Consider each groundstroke as a sibling. The forehand is the oldest – powerful and assertive; even sometimes, a bully. The two-handed backhand is the middle child, the steady glue that holds the family together, but when necessary, able to flex its muscle. And then there’s the one-handed drive, the special youngest child who might well be the most brilliant of them all if he can hold it together.
What about the slice backhand? Once upon a time it had been the glue, nimble in rallies and service returns, adept at changes in pace, owner of the drop shot and the Swiss Army knife for striking that once all-important stroke, the approach shot.
But the ascent of the two-handed backhand in the ‘70s, led by Jimmy Connors, Chris Evert and Bjorn Borg, soon enough purged the slice from the family estate. Though Steffi Graf deployed it superbly to set up her massive forehand, she was able to pull that off largely due to her incredible foot speed. Mats Wilander also added one to his arsenal, a move that helped him become number one in the world. But Graf and Wilander were treated as outliers. Instead, coaches in recent years have increasingly spoken of the slice backhand largely as a defensive tool, less sibling than that awkward cousin with the eyeglasses who’d occasionally surface at a family reunion, get tipsy and make a clumsy toast.
For lack of a better term, the time has come for the slice backhand to be rehabilitated. As a start, the shot has played a key role in the physical rehabilitation of such contemporary players as Juan Martin del Potro and Madison Keys, each of whom adopted a one-handed slice while recovering from wrist surgery. In Keys’ first round match at the BNP Paribas Open – her first of ’17 – a full 17 percent of her backhands were slices.
Keys and del Potro often use the slice in rallies to keep the point neutral; though, of course, each prefers their flat two-handed drive. But perhaps Keys, del Potro and others should borrow a few pointers from the playbook of Stevie Johnson. Lacking a potent two-hander, Johnson uses the nasty low bounce of the slice to elicit attackable, short balls from his opponent that he could then pounce on with his forehand. This was also the strategy often used by Andy Roddick and, more recently, Rafael Nadal. With trademark style, Roger Federer has also used the slice as an offensive tool, striking it sharply short to extract weak balls from his opponent.
But might there be more ways to employ the slice backhand? Why settle merely for defense or neutral? For example, what if Federer’s infamous SABR (Sneak Attack By Roger) was not always a drive, but also the low-bouncing slice? Why not deploy it aggressively in rallies to curl into corners, alter the opponent’s contact point, or go low and deep through the middle of the court? To adopt the slice is but one approach. Let us instead seek players who embrace it from birth.