The Off Backhand

Brian Gottfried

What is your most challenging shot?  For many right-handers, it is the “off backhand” return of serve in the deuce court (and for lefties, flip over to the ad court).  So, what can you do about it?

Two Hander?

Regular reader, Winder Bill tells the story of a frustrated 65-year-old tournament player, who gave up on his one handed backhand and spent an hour each day on a backboard for a month learning to hit a short two-handed return.  And he comments, “His determination and success at making a change needed to improve his game inspires me.  Wish I had his work ethic.”

And I played one Monday/Wilderness match vs. veteran tournament player Joe McAleer who was AGRESSIVELY hitting that two-handed return.

Brian Gottfried’s Tip

Since most of us don’t have that determination (me included), I fall back to what American doubles champion Brian Gottfried advised me at Newk’s one year…

  • Do not move laterally toward the ball,
  • You need to come in diagonally and take the ball as early as you can
  • Shorten your backswing and essentially block the ball back, using the server’s pace
  • And (I add) develop an effective backhand lob of the doubles service return; so that your opposing net man cannot be too aggressive.

Any other tips on this tough shot?

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6 thoughts on “The Off Backhand

  1. I agree this can be a tough shot ……I much prefer my cross-court (one handed) backhand from the ad court……you definitely need to move forward with a shorter swing (for a xcourt chip) OR ..grip and rip one down the alley past the netman!

    Mark, i too like the ad court backhand much better. thanks, george

  2. For me, I try to move diagonally and take the ball early with an abbreviated backswing as noted. But, the most important thing I want to do is pivot on my left foot to get my hips and shoulders turned towards the ball so I can step into it to keep my arm and wrist strong through the blocking motion with decent follow through. The pivot is a must for me.

    Jeff, right, too many of us are “too square” to the ball. thanks, george

  3. I get to play WITH Boston pretty often during season….and when he is ON…he can hurt someone with that backhand from the deuce court.

    For me, I handle it by telling people (as long as I can get away with it)…I am a ADD court specialist….lol…and by the way Jeff you will be serving into the sun AGAIN today. Nice to have a partner like that!

    Dave, i too have been on the receiving end of Boston’s Bombs! thanks, george

  4. I agree that this is one of the hardest shots to hit well for a righty, especially with a one handed backhand. This is one reason why, over the years, I have tended to prefer receiving on the ad side in doubles, because I can slide my backhand return more easily cross court from that position and/or hit a backhand drive up the alley if the net man is leaning too far to the middle and/or hit a backhand lob return over the net man’s head and/or move to my left and hit an inside out forehand return if I am not pulled too far wide, etc. However, if I am receiving on the deuce side, while it does give me a forehand crosscourt with power if I am pulled wide or into the alley on the serve, which is a plus, a high kick serve into my backhand is almost as hard to return well as a backhand smash off a lob, and a righty serving a slice up the middle will normally curve right into my body on the backhand side. This is an extremely difficult shot for anybody to return, especially with a one handed backhand.

    But lately, in pick up doubles matches and also USTA league matches, I have been paired with a series of partners who simply cannot play on the deuce side at all; in other words, my admittedly weaker return skills on that side are still better than my partners’ skills are on that side so a decision has been made as a team for me to return on the deuce side. As a result, I feel like I am getting incrementally better returning on the deuce side, although I still greatly prefer returning on the ad side.

    As for ways to play the shot, I have a few additional suggestions to what you have indicated are Brian Gottfried’s tips, all of which are spot on correct:

    First, I would place stronger emphasis on using a backhand lob as a preferred (and regular) return over the net man. In fact, I tend to use it a lot when returning on the deuce side. It is not an easy shot in its own right, but it is far easier to hit off of practically any serve, even a high backhand kicker or slider into the body, than trying to hit the inside out backhand return as a slice or a drive. It is also less risky. Remember that if you are able to hit the inside out backhand return at all, it will be crossing the net right into what will be a forehand volley from the server (assuming he is rushing the net). That is like inviting the server to hit a first volley winner right at the feet of your partner standing at net. However, even if the opposing team is anticipating a lob return, just throwing up a very high defensive lob over the net man’s head is going to force them to scramble, and for one or both of them to move back to the baseline. That affords the receiving team the opportunity to rush the net themselves and (hopefully) take control of the point. In short, nothing is better than hitting a lob service return to quickly move from defense into offense in doubles.

    Second, if the net man is poaching, I have found that an occasional crosscourt backhand drive hit just behind the poaching net man into his alley (i.e., what would be an up the line shot if hit as a forehand) is a very effective surprise return that few net players ever assume the returner is even going to try to hit. If done well — and especially if done more as a surprise shot and not a regular return — it can be a clean winner return because the poaching net man is moving in the opposite direction for his poach and it is difficult to pivot to reach a ball hit right behind you. Even if the net man manages to reflex and get his racquet on the ball, he will often frame it or hit a very weak response volley that can be taken advantage of as the next shot. And even if the net man does manage to intercept the shot and hit a decent volley, just the fact that you are attempting this shot will plant a seed in his head that maybe he is moving too soon on the poach, and he will therefore delay a millisecond longer on the poach, or he will start poaching less or even quit poaching completely (all of which are exactly what you want him to do). However, once again, this should not be a shot hit frequently; it is a surprise tactic and needs to be done carefully, if at all.

    Third and finally, if the server has already shown you that he is hitting most serves up the middle to your backhand side, either as kickers or sliders, and you have good legs and can still move reasonably fast enough, moving to your just left as the server is in his hitting motion and is committed to the direction of the serve can be a good tactic because you can then get into position to hit a forehand if you move far enough and quickly enough to your left. In effect, you are anticipating the serve into your background and are moving to run around it for a forehand when the server is past the point of being able to hit a different serve. If you can time this well enough, your options open up, because you can hit an inside out forehand with pace right at the net man or into the alley next to him, or you can hit an inside in forehand by “pulling” the ball cross court which becomes a much more difficult return for a net rushing server to be able to volley. Of course, you do run the risk that the server will see what you are doing and will hit the serve wide and get an ace if you try this tactic too often or if you move too soon, so it is also more of a surprise tactic that should be used sparingly. However, many right handed servers have trouble hitting an effective wide shot at all and they are almost programmed to hit most of their serves up the middle or into the body — which makes it easier to anticipate against these kinds of servers especially. Against that type of server, running around the backhand to hit the forehand return can be a very effective return on the deuce side.

    Marty, long, but good. For those who are short on time, his points: 1- Lob over the net man, 2- Hit at/behind the net man, 3- Run around and hit a forehand. Thanks, george

  5. George, I want to hire you as an editor for everything I write. 🙂

    Marty, one of my skills. george

  6. The ability to hit an aggressive two handed backhand return depends largely on the type of serve you are returning. It is easier to return a flat, hard serve that is in your hitting zone. move in, catch it early, with a short backswing, and if you time it right it becomes very effective.
    A slower, above the waist ball that you have to move for, and supply the pace is much more difficult to return with the two-handed backhand. For that return, the one handed slice is the preferred (imo).
    I used to only hit two-handed backhands, but, I started hitting one handed because I couldnt get into proper position all the time (too much work!). Ah, the challenges of the super senior player.

    Joe, good stuff! thanks, george

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