Measuring the Effectiveness of Backhand Returns

One-handed backhands can be beautiful, but they aren’t always the best tools for the return of serve. Some of the players with the best one-handers in the game must often resort to slicing backhand returns–Stanislas Wawrinka, for example, slices 68% of backhand first serve returns and 40% of backhand second serve returns, while Andy Murray uses the slice 41% and 3%, respectively.

Using the 650 men’s matches in the Match Charting Database, I looked at various aspects of backhand serve returns to try to get a better sense of the trade-offs involved in using a one-handed backhand. Because the matches in the MCP aren’t completely representative of the ATP tour, the numbers are approximate. But given the size and breadth of the sample, I believe the results are broadly indicative of men’s tennis as a whole.

At the most general level, players with double-handed backhands are slightly better returners, putting roughly the same number of returns in play (about 56%) and winning a bit more often–46.9% to 45.7%–when they do so. The gap is a bit wider when we look at backhand returns put in play: 46.5% of points won to 44.7%. While the favorable two-hander numbers are influenced by the historically great returning of Novak Djokovic, two-handers still have an edge if we reduce his weight in the sample or remove him entirely.

Unsurprisingly, players realize that two-handed backhands are more effective returns, and they serve accordingly. The MCP divides serves into three zones–down the tee, body, and wide–and I’ve re-classified those as “to the forehand,” “to the body,” and “to the backhand” depending on the returner’s dominant hand and whether the point is in the deuce or ad court. While we can’t identify exactly where servers aimed those to-the-body serves, we can determine some of their intent from serves aimed at the corners.

Against returners with two-handed backhands, servers went for the backhand corner on 44.2% of first serves and 34.8% of second serves. Against one-handers, they aimed for the same spot on 47.3% of first serves and 40.9% of second serves. Looking at the same question from another angle, backhands make up 61.7% of the returns in play hit by one-handers compared to 59.0% for double-handers. It seems likely that one-handers more aggressively run around backhands to hit forehand returns, so this last comparison probably understates the degree to which servers aim for single-handed backhands.

When servers do manage to find the backhand side of a single-hander, they’re often rewarded with a slice return. On average, one-handers (excluding Roger Federer, who is overrepresented in this dataset) use the slice on 53.9% of their backhand first-serve returns and 32.3% of their backhand second-serve returns. Two-handers use the slice 20.5% of the time against firsts and only 2.5% of the time against seconds.

For both types of players, against first and second serves, slice returns are less effective than flat or topspin backhand returns. This isn’t surprising, either–defensive shots are often chosen in defensive situations, so the difference in effectiveness is at least partly due to the difference in the quality of the serves themselves. Still, since one-handers choose to go to the slice so much more frequently, it’s valuable to know how the types of returns compare:

Return Type   BH in play W% SL in play W% 
1HBH vs Firsts        43.3%         37.6% 
1HBH vs Seconds       46.0%         44.1% 
                        
2HBH vs Firsts        46.8%         36.2% 
2HBH vs Seconds       48.6%         41.9%

(Again, I’ve excluded Fed from the 1HBH averages.)

In three of the four rows, there’s a difference of several percentage points between the effectiveness of slice returns and flat or topspin returns, as measured by the ultimate outcome of the point. The one exception–second-serve returns by one-handers–reminds us that the slice can be an offensive weapon, even if it’s rarely used as one in the modern game. Some players–including Federer, Feliciano Lopez, Grigor Dimitrov, and Bernard Tomic–are more effective with slice returns than flat or topspin returns against either first or second serves.

However, these players are the exceptions, and in the theoretical world where we can set all else equal, a slice return is the inferior choice. All players have to hit slice returns sometimes, and many of those seem to be forced by powerful serving, but the fact remains: one-handers hit slices much more than two-handers do, and despite the occasional offensive opportunity, slice returns are more likely to hand the point to the server.

These differences are real, but they are still modest. A good returner with a one-handed backhand is considerably better than a bad returner with a two-hander, and it’s even possible to have a decent return game while hitting mostly slices. All that said, in the aggregate, a one-handed backhand is a bit of a liability on the return. It will take further research to determine whether other benefits–such as the sizzling down-the-line winners we’ve come to expect from the likes of Wawrinka and Richard Gasquet–outweigh the costs.