Stan Wawrinka has been one of the most consistent performers of the last decade or more. To claim three grand slam victories in the era of Federer, Nadal, Djokovic, and Murray is a testament to Wawrinka’s ability.
Stan Wawrinka is a powerfully built athlete with a strong all-around game, a consistent player who can combine raw power with a delicate touch.
However, there is one area of the game where Wawrinka is exceptionally strong, the one-handed backhand.
Stan Wawrinka uses a modified Eastern backhand grip for his one-handed backhand drive. The base knuckle of his index finger is placed between bevel one and two, while the heel pad of the palm is on bevel 8 on the racket. Using this grip Wawrinka can generate both power and topspin.
The Wawrinka backhand is not something you acquire overnight.
He has spoken in interviews about how, like the rest of his game, he has continued to work on his backhand throughout his career. It has taken years of fine-tuning to hone the technique to arrive at the thing of beauty we watch today.
In this article, I shall take a look at Wawrinka’s backhand grip in more detail and how his technique generates the power for which his backhand is known.
Stan Wawrinka gets his body in position early once he has decided on the shot.
Following his split step, he is quick to coil his body into his full unit turn, giving him more time to play the shot. His body is always relaxed as he takes the racket back, with the head over the right shoulder, eyes on the ball.
Wawrinka holds the throat of the racket with his non-dominant left hand to help guide the racket back.
The left hand on the racket also allows him to change his racket grip for the backhand he is about to play.
The grip is the most essential element of the preparation, setting him up to generate power and spin on the backhand side.
Before we take a closer look at Wawrinka’s technique, the following clip will show the end product in all its glory:
The Wawrinka Backhand Grip
Stan Wawrinka employs a modified Eastern backhand grip for his signature one-handed backhand.
This grip allows him to play and control balls of varying heights on the backhand side.
It also allows Wawrinka to be aggressive in his shot-making, while still giving him the option to play a flat drive or one with more topspin (source).
The standard Eastern backhand grip sees you place the index finger knuckle on bevel one of the racket (source).
However, Wawrinka uses a slightly modified form of this backhand grip. This sees his palm heel pad placed near bevel 8 on the racket, while the index finger knuckle is between bevel one and two.
Wawrinka will be more comfortable with the grip by using this slight modification, one which probably provides more feel for the shot.
The Full Unit Turn
Stan Wawrinka’s one-handed backhand is viewed as one of the best the game has ever seen.
The power he generates on the backhand, both across the court and down the line, can overwhelm his opponent. Once Wawrinka has turned his racket to allow for the modified Eastern backhand grip he coils into his full unit turn.
It is this coil of the upper body which sets the stage for Wawrinka to unleash the power through his backhand.
As he brings the racket back his elbow is bent and relaxed. This makes for a very compact backswing, with the racket head above the grip and usually in a completely vertical position.
All the technique employed is geared to create the leverage on the downswing to generate power on the stroke.
Wawrinka does not take the racket head as far back as some of his rivals. The racket tends to end just above the head at the furthest point of the backswing.
A good part of his back will also be facing his opponent now, another component of the big upper body coil he uses. At all times the head remains steady, looking over the shoulder.
The non-dominant left hand still has hold of the throat of the racket at this stage, helping to take the racket back through such a full unit turn.
This combines with the bent elbow to remove tension from the racket arm, allowing for a more fluid stroke when he extends the arm through the latter parts of the shot.
Transfer of Weight
As Wawrinka loads up his coil for the backhand his weight is placed through his back foot.
When he starts to uncoil from the top of the backswing he plants his front foot and begins to transfer his weight across from the back foot.
To do this he uses a heel-to-toe action with the front foot in order to transfer his weight during the contact with the ball.
The way Wawrinka transfers his weight from back to front foot allows him to use all his body weight behind his backhand.
The knee is also bent to provide balance and force as he swings up and through the ball. Once planted the front foot turns in toward the court, initiating the uncoiling of the unit turn.
The Contact Zone
Through the descent of the racket, Wawrinka’s non-dominant left hand remains on the throat of the racket, while the racket strings face towards the back of the court.
As Wawrinka drops the racket down it goes slightly behind his left hip and leg as part of the swing path.
It is only when the racket head is at the same height as the tennis ball that Wawrinka takes his left hand off the racket.
This is now the starting point of the forward swing, with the butt cap of the racket pointing directly down the court towards the ball.
