Home >Mint-lounge >Mint-on-sunday >Why are ambidextrous tennis players hard to come across?

There’s a famous sword-fight in the marvellous film The Princess Bride. It features Inigo Montoya and the Dread Pirate Roberts. Both left-handed, they cut and thrust across the rocks on top of a sheer cliff, at times nearly falling off, each complimenting the other on his skills. “You are wonderful!" and “You are better than I am!" Montoya exclaims, as Roberts pushes him inexorably to the edge of the cliff.

Back-stepping ever closer to doom, Montoya says calmly: “I know something you don’t know!"

“And what is that?" asks Roberts.

“I am not left-handed!" says Montoya, switching his sword to that hand and slashing his way, now, to an advantage over Roberts. In his turn, Roberts is moved to remark:

“You are amazing!"

And just when Montoya seems to have got the better of him, Roberts says: “There’s something I ought to tell you too."

“Tell me!" says Montoya, as he’s about to push Roberts over the edge.

“I’m not left-handed either!" says Roberts. Switching his sword in turn, he drives Montoya back. Some spectacular moves later, he finally subdues Montoya.

It’s a charming episode in a charming film, and that might have been all there was to it. But there was a time, some years ago, when I couldn’t get it out of my mind... while playing tennis, of all things.

One of my regular partners in those days was Juan-Carlos, a young Mexican colleague at work with a toothy grin and a whiplash forehand. We played often and hard. He was just that bit better than me, but I could generally keep up with him for quite a while—until that forehand and his lithe quickness around court started to wear me down.

But one day, he astonished me by playing left-handed. What’s more, he was significantly better that way than as a rightie. Gasping after just 15 minutes, I held up my hand to ask for a break, then walked over. “What the hell are you doing, playing leftie?" I asked. “And how did you get so good at it?"

He grinned. “I’m actually not right-handed!" he said, echoing Montoya and Roberts. “I hurt that arm in an accident once, so I taught myself to be a rightie just so I could keep on playing."

My mind boggled. He “taught" himself to play with his right hand? And so well? What kind of dedication would that have needed? Where did this happy-go-lucky dude find that kind of grit?

That he was nearly as good playing right-handed as he was with his “natural" left hand filled me with awe and admiration. And I couldn’t help wondering if he sometimes channelled his inner Montoya and Roberts, playing right-handed to start with, getting pushed to the wall by a better player, then switching suddenly to his left hand and pulling victory from the jaws of defeat.

You would think it would be an advantage to be able to play ambidextrously like Juan-Carlos. Imagine a player who can serve with whichever hand he feels like using at that moment. Because lefties are a minority in tennis, we often hear of the advantage they have, especially in the ad court, of being able to serve wide to a rightie’s backhand.

Imagine the additional surprise element of a rightie suddenly switching to his left hand to serve a rocket that his/her opponent can only flail at as it swings ever wider. Imagine too being able to hit whiplash forehands on either side, as Juan-Carlos could do with such style and ease. (Though he never switched during a point.)

Yes, it would be an advantage. So, why don’t we see ambidextrous players on the professional circuit? The only one I recall from several years following the sport—possibly the only one ever, I’m not quite old enough to know—is Luke Jensen.

In 1984, he was the top-ranked junior in the world in both singles and doubles. He wasn’t nearly as successful in the pros—though he and his younger brother Murphy paired to win an unexpected French Open doubles title in 1993. For a few years after that, they were among the top doubles teams in the world. They were also the original chest-bumpers, always looked like they were having fun on court and were always ready to meet kids and sign autographs. For those reasons, for that short while, they were arguably the most popular figures on the pro circuit.

And Luke was known as “Dual Hand Luke". He could serve and hit with either hand equally well, though most of the time he was a rightie. As a student, he played for the University of Southern California. After pulling of a tough victory once, he explained to the Los Angeles Times one benefit of being ambidextrous: “I had to serve left-handed quite a bit from the north side later in the second set. The sun was in a position where I couldn’t see well on my toss the other way."

Quite a handy advantage to have, you will agree.

But the Jensens never won another Slam title and eventually faded away. No ambidextrous player has made a mark in the pros since. (Nor, for that matter, in any other sport.) Remembering the way Juan-Carlos made mincemeat of me even with his better side in reserve, I sometimes wonder why. Two possible explanations come to mind.

One, it’s a mental thing. Getting good at tennis, like getting good at anything, needs a single-minded focus and dedication. Perhaps the effort of working on your game from both sides means that your focus gets divided, and so neither side really becomes top-class.

Two, the pace of the modern game, even compared to two decades ago when Luke Jensen was playing. If you think you can hit forehands from either side during a point in the pro game, that’s undoubtedly wishful thinking. For even the fraction of a second it takes to switch your racquet from one hand to the other is too precious to give up easily. If he/she sees you switching between shots, a seasoned pro will promptly take advantage, making you hit on alternate sides until those fractions add up and he/she belts the ball past you.

Think of Inigo Montoya switching his sword from hand to hand after every elegant thrust and feint. How long before Roberts has him at his mercy?

Once a computer scientist, Dilip D’Souza now lives in Mumbai and writes for his dinners. His latest book is Final Test: Exit Sachin Tendulkar.

His Twitter handle is @DeathEndsFun

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