A Discussion with Jeff Salzenstein on the Two-Handed Backhand
Jeff Salzenstein was one of the most entertaining and high-energy players ever to hit the pro tour. He came out of Nowheresville USA, more specifically, Denver, Co., where there had never been a big impact player rising from the juniors, to become a No. 1 singles player at Stanford and an 11-year pro. In 2004, in his eighth year as a pro, and at the age of 30, he became only the second player in the history of the Open Era to break the Top-100 (actually he got to No. 100) for the first time after the age of 30 (Dick Norman did it first and Norman closing in on 42 is still playing doubles on tour).
Salzenstein might still be on the tour today (no one loved the life and the battle as much as Salzenstein on the pro tour; he was like a much lower-profile Roger Federer, except Salzy played most of his matches in places like Calabasas and Binghamton rather than Wimbledon and Roland Garros. Still, his run through the U.S. Open qualis in 2003, where I believe he beat Fernando Verdasco in the third and final round, only to lose to Arazi on the Grandstand in the Main Draw First Round, was one of the most stirring quali runs I’ve ever seen.), if he didn’t suffer from vertigo in 2007 that led to his retirement. Based again in Denver, the cerebral lefty has developed one of the best instructional web-sites, JeffSalzensteintennis.com, that highlights incisive videos breaking down the shots, movement, mindset, drills and workout regimens that serve to create stronger and more versatile players.
Jeff recently launched his Two-Hand Backhand Program. It breaks down all the technique step-by-step for the Grip, Ready Position, First Move, Back swing, Swing, Contact Point, Swing Path and Finish. It also covers footwork: footwork in the middle of the court, footwork moving back, defensive, how to handle hitting wide backhands, open, closed stance, transition backhands. In addition, there are a lot of bonus lessons: the difference between hitting cross-court and down-the-line: a break down of Djokovic’s and Murray’s backhands. Every lesson is between 1 and 7 minutes long, a total of 10 hours of lessons. There is also a lefty and righty section along with interviews with former players who had fine two-handed backhands like Paul Goldstein and Brian Vahaly, as well as noted swing coach, John Yandell.
Recently, I talked with Jeff and here on some of his insights on the two-handed backhand and why his own two-hander often let him down during his career.
“Growing up in high altitude and not having a coach to really mentor me—I had coaches, but not anyone who could really spot check my technique like a Landsdorp—hurt the development of my backhand. I got into bad habits the older I got. When I look at old tapes of my backhand, like when I was 12 it looked really good, but as I got older I started steering it a bit. I didn’t get the extension and the drive the way a coach like Lansdorp would always have his players hit through the ball. I never felt I could hit through the ball at high altitude.
In my first video on the backhand launch, I talk about relaxing the arms at contact. Players grip the racquet so tight on the backhand because they get tense when they’re hitting it and they’re not even aware how tight their grip is. It’s like a double-edge sword, you don’t want to relax because you feel you’ll lose control of the shot, but when you squeeze you lose control and power of the shot.
As a coach, I’ve learned to teach students how to relax their hands and their arms and it really works, but other coaches didn’t emphasize this to me by other coaches. I never had coaches tell me you’ve got to loop your backhand back swing more or hit through the ball more or relax your swing and for me, just learning how to relax your arms and hands at contact is probably the No. 1 best backhand tip I’ve used. Almost everyone’s too tight and has too much tension.
There are three different back swings on the backhand that I’ve seen: 1. The really high take back of the racquet, where it’s above the head (and I’m talking about two-handed backhands here. That’s what my program’s on) like with a Denis Kudla. 2. Djokovic and Agassi don’t take their racquets back so high, but the top of their racquet is cocked up. 3. Then there’s the straight-back back swing like a Rios or Thomas Enquist had. I was more of a stright-back guy like Rios, but a lot of coaches told me I needed to take a loop. Then I saw Rios and Enquist crunching backhands and I thought, “Why are these coaches telling me to take a loop when these guys have tremendous backhands?”
If you take your racquet back too low, that’s a problem, but the most important technique is to keep your arms and hands relaxed and that’s where you generate the power. Think about Spadea and Brian Vahaly, those guys were so loose with their arms and their hands, and that’s what made their backhands so effective. Spadea had a pretty big loop, a high take back.
I think Djokovic and Murray are pretty even with their backhands. I think if you ask most people who’s got the better backhand, they’d probably say, “Djokovic,” but that’s probably because he’s No. 1 right now. If you go toe to toe with one another, they can both hit it down the line, they can both pull you wide, hit with great depth and pace and slice it one-handed. The difference is in their swing path. Djokovic has more of a low-to-high swing path, and at contact his arms are bent. Murray swings more across his body, and his non-dominant arm is straighter at contact. Most of are taught low-to-high, but you can actually swing like Murray across your body on the backhand.
The return-of-serve has become such a weapon today and that’s the biggest reason why you see more two-handers today. The return used to be a block back or chip, but now with players hitting more two-handed backhands, they can go on the offensive more on the return. It’s just easier to hit the two-hander. Maybe a player can get to more balls or slice the ball better or have better touch at the net with their volleys when they use a one-hander, but I don’t think it outweighs the two-hander’s advantage on the return of serve. I could always serve out wide (Salzenstein is a lefty) to Tommy Haas and lose 4 in the third, but I would lose 2 and 3 to Vahaly because he could crush it back at me when I serve wide to his two-hander.
Everyone in my era thought Agassi had the best two-handed backhand ever, but I think Djokovic and Murray have exceeded Agassi with their backhands.”