Now of course this is the great Steffi Graf we're talking about
: any weakness was relative to her strengths. Her forehand is still, to most objective observers, the mot mighty shot that has ever been hit in women's tennis. The sheer thrust and velocity of it from any depth, to all angles was nothing short of a wonder.
But there are two schools of thought as to her backhand side; that famous sliced shot which, except when called on to hit a topspin pass, Graf used in 99% of all her baseline rallies.
It is true that there were times when Graf's backhand, against opponents without her weapons or athleticism, could leave her vulnerable. Seles' success against Graf was largely down to her ability to hold Graf at bay by hitting all day to her backhand, before attacking the forehand corner when in position. Sanchez-Vicario would retrieve Graf's bludgeoning forehands to her backhand side and be back in the rally, ready to inflict a counter-punching sting from her nasty bag of tricks. Navratilova and Sabatini learned to approach the net on Graf's backhand side, with some success during the early 90s. Later in her career, Graf got a killing from Venus Williams in Miami, when her backhand in particular appeared innocuous against the sheer force of Venus' backhand. Venus had obviously practiced getting down low that morning, because on other occasions, as we will see, Venus struggled against that shot. Also, the technically perfect Davenport might have been outflanked by Graf's far superior movement, but she handled Graf's sliced backhand with decided ease.
Subscribers to this school of thought -- that her backhand was a weakness -- include none other than Steffi herself, who said on several occasions that, had she started from scratch, she would have used a double-handed backhand. Rumour has it that in c1991, with Seles on her case, Graf was seen practicing a double-hander (and doing it nicely) in training. But she obviously decided it was too great a risk to pursue at the age of 22.
But would Graf have really been a more formidable player with a double-hander, or even a Henin-esque topspun backhand?
Was the shot a strength?
First of all, Graf's backhand was a positional shot. She hit her sliced backhand as a precursor to that wallop which all her opponents dreaded - the forehand. Had Graf's backhand been more forceful, she might never have developed her forehand into the crushing shot that it was. She would have been more akin to Davenport, or Ivanovic, and thus many of her forehands would have been played safer, with more topspin, to temper the risk of her game. With a sliced backhand, Graf knew that with power hitters like Seles, Capriati and Huber emerging, there could be no compromise on her forehand. She simply had to dominate from that side to stay ahead. And to the end of her career, I never saw a player win against Steffi by attacking her forehand for an entire match. Seles and Pierce had the audacity at select moments, but all of the players knew, including a young Venus and Serena, that to try to outdo Graf on the forehand side was tantamount to suicide.
Furthermore, Graf's backhand was, in a subtle way, an extremely aggressive shot. She hit the sliced backhand harder and with more underspin than any woman I have ever seen. Most sliced shots float these days; Graf's seemed to reach her opponent's side in a straight line, skimming low over the net. On natural surfaces in particular, the spin on the ball practically burrowed a hole into the court. Her opponents almost had to use golf swings to dig the ball up, thus reducing the angle to which they could strike the ball without losing control, and in reducing the dimensions, the high percentage areas of the court were reduced. Often, her sliced backhand would produce a short ball from which Graf could climb round and fire her forehand; opponents dared not hit with power off her slice, such was the risk of hitting long. Thus, Graf was, to a very large degree, usually able to negate the power of a Venus Williams or a Monica Seles, because she did not offer shots which sat up, and technically they had to generate all of their own pace -- and most difficult of all, topspin -- from a very low centre of gravity. Players like Sharapova or Ivanovic would have struggled a great deal against Graf's backhand, such is their reliance on waist height balls.
Lastly, it must be remembered that Graf's backhand was her safe shot. When Graf lost, usually it was because her forehand misfired and the errors stacked up. Graf's forehand was usually 'hit', but sometimes 'miss'. In all of Graf's losses to Seles, Sanchez-Vicario and Sabatini, it was errors from her forehand side which caused her demise. It is arguable that it was her necessity to attack ferociously, due to her comparatively tame backhand, which caused her to over press on occasions. However, with a backhand of equal risk, Graf would have lost far more matches from unforced errors, as most players who forcefully hit double-handed from both sides are wont to do. A safer double-handed backhand, a la Capriati, would surely have left her more vulnerable to the likes of Seles, Hingis, Davenport or the Williamses, who would have gobbled up shorter or looping balls in their hitting zones.
Therefore, I argue that, all things considered, Graf's sliced backhand was actually a key part of her game, linked inextricably to the imperious might of her forehand. It is facile to argue that 22 slams would have been 30 had Graf hit a double-handed backhand; such a shot would have made her more vulnerable.
(wind to 1m, 45sec)