the-forehand department, that’s positively Rafa-esque.
Evening playing conditions have been perfect and both players took advantage, swinging freely right from the first point with little concern about their shots getting away from them. It made for some of the best ball-striking I’ve seen all week … yet I’ve rarely seen a player of Thiem’s stature so determined to hit the ball from 10-15 feet behind the baseline on a hard court throughout a match.
Maybe it was to give him more time to run around his backhand to hit the forehand. Maybe he’s just not comfortable taking the ball earlier. Either way, even hitting the ball as hard as Thiem does, a player isn’t going to do much damage hitting from there.
This is where tennis analytics can come up short. In determining the efficacy of a shot, commentators frequently refer to miles per hour or amount of spin generated when what matters most is not how hard or heavy a ball is struck, but the spot on the court from where it’s hit.
Additionally, swinging from and for the fences creates imbalance. Imbalance in tennis is the root cause of most errors. Repeatedly, Thiem’s court position was so far behind the baseline that to get the desired depth on his shots, he essentially had to launch himself into every ball.
It caught up to the Austrian in the end with a couple of inexplicable errors down the stretch; an awkwardly missed backhand on match point sealed his fate
Also on the tactical side, Thiem opts to position himself right at the baseline to return first serves. This makes little sense to me; the number of missed returns late in the Wawrinka match was unacceptable for his level of play. He looked more like a goaltender, diving left and right, barely getting his racquet on the ball. When he did find the ball in his strike zone, he often overswung and missed badly.
Playing so close in against a big server like Wawrinka made Thiem vulnerable to the body serve, too; he often fought them off with weak responses, if not outright errors. Even when he did catch a return flush, it had little impact. It seemed obvious to my eyes that if Thiem gave up five or six feet of position, that extra split-second would have allowed him to get in to more points against the Wawrinka first serve.
The irony in Thiem’s tactics was that when he did get Wawrinka’s first serve back he would immediately shuffle 10 feet back from the baseline to begin the rally, thus losing any chance of dictating play from better court position.
Thiem is one of only a few elite players applying these tactics to his return game and it we can bring it back to the one-handed backhand, the return game is where the stroke historically takes its worst hits. We’ve seen it with Federer, Dimitrov and even during Pete Sampras’ reign.
Switching grips quickly enough to return powerful first serves is not simple, even at the highest professional levels. Why give yourself less time to prepare against the hardest ball you’re going to see the entire point? Especially when all you’re going to do once the point gets started is back up?
There’s not a lot of logic to it; hopefully, as Thiem’s professional development continues, they’ll look at this part of his game.