Many tennis players are coached with drills that give them the comfort to deal with low groundstrokes with a high level of confidence and ease, and to hit winners from these balls that stay flat to the court. However, as players rise through the ranks they will certainly come up against opponents who employ the use of topspin and their height to cause balls to kick up off the surface and bounce high. This shot is more naturally dealt with on the forehand side as the natural extension of the arm and the 95% of players who use a one handed forehand means that it is more a question of reach than technique to get these balls back.
However, the high backhand is a completely different story. The unnatural angle of the ball and having the cross the body with the arms means that the most common results are a shot that rear up and sets up an easy put away for your opponent or that simply does not cross the net with any power, once again setting up the chance for your rival to win the point with ease.
The focus of this article then is to look at the technique you can employ to deal with a high-bouncing ball on your backhand side, and return the ball over the net with some pace and placement to help you win the point.
The first thing to get mentally right is the adjustment from a backhand in the strike zone to one well above it. it requires you to envision hitting across the shot, rather than hitting up on the ball to impart topspin. If this is difficult to imagine then watch the video of a tall player like Juan Martin Del Potro hitting a backhand in order to see what is meant by hitting across the ball.
The other thing to adjust for is the natural urge to bring the ball down. For example, if you play the ball on your toes with an angled down racquet, you will end up with one of two results. First, the ball will clip the net, or second, it will be right in the natural strike zone of your opponent. Worse, because it was a high ball, you will have not been able to impart your usual speed on the shot, meaning it is almost a free hit for your opponent to rifle past you for a winner.
The best solution to address the ball then is to hit it as flat as possible, imagining a horizontal trajectory and then letting gravity do it’s work to bring the ball down. This has the advantage of basically ruling out the possibility of hitting the net, while also ensuring a deep return that does not grant your opponent any tactical advantage by pinning them on the baseline. Practice is needed to get this right though, with variances in player height, reach and racquet characteristics meaning that some experimentation is needed from each player to figure out what the right amount of power is to hit this horizontal “flat-racquet” shot.
The high backhand is actually simple to prepare for, because it requires the application of logic. In order to hit a high backhand successfully you must first track the shot with your hand high above your shoulders and second keep the racquet high throughout the shot. See the pattern? Allowing either of these components to drop means that your shot will also drop, likely well before the net! The rule to keep in mind is to hold your racquet at shoulder height throughout the shot, rather than start low and finish high as you normally would.
The high backhand is not an easy shot to master, mostly because it goes against years of coaching and muscle memory. In order to get the skill into your game, hitting slow balls focussing on what you must do differently or just practising the modified motion without a ball at all is a good way to begin, before moving to drills that include a high backhand return. A difficult shot to master, but one that must be included in any tennis player’s repertoire.