Sand + soft balls = backhands

The courts are slow. The balls are slow. Welcome to Indian Wells in October.

Daniil Medvedev said, “this court is more like clay, it is so slow, and I hate clay” after squandering a set and two-break lead against Grigor Dimitrov.

Well, there you have it…

Players have been complaining all tournament that it is really tough to hit a winner in the desert. Tough to put a ball away. That dynamic has a flow-on effect, and the end result is that players are more content to hit backhands since the forehand is not generating offense as usual.

In the round of 16, there were barely more forehands struck than backhands. It was a 51% to 49% split. Basically a dead heat.

Four of the eight matches featured more rally backhands than forehands, with the Taylor Fritz-Jannik encounter featuring 57% backhands. The two players combined to smack 340 backhand groundstrokes and just 252 forehands.

This. Is. Not. Normal.

What is normal is the Norrie v Paul match, which featured 61% forehand groundstrokes. The same for Hurkacz v Karatsev, which was not far off at 59% forehands.

When you compare forehands and backhands, the best analogy is the “sword” and the “shield”. The forehand is the sword. You attack with the forehand. You hit winners and force errors with the forehand. The backhand is the shield. Every now and then you hit your opponent over the head with your shield for a winner. But forehands rule for the world.

2018 Grand Slams – Forehand & Backhand Winners

As you can see from the table above, we play a forehand dominated sport. The forehand is hit harder (around 8mph on average) and we hit it more. We constantly move around backhands in the Ad court to hit run-around forehands. It does not work the other way around.

So why so many backhands in the desert this year?

Sand. And soft balls. The courts are slow because of the amount of sand in the paint. The balls are soft as well. You hit it as hard as you can and it does not give you the typical reward of moving quickly through the court to take time away from your opponent. The balls also fluff up very quickly.

2021 Indian Wells balls – after practice 

So, as a result, players are settling for more backhands. Shot tolerance is growing in importance while crushing winners is dropping.

Something to look out for in today’s semi-finals.