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Tennis: Russian’s strong suit — the forehands
Christopher Clarey IHT
Friday, May 30, 2003
French Open Tennis
PARIS During the course of her second-round match Thursday at the French Open, Evgenia Koulikovskaya did not make a single backhand error.
So why was such accuracy and consistency not rewarded with a better result than a 6-3, 6-2 defeat at the hands of Magdalena Maleeva? The answer is that Koulikovskaya does not have a backhand. Never has.
When she started playing the game at age 7 in her home city of Moscow, the first shot she learned was the forehand. But unlike the dozen or more youngsters in her class, she did not stop hitting tennis balls when her left hand got tired.
Instead, the ambidextrous Koulikovskaya simply switched the racket to her right hand and kept on hitting forehands.
‘‘My coach saw that, and he made a little experiment,’’ she said, with a laugh. ‘‘He never taught me to play a backhand.’’
Seventeen years later, the experiment continues, and though Koulikovskaya is never going to be a Grand Slam winner or a threat to the high-powered, more orthodox likes of Serena Williams and Kim Clijsters, her unconventional game has put her among the top 100 women’s players in the world.
No one at this level plays like her: not on the women’s tour; not on the men’s tour. Most people have never seen anyone play like her, which can be both an ice breaker and a burden. While Justine Henin gets weary of talking about her backhand, Koulikovskaya gets weary of talking about her lack of one. ‘‘I feel like a horse in the circus: running and people are looking at you do stuff,’’ she said. There was plenty of gawking Thurs day on Court Two when she faced the 15th-seeded Maleeva. Fans who noticed her two forehands left the stands and returned with a few friends. ‘‘Sometimes, I’m getting crazy,’’ she said, ‘‘because people come and see me, and they point their finger at me: ‘Look! Look! Look, how she plays!’ I understand it’s different, and people will react, but sometimes I can’t stand it.’’ If Koulikovskaya sounds bitter, she is not. She is an upbeat extrovert who can also see the lighter side of her condition. ‘‘There are players teasing me; ‘How is your backhand now? I heard you never missed it,’’’ she said. ‘‘And I tell them, ‘Yeah, backhand is my strongest side.’’’ Koulikovskaya does have predecessors. As an American journalist and tennis historian, Bud Collins, recounts in his eponymous ‘‘Tennis Encyclopedia,’’ the most prominent players with two forehands were the Italian Giorgio de Stefani and the American Beverly Baker Fleitz. De Stefani beat Fred Perry at Roland Garros in 1934. , which would eventually be the difference between Perry and a Grand Slam (the British star won the other three major events that year). Fleitz lost in the 1955 Wimbledon final to compatriot Louise Brough. At Wimbledon in 1972, two forehand-only players — Lita Liem of Indonesia and Marijke Schaar of the Netherlands — actually faced each other in the first round with Liem winning. In the 1990s, another ambidextrous American, Luke Jensen, put a new twist on the theme by switch-serving: alternating between serving with his right and left hands. But Jensen still hit a conventional forehand and conventional two-handed backhand. Koulikovskaya can actually hit overheads with either hand, but she serves with her left, which she concedes is probably her stronger hand, even though she writes and holds a knife with her right. She finds it handy to refer to her groundstrokes as ‘‘right’’ and ‘‘left’’ instead of ‘‘forehand’’ and ‘‘forehand.’’ The idea is to make practicing with others hassle-free. In Koulikovskaya’s case, asking someone to hit to your forehand only creates confusion, but then perhaps confusion is inevitable. ‘‘Even if I tell people, ‘Please serve to the right,’ they get confused,’’ she said. What of the statisticians, accustomed to carefully counting backhands and forehands? On occasion, they simply throw up their hands, which explains why the statistical sheet from the match Thursday against Maleeva credited the Russian with four backhand winners. But these are details, only details. The bigger question is whether Koulikovskaya is a trendsetter or an anomaly? After all, the idea of having two forehands sounds like a goal worth pursuing, considering that the forehand is traditionally a player’s most forceful shot. The consensus is, however, that it looks better on paper than on clay, grass or cement. The problem is the grip. Switching hands takes time, and time is an increasingly precious commodity in the modern game. ‘‘Two forehands is the dream,’’ said a veteran coach, Michael De Jong, who used to work with Mary Pierce. ‘‘Ten to 15 years ago, when the game was slower, you might have had time to make it work, but these days, the girls hit so much harder.’’ Koulikovskaya waits for the ball with both hands on her grip: the left hand at the bottom and the right hand above it. As the ball approaches, she drops the hand that does not apply, but if the shot comes to her right, she hits that forehand with her right hand nearly halfway up the grip, and though she believes that allows her more control and finesse on that forehand, it also leaves her with less reach and less leverage. ‘‘One side is much weaker,’’ Maleeva said. ‘‘It’s very weird to play against her, but you get used to it.’’ There are possible solutions to her weakness. One fan in California showed up at the tournament in Indian Wells last year to show Koulikovskaya a racket with a dual grip: which looked a bit like a big tuning fork. ‘‘It might work actually,’’ she said. ‘‘But the funny feeling was when you serve. I think with this racket you have to play since you are small to get used to it.’’
Copyright © 2002 The International Herald Tribune