Why backhand slice has become ‘necessity’ in tennis – USA TODAY

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A look at wins by Venus and Serena as well as an impressive showing by Simona Halep.
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NEW YORK ??In the early stages of another comeback from another wrist injury in February, 2009 U.S. Open champion Juan Martin del Potro sounded almost desperate. ?I need to improve my backhand as soon as I can.?

Del Potro was protecting his surgically repaired left wrist and therefore slicing balls defensively on the backhand with one hand, presenting a Steffi Graf-like game plan: Float the ball low and deep off the backhand, pounce when you can with a wailing forehand.

Six months later, del Potro has the same game and an Olympic silver medal in hand.

?I think it?s almost become a necessity for the top players in the men?s game to have a good slice backhand,? said Patrick McEnroe, an ESPN commentator.

While del Potro has sliced out of physical necessity, numerous top men?s players ? Novak Djokovic, Andy Murray, Rafael Nadal and others ? have developed the one-handed backhand slice as a neutralizing shot that frustrates foes.

On the women?s side, Roberta Vinci put on a dazzling one-handed backhand slice display a year ago in her upset of Serena Williams in the U.S. Open.

?I?ve worked on that shot ad nauseam forever now,? said John Isner, who used the stroke in a five-set comeback win Monday against teenager Frances Tiafoe, a fellow American. ?It?s always going to be a pretty important shot for me.?

The shot has always been important ? ever hear of a guy named Roger Federer? ? but as tennis has become more aggressive, the focus in the sport has been on building an attacking game: big serves, sound groundstrokes and put-away weapons from anywhere in the court.

Federer?s domination has kept the shot afloat in the men?s game, and Djokovic and Murray have only strengthened their own backhand slices to become more multifaceted defensive players when they are stretched wide or pushed far behind the baseline.

?For me, it?s important as a guy with a big reach ? it helps me out,? said 2016 Wimbledon finalist Milos Raonic. ?It also buys me some time if I?m out of position to get back in a situation where I have a better opportunity.?

?We?ve sort of seen a mini-comeback of the slice backhand, and I?m thrilled about it,? said Cliff Drysdale, an ESPN commentator.

?I?m just in awe of how del Potro has been able to come back basically on crutches when it comes to his tennis game. You lose one of your major shots, and usually it spells doom. I?m so fascinated by how he?s been able to do it.?

As tennis has become a sport for taller athletes including Raonic, Isner and other 6-foot-somethings, a low, spin-laden shot can be even more effective, noted John McEnroe, who spent the grass-court season as an adviser on Raonic?s team.

?It?s clearly a shot that can reset you. It can do a lot of things,? John McEnroe said. ?You try to get in the guy?s head; you try to use it in certain situations. ? Even if you can hit the ball harder than anyone, at times you have to mix it up, unless you can absolutely blow a hundred-mile-an-hour fastball by someone every time.?

?I use it as a weapon,? said Steve Johnson, the highest-seeded American man in the draw. ?Some people think I?m crazy because I don?t come over (the backhand) all the time, but I make guys adjust to what I do best.?

Del Potro and Johnson are set for the ultimate slice-off Thursday: a second-round meeting in the U.S. Open.

So who does the backhand slice best on tour? Isner has the answer.

?Roger probably,? he said of Federer. ?Yeah. Roger.?

PHOTOS: BEST OF THE U.S. OPEN

Why backhand slice has become ‘necessity’ in tennis – USA TODAY

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