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The weird techniques of professional tennis players
If a small child were asked what [Ernest] Gulbis was trying to do, you wouldn’t blame them for saying "Looks like that man’s trying to flap his wings and fly!"
6 Oct, 2020
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The beautiful thing about tennis is that there are many ways to play it. You can be a serve & volley specialist, a grinder who camps out 15 feet behind the baseline, a tough counterpuncher, an aggressive baseliner—and so on and so on. There are many ways to try and get that fuzzy yellow ball into the court. Technique also varies greatly: step-up motion, platform stance, one-handed backhand, two-handed, swing-volley, regular volley. Everyone plays tennis in their own way, with their own signature style and flair.

But you would at least expect players who compete professionally to have refined their techniques; to not have any hitches or irregularities in their strokes. After all, this is how they make their livings—and you would think that efficiency and quality is important to them.

Yet that is not the case for a rare few players on tour. While most professionals follow fundamentals in their stroke production, a few mavericks elect