The high backhand

This Scott Shot was originally published on where Scott is a contributing editor.

One of the smartest tactics you can use against virtually any player is to hit high bouncing balls to their backhands. For most club players dealing with a high ball on the forehand side is bad enough, but a high ball to the backhand can be sheer torture!

What can you do to start playing this difficult shot more comfortably and confidently? In the last article we looked at various strategies for dealing with the high forehand, now let’s do the same on the other wing. We’ll examine how to avoid the high ball altogether, but also, how to deal with it effectively and even aggressively when you have to make higher contact.

What are your options when hitting--or avoiding--high backhands?

The topic of the high ball is actually more complex on the backhand side than the forehand. First, you have the one-handed and the two-handed backhand options to consider. Plus you have the slice option, which can be utilized by either one-handers or two-handers.

So there is a lot to consider. Let’s see how to decide what ball to play, based on an understanding of your style, your capabilities and your limitations. This includes not only how many hands you use, but also, the impact of grips, stances, court positioning, and awareness of what your opponent is doing.

Ball tracking

First of all, track the ball like a hawk! This is the same point we started with on the forehand and it’s equally vital on the backhand. Of course you want to track the ball in tennis on every shot, but this is especially important when you get a major shift in speed, spin, or trajectory-and all three of these usually apply on the high ball.

Track the ball like a hawk and you'll develop timing on high balls.

Many times players panic and lose focus right at the start when they see the ball will be high. They end up concluding that the ball is too difficult or impossible. But if you simply relax and observed the flight closely, you will develop a feel for the high ball and sense of the difference in the timing of the shot. This is a prerequisite for executing any of your technical options. As you’ll see there are many possible ways to proceed.


One way to deal with the high ball is to avoid hitting it altogether. The simplest alternative is just to back up and let the ball drop to a height more within your normal comfort zone. At lower levels of play this generally works well because the ball tends to be slower and have less spin, affording you time to get into good position. Just make sure you turn fully as you move back so you can execute the stroke with good technical elements. Again, in the panic mode many players don’t prepare.

Moving back or moving forward allows you to avoid a high contact point.

With this strategy, you can comfortably hit a regular groundstroke. Remember that by moving back you’re giving away a lot of court, so make sure your shot includes enough height and depth to counteract that and keep your opponent from getting too far ahead, coming in, or finishing on the next ball.

Don’t fall into the trap of thinking you absolutely have to do something with a deep, relatively high ball.

Thousands of unforced errors are made in club matches by players who feel they should be able to attack the high ball–or maybe it’s the desire to punish the opponent for hitting it to them in the first place.Respect the fact that this is a difficult shot for players at all levels and don’t donate points to your opponent out of frustration.

If your opponent stays back there’s absolutely nothing wrong with responding to a high ball with a high ball of your own. You can simply match the arc of his high looping shot. It’s safe and it neutralizes what your opponent is trying to do. It can turn the frustration tables and lead to surprising and unexpected unforced errors from your opponent– free points for you.

But remember to keep an eye on his actual response, as sometimes a savvy player will sneak in as you retreat, hoping to take advantage of all the court you’ve left open. When this happens your best bet is to just increase the height of the shot you were about to hit and make it a lob.

Take the ball on the rise

A more aggressive way to avoid the high ball is by hitting on the rise. Some players–think Roger Federer or Andre Agassi–prefer to play up close to the baseline and hit the ball on the way up on as many balls as possible. This strategy can be utilized equally effectively whether you hit with one or two hands.

Some players at all levels love to step in whenever possible.

It’s aggressive and it’s more difficult to time. Hitting on the rise is also to some degree a matter of personality and playing style. You probably have the natural inclination to hit a lot of balls on the rise–or not.

But every player needs to develop the ability to hit on the rise sometimes. You can pursue it as a strategy or just learn to hit early when you are caught in a tight position on the court. Either way, working on early timing is a must.

For both two-handers and one-handers, the way to improve your ability to hit on the rise is to ease into the timing by starting around the service line. As we saw with this same exercise on the forehand, place some cones behind you to keep you from backing up.

Learn to time the ball on the rise by hitting half volleys inside the service line.

Now have a partner toss or hit you balls that would bounce any where from mid chest to shoulder height. Essentially what you’re doing here is hitting half volleys. Keep your backswings compact. As you become more adept at it you can add a bit more follow through, but the idea is to keep things simple while you develop confidence taking the ball at an earlier point in time.

Another ball you’ll want to practice from here is the one that lands literally right at your feet. You want to play these balls the instant they bounce, like a short-hop half volley. I’ve always thought of the ability to make this shot as a rite of passage for tennis players. Learning to do it well may take awhile, but once you get the hang of it you’ll no longer fear one of the most difficult shots in the game. Whether you use it as a regular strategy or not it’s bound to improve your overall sense of timing.

