Hitting the backhand with one hand offers some advantages in terms of reach and freedom of movement, however, these very same advantages are also the reasons many players never develop the one-handed backhand into a formidable weapon. Reach here is the operative word. Because we can reach out and hit one-handed the tendency is to use minimal footwork and that encourages poor form. Quite simply, players tend to not get in the right position to hit. Also, unlike the two-handed backhand, the one-hander does not have the second hand on the racquet to aid stability. This can lead to a slashing or hacking stoke with little or none of the refinement we associate with a reliable backhand that we see skilled players executing.
Basic One-handed Backhand Technique
Much like the one-handed forehand, there is a great deal of variety exhibited among among recreational players who hit the one-handed backhand. Historically, the one-handed backhand has seen a shift from the continental grip (used predominantly in the 60's) to a full Eastern backhand grip used by most of the top players today. There are a few players on tour still use a Continental grip for their one-handed backhand, however, most now use the more powerful full Eastern backhand grip.
In the ready position, make sure the off-hand is placed at the throat of the racquet to help facilitate the proper backswing. Many pros who use an Eastern grip prefer this position because it makes it easier and quicker to make a grip change to a forehand should that be necessary. However, some players prefer to hold either a neutral Continental grip or an Eastern Forehand grip or even a semi-western grip and make the adjustment for the backhand during the backswing. Each of these grip positions is entirely acceptable for building your backhand foundation. The key is that any change be done immediately during the backswing or the unit turn.
As I've said, anyone using a one-handed backhand to hit topspin should to use a full eastern backhand grip. This is the most solid and natural topspin-orientated grip. Beginners will usually find themselves hitting many balls into the net with this grip since it sets up the racquet more closed than a neutral continental grip. This is another reason why so many self-taught players don’t develop a solid one-handed backhand: they avoid this more advanced grip and instead use the more comfortable and initially more successful yet weaker continental grip. The number one fault I see players among players hitting one-handed backhands is they try to roll the racquet over the ball with their wrist and forearm. This movement usually occurs because of the weaker grip causing them to open the racquet face up on the backswing. This makes a solid, stable swing almost impossible. In addition, this action puts tremendous strain on the arm and is the leading cause of tennis elbow in recreational players.
The turn on the one-handed backswing is similar to that of the two-hander. I recommend the player use the off-hand to help take the racquet back. This hand also acts as a stabilizer so the dominant hand can make the grip change if needed. Players who don’t use the off-hand in making the backswing often lose control of the racquet’s head when making the turn. These players traditionally take the racket back too high or let the wrist flex or allow too much play in the racquet head during the swing
Because the two-handed backhand naturally creates the proper shoulder turn during the back swing, little conscious control is needed to coordinate the shoulder turn with the stroke. However, with the one-handed backhand, players often take the racquet back with just the arm and remain somewhat fixed in a facing the net position. For this reason, most top one-handed players will take the racquet back with almost the same mechanics as a two-handed stroke. Generally, the non-dominant hand cradles the racquet at the throat throughout the backswing component. This position helps bring the right shoulder (for right-handers) sideways, pointing towards the target. This point of the backswing is critical in order to produce the proper setup for the remaining parts of the backhand.
Contact and Footwork
Just like any topspin stroke, the racquet head must drop below the ball prior to contact. Just as with the two-handed stroke, the racquet head should drop down during the backswing with the wrist tilting downward. It is at this point that the wrist should lock and the racquet motion should be generated by a combination of a firm arm and slight body rotation. The contact point should be further out in front of the body than with the two-handed backhand, anywhere from 6 to 15 inches in front of the forward knee. The more out in front contact can be made, the easier it is for the player can hit strong, sharp angled crosscourt shots. At contact, the racquet will be held almost at a 90 degree angle to the forearm with the racquet strings moving up and through the center point on the back side of the ball. The footwork for the one-handed backhand can incorporate either a closed crossover step or stance, or an open stance. I highly recommend the student learn and develop the closed stance foundation first. This position teaches the player not to over rotate during contact and helps create greater control on both crosscourt and down-the-line shots. Players, who step out with the non-dominant foot for the backhand, (open stance), tend not to get the upper torso turned sideways enough. However, it is fairly easy for players who have mastered the closed stance to begin hitting with a proper open stance. In fact, it is natural progression for most players who learn the closed stance backhand to evolve to the open stance backhand as competitive experience dictates.
See the two videos above of Justin and Roger and see how similar they are.
Key Position Points
As the player begins their swing up and through the ball, typically, the non-dominant arm will move backward. This move is similar to an umpire making an exaggerated -Safe- signal in baseball. This move of the non-dominant arm helps keep the player from over rotating through the shot. This movement is even more apparent during the slice backhand which will be discussed later.
The most important aspect of a good one-handed backhand is to keep the racquets relationship to the forearm the same from well before contact to well after. As with any good stroke in tennis, the more the racquet retains its integrity within the swing, the more the player can hit a reliable, repeatable stroke. As mentioned earlier, a common problem is when players try to hit topspin by flipping the racquet over the ball using the wrist. Because of the eastern backhand grip, the racquet lays back at nearly a 90 degree angle to the forearm. When players swing, if they try to make contact too far behind the ideal contact zone, the angle of the racquet will be very late. The body feels this and immediately will try to catch up by flicking the wrist to get the racquet head out in front to gain the proper trajectory to the target. Instead, the stroke should be made so that the contact window is well out in front of the players front leg. This naturally allows the racquet head to catch up to the hand and forearm, generating excellent acceleration at the point you want it to be achieved: contact!