Wawrinka is now uncoiling his upper body, releasing all the leverage of the full-body turn into the swing. Both the hips and shoulders turn in a controlled, stable manner.
Wawrinka’s body weight is being transferred to the front foot as previously discussed, with the knee bent for balance and stability. The racket head now drops beneath the ball and the hand to allow Wawrinka to impart topspin through a low to high contact with the ball.
Stan Wawrinka makes contact with the ball out in front of his body, not to the side. The bent elbow extends out through the forward swing so the arm is straight at the point of contact.
The knuckles on his racket hand will be pointing up towards the sky, while the palm of his modified Eastern backhand grip faces down toward the court surface.
The importance of playing the ball in front of the body rather than at the side is it allows for the transfer of weight onto the front foot through the heel-to-toe action.
As well as power, there is added stability now in the position of the body and the extended racket arm.
The Follow Through
The follow-through to complete the Wawrinka backhand swing may not be as flamboyant as some of his competitors, but he still maintains great extension.
As he swings up and across his body, the racket strings become more open, and the palm of his right-hand points toward the sky.
The racket extends out high above the right shoulder in a vertical position, with the tip of the frame pointing toward the sky.
Meanwhile, the non-dominant left-hand does not move that far compared to the likes of Roger Federer once it releases the throat of the racket. This hand stays close to the left hip, forming a diagonal line across the body with the racket hand.
By keeping the left hand close to the body and not sweeping it back behind him, Wawrinka ensures he does not open up the shoulders and upper body too early on the shot.
This helps him maintain balance and control through the backhand.
However, toward the end of his follow-through, you will see Wawrinka finally allowing the hips to open up in order to fully unleash the power stored up in the initial coiling of the upper body.
The opening of the hips at the end has another bonus. After the completion of the backhand stroke, Wawrinka is facing square onto the court with both feet back in position on or just behind the baseline.
He does not need to make any further adjustments to get into position for the next shot as he is already in place to move along the baseline.
The Sliced Backhand Grip
Stan Wawrinka’s preparation, set-up, and swing do not alter massively to play a backhand slice.
The main difference will be in the grip, with the one-handed sliced backhand largely depending on the continental grip.
This grip is also commonly used when serving and for volleys, and sees the base knuckle of the index finger placed on bevel two of the racket.
The continental grip aids the one-handed backhand slice as it places the racket head at a gentle upward angle as you make contact with the ball.
Whereas the Eastern backhand grip allows you to impart topspin on your one-handed backhand drives, the continental grip provides the best chance to generate backspin on a slice, keeping the ball low when it bounces in your opponent’s court.
The upper body coil does not need to be so full for Wawrinka’s sliced backhand, though his weight also starts off on the back foot.
When he transfers the weight onto his front foot the knee does not bend as much as for the backhand drive. Wawrinka cuts down and across the ball to impart backspin, with the follow-through similar to that of the backhand drive.
The Wawrinka backhand is admired around the world and has taken years of practice to perfect. There are some key elements that help make it the fearsome weapon it has become. To recap, those key points are:
- Early shot preparation
- Change to modified Eastern backhand grip
- Full unit turn
- Racket head above the grip on the back swing
- Elbow bent and arm relaxed
- Guiding left hand on throat of racket, only released when the racket is in line with the ball
- Transfer of weight from back foot to front foot through contact with the ball
- Ball played out in front of the body rather than to the side, with the knuckles of the racket hand facing up
- Great extension on follow through, with the palm of the racket hand facing up at the end of the stroke
- Non-dominant left hand remains close to the body during the follow through stage
- Hips open after contact to complete uncoiling of the full unit turn
The one-handed backhand is one of the great shots of tennis.
It is one of those spectacular shots guaranteed to have spectators out of their seats.
Stan Wawrinka has made a case over the course of his distinguished career to be considered as one of, if not the best, exponent of the one-handed backhand. It is a shot that has helped propel him to the top of the game in an era graced by some of the best players the sport has ever seen.
There is a lot of technique involved within Wawrinka’s backhand, honed over many years of practice.
Elements of his backhand are quite unique to Wawrinka and help set his backhand apart, as does his sheer physical strength and power as an athlete.
If any up-and-coming player wants to analyze a player to help improve their one-handed backhand then they could do a lot worse than observe Stan Wawrinka in full flow.