My experience shows there is usually a difference here between the one-handers and the two handers and the decision to hit on the rise. The great one-handers like Federer, or even James Blake may prefer this as a strategy, but many one-handers, especially players with more extreme grips are comfortable moving back, and playing the ball higher, at or nearer the top of the bounce. Or they will opt for the slice (see below).

Two-handers are often more likely to take high balls on the way up.

The two-handers, however, typically stand their ground more readily, and frequently intercept even very heavy balls on the way up, before they can bounce to shoulder level or higher. This makes sense because of the strength factor of using two hands.

In a recent experiment I proved to myself this is true as well for good two-handers below the pro level. Without explaining why, I asked about ten 5.0 and 5.5 two-handed players at my tennis club, Harbor Point in Marin, California if I could hit heavily spun balls to their backhands, balls that would have easily bounced to shoulder height.

Without fail they all took these balls before the top of the bounce, making contact no higher than shoulder height, and usually lower, within their normal range of comfortable contact heights. This is what you see in pro tennis as well. The stance is almost always neutral or, at more advanced levels, closed, with the front foot staying on the court throughout the swing.

Afterwards, when I explained that I was researching this, my two-handed friends commented to a man that this was intentional and the most comfortable and effective way of playing a potentially high bouncing ball.

Open stance is the first key to hitting high topspin drives--even for two-handers.</em

However, there are other options on the two hander. These apply when the player is not able to get in position to take the ball on the rise and it gets above the normal strike zone.

The first is to open the stance, and to hit upward and through the ball. This is analogous to the strategy we outlined for the forehand. In fact, the shot is hit very much like a high left-handed forehand.

For this reason, players who use this option are more like to use a specific hitting arm configuration, what John Yandell has identified as the “bent/bent” combination. Here the back arm is bent at the elbow with the wrist laid back. Now the left side and left arm can drive the racket up and through the ball.

You see this with pro players such as Nicolay Davydenko, Dimtri Tursunov and Maria Ancic. From the open stance they can hit a heavy topspin loop reply, or be even more aggressive and flatten the ball out even from shoulder level.

Another alternative is the shot that Marat Safin is generally credited with starting at the pro level. This is the so-called “leg kick” backhand. Basically the player raises his strike zone by bending the back leg at the knee and raising it upward toward the torso, and then leaving the ground with both feet before the contact.

Advanced players can use the leg kick to elevate the strike zone.

It actually looks similar to the launch on the serve, or what high level players do on the forehand side when they make contact with both feet in the air. It’s another way of keeping the contact in your comfort zone, but without having to time the ball on the rise, obviously something that is very difficult on many balls in pro tennis.

Once this shot became established in the pro game, you began to see it in high level junior play as well. It definitely requires a level of athleticism beyond the other alternatives though, so be realistic about your capabilities and level before deciding that this is the option for you.

One Handers

If you are a one-hander, your ability to deal with the high ball will be influenced to some degree by the grip variation you use on your topspin drive. Basically the more extreme the grip, the higher the natural contact point.

Grip affects the range of comfortable contact heights on the one-hander.

If you play with more of a classic eastern grip like James Blake or Tommy Haas or Roger Federer, your ability to hit over high balls will be more limited than players who shift the hand more behind the handle, for example, Richard Gasquet, or Tommy Robredo or Justine Henin.

Conversely, the players who are less extreme will be more comfortable stepping in and taking the ball early. Federer of course is an amazing example, playing right on top of the baseline much of the time and hitting the ball just as it comes up off the court. As with the two hander this shot is almost always hit with a step with the front foot, and typically with a more closed stance at the higher levels.

These are just the pluses and minuses of the grip styles. Even if they choose not to hit many balls on the rise, most club players are probably better off with more of a classic version of the grip, because in general their strike zone will be around waist level or most balls.

But whatever grip style you use on your one-handed drive, eventually you will have to deal with balls above your normal comfort zone. Within limits, it’s possible to hit many of these as topspin drives, or at least high topspin loops.

The open stance allows you to drive up and through high balls without blocking your swing.

Regardless of your grip, the key is to set up behind the ball in an open stance. So in this way the high one-handed topspin is also just like the forehand. With the open stance you will now be able to swing upward and outward through the ball with a steeper swing plane. Sometimes you will naturally step forward onto the line of the shot. But if the ball is too high a closed or even a neutral stance can block your ability to swing freely through the stroke. If you’ve set up in position to hit open, you’ve got this covered.

Your follow through should be out and up and your non racket arm should move back behind you on a downward slant to keep your body more or less perpendicular to the net.

Because the racket face closes naturally during the backswing, there is danger that the racquet head will trail too far behind and below the hand as it approaches contact. If this happens, it usually results in the breakdown of the straight hitting arm structure and late contact.

Visualize the image of the racket head above the wrist to keep the hitting arm and racket aligned.

To avoid this I like too use the mental image of the racquet head being above your hand at contact. The power of the image is that it gets the hand and the racket head to the contact point at the right time.

Slice Alternative

At some point whether you hit with one-hand or two, all players will have to change strategies and slice higher balls. This can be a very effective strategic play as well, even on balls that you might still be able to drive.

The exact height where you lose your ability to handle the high ball with a drive will depend on your backhand. Most of my two-handed friends at Harbor Point agreed that when the ball was approaching shoulder level or higher they would slice it.

This transition point is probably lower for the one-handers, even those with more extreme grips. What every player needs to develop is his own range of shots, and know which balls he can still drive, and which ones have to be hit with slice.

All players need slice to deal with balls above certain heights.

All players need slice to deal with balls above certain heights. The basic technical elements on the high slice are the same as in any sound slice backhand groundstroke, something we’ve looked at in detail in a previous article. It starts with the grip which should be some version of a continental. Some players hit the slice with the heel pad on the top bevel and the index knuckle on bevel 2. But others shift slightly toward the forehand, with the heel pad and the index knuckle rotated a half bevel or so clockwise toward the bottom of the frame.

This often means some degree of grip shift from your drive to your slice. Some two-handers already hold a slice grip or something close with the bottom hand. At most they will have a slight shift toward the forehand. One handers will frequently be more on top of the frame and if so this means the shift is slightly more extreme.

The biggest variation from the basic slice we have looked at previously is in the plane of the downward swing on the higher balls. Usually it is more radically high to low. But this can vary depending on the height of the shot, and how heavy the ball is when it comes to topspin. In general, players will hit more downward when the ball is faster, higher and has more energy. This more severe swing plane is required to deal with the extra energy from the spin.

The higher and heavier the ball, the more downward the swing.

If the ball is slow enough you can still hit a relatively “flat” slice or slice drive on a high ball. An image that will help here to is to swing through the bottom diagonal third of the ball. This will cause the ball come off the strings in a more straight ahead fashion. By being less aggressive with this downward action, you can also hit more of a floating slice. This is great if you want to change the pace to throw your opponent off and possibly cause them to over hit.

The higher the level of play, the more you see players really carve down and across the ball on the high slice. A good check point here is to observe the edges of your racket face. On the flatter slice, the inside edge can be higher so that the angle of the face is at about 30 degrees to the court.

As the speed and weight of the ball increase, the edges come closer to parallel. This allows you to hit downward more sharply, but also to come from the outside in to the contact. In extreme cases, when the ball is fast and really heavy, the outside edge of the racket can actually be clearly above the inside edge.

We can see this in the way Roger Federer neturalizes heavy topspin balls. In this case, the swing is so steeply downward that the tip of the racket can come close to hitting the court surface.

The outside edge is often higher when top players carve heavy topspin balls with slice.

But an important point to notice is that the followthrough continues up and around. Many players are too tense and lose racket speed trying to hit downward with a stiff motion that stops at the lowest point in the swing. Let the racket relax and flow so that it accelerates and then decelerates naturally. In most cases this will mean that followthrough will come back up significantly, often as high as shoulder level.

Don’t become wedded to one idea about how the slice swing plane works. There is a lot of diversity in the speed and angle of the swing, even in the pro game. Experiment to find how much to swing downward and when on the various high balls you face at your level. One mistake at the club level is to try to imitate the radical downward swing paths of the top players with the result that the ball loses too much pace and floats-even when the player is trying to hit through and create a flatter shot.

Your Opponent

A final important point. Always try to be aware of what your opponent is doing when you play the high ball in your backhand corner. Be careful not to get caught if he makes a delayed opportunity approach. If he does, a slice nailed right at his feet is a great play that forces him to hit a tough volley without much pace to work with. This may give you an easy pass on the next ball if it doesn’t draw an outright error.

Base your response to the high ball on your capabilities, but also your opponent.

Often, if your opponent stays back, he’ll try to position himself to hit inside out or inside in forehands from the backhand side of his court. In this case the depth of your shot is critical to keep him from getting ahead on the next ball. In terms of placement the best percentage is to try to go strongly crosscourt. But so long as you play deep enough, it is also possible to change direction and go down the line, lob, or give him the same type of high ball he just forced you to hit.

So there we have a wide range of options. I can’t stress enough that there are a variety of plays that take into account your ability, your opponent’s, the match up, and the specific tactical situation. That’s why complete players work so hard to develop their skills and confidence on all these shots. It’s a great feeling not to fear the high ball and believe you can turn it to your advantage in a match. Try out these approaches and see if you don’t feel that way too.

Even Richard Gasquet uses the slice backhand from time to time...


Note: The image at the top of this post is from the Feel Tennis website by Tomaz Mencinger, noted tennis coach and author of that site.