Folks of a certain vintage who play tennis, even recreationally, tend to like the way the new French Open champion Stan Wawrinka plays the game. (For the same reason, they also like Roger Federer, Grigor Dimitrov and a few others). No, it’s not the shorts he wears, more like swimwear from a colourful Calangute beach outfitter. No, it’s not his physique—not overly tall, not even overly athletic-looking. (A lean and mean Novak Djokovic, Wawrinka is not). And no, it’s not even his service motion, in which he bends his knees so slightly that you wonder how he gets any power; after all, other players generate power by exploding out of deep knee bends.

None of those. Instead, folks like me are drawn to Wawrinka because of his backhand. Because he hits it single-handed, which is how we players of a certain vintage learned to hit the shot. And we like to think it’s a “purer" way to play the game, whatever that may mean.

Jimmy Connors, Chris Evert and Björn Borg were probably the first great players to use double-fisted backhands. Before them, and even in their primes, it was a rarely seen shot. But since they rose to prominence, their way has increasingly become the choice of most kids starting out in tennis, and eventually the way most top players hit their backhands. There’s a good reason for it, too. The single-handed shot is hard to master. A lot of kids just don’t have the upper-body strength to hit it with power, whereas they find they can pretty quickly hammer forehands all over the court. And if they do find the power, learning to fully control that backhand can take years. Easier, all round, with two hands. So they start off that way and stick with it.

Jimmy Connors during the 1981 French Open. Photo: AFP
Jimmy Connors during the 1981 French Open. Photo: AFP

Yet the backhand is arguably a more “natural" shot than the forehand. Think, for example, of dealing cards. Nobody hands them out with a forehand motion. Even the idea seems slightly crazy. No, we deal cards backhanded—single-handed, of course—and, in fact, we can do it quickly and precisely.

Why doesn’t that translate to tennis?

I’m not sure. But because I have always found the backhand a more difficult shot than my forehand, it’s fundamentally more satisfying when I do manage to hit it well. It’s as if I have managed to get various otherwise uncoordinated body parts—foot, leg, hips, trunk, shoulder, arm and even wrist—to suddenly work in concert. As if I have transformed myself into one long smooth motion—forward foot planted, shoulder turned, racquet-head back, follow-through high and handsome—in which the ball is almost incidental, even as it speeds across the net and past my helpless opponent.

There’s a poetry there that, sometimes, I can actually feel.

That’s quite an admission for someone who has never quite “got" poetry. But that’s why folks like me like Wawrinka. Because I watch him hit one of his flowing backhands and of all things, I think of poetry.

But we also like him because he’s a throwback. In an age when Andy Murray and Rafa Nadal, the Williams sisters and Djokovic, Maria Sharapova and David Ferrer and Petra Kvitova all use two-fisted backhands, Wawrinka reminds us of the way tennis used to be played. Ought to be played, some of us might say.

But there’s more here too. The game evolves, as it must. Armed with better racquets every year, today’s players hit the ball with power and topspin that even Connors, let alone greats like Ramanathan Krishnan and Bill Tilden before him, would find alien. Power unsettles your opponent, and topspin offers greater margin for error in your shotmaking. For those reasons, players learn early to hit hard and come over the ball, giving it topspin.

The fallout is that one spectacular way to play the game—serve-and-volley—is now an endangered species.

There used to be plenty of superb exponents of that art. John McEnroe, John Newcombe, Jana Novotna, Stefan Edberg, Boris Becker, Michael Stich, Martina Navratilova—these were restless, relentless attackers whose instincts at the net fearlessly turned back waves of bullets fired from baseline-hugging opponents. Edberg’s demolition job on Jim Courier at the 1991 US Open final is a textbook example of this clash of styles, and of my conviction that the top-class serve-and-volleyer will defeat the top-class baseliner, every time. To my mind, no sight in tennis offers an adrenaline high quite like an elegant Edberg serve, followed by that smooth approach to the net to exquisitely put away the return.

Today, everyone believes they can lash shots all day from the back of the court. Which they actually do, very well indeed, and so they manage to keep the volleyers away from the net. Few players see benefit in learning how to volley well—and anyway, the volley is that much harder to execute against a well-struck topspin screamer. The result is that modern tennis can seem like something out of tactical game theory—you move your opponent around from the back of the court until you see an opening, and meanwhile she’s doing the same.

Yet Wawrinka offers hope of even more evolution, maybe even taking tennis full circle back to the strategy of the beautiful serve-and-volley game. For while he can topspin with the best of them, he can and does hit his shots flat too. Arguably, it was his flat hitting that eventually beat Djokovic into submission. No, Wawrinka is not the instinctive serve-and-volleyer that Edberg and McEnroe were. But oddly enough, in those shots—in the way that they race across court, giving his opponent just that fraction less time to react—I think I see a time coming when the best players will again rush the net behind a low, flat approach shot, seeking to punch away a volley.

That glimpse of a beloved, familiar future is why I really like Wawrinka.

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.

Twitter: @DeathEndsFun

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