"When you see who Ash has to play, you see them out there practicing someone hitting a slice backhand to them. It's probably a bit late the day before to try to get that right. If you haven't practiced it enough now, you're probably not going to get that right."
This was what former Aussie coach, Craig Tyzzer, commented this week after Ash Barry’s demolition of Maddison Keys in the AO Semi Final. Barty’s slice backhand was instrumental with Keys noting in a post match press conference how the game plan was to make it harder for Barty to hit the slice well. There is something slightly chuckle worthy about the old school slice backhand being the difference maker in a grand slam semi final. Not because it’s a bad shot, it’s not a bad shot at all - but because of how far it has fallen in the grand scheme of professional tennis.
The slice backhand, or the lack of, was also the story of the mens semi final that took place earlier today between Tsistipas and Medvedev. Single handed backhand players usually have great slice backhands, mainly because of the deficiencies of the single handed backhand when it comes to defensive shots. Tsistipas is one of the biggest exceptions to this rule, he has a slice backhand that only a mother could love.
We have somehow got to a place in professional tennis where a good slice is incredibly rare. Possibly the biggest factor is that most of the current best players in the world grew up playing clay court tennis, a surface which amplifies the effect of topspin and doesn’t do a whole lot for slice, kind of the opposite of an astroturf or grass court. Players will always be reinforced by outcomes and therefore won’t hit much slice but will push the boundaries of what they can do with topspin. What’s more is because most of the tour, especially lower level tournaments, are played on clay the tour naturally favours clay court players. It is also easier to move from a clay court to a hard court than it is the other way round. In other words clay court tennis is by far the most prominent style of play in professional tennis, a brand of tennis that doesn’t incorporate the slice that much.
Matthew Willis did a piece of analysis on why Tsistipas’ struggles with his slice backhand. It compares his technique to Federer and Dimitrov, two players who have maybe the best slice backhands of all time.
It’s funny how sometimes because we see a player as world class we assume that everything they do is world class, many tennis fans can’t accept that a top player can have a glaring weakness, which is exactly what Tsistipas has with his slice backhand. It is testament to just how good players such as Tsistipas’ all round game is to the point where he hasn’t required a good slice backhand to get to where he is. It also highlights how little importance the slice has had in recent times.
For Barty the slice is a weapon that has helped her to breeze through to the Australian Open Final. For Tsistipas his lack of a good slice backhand has in part prevented him from doing the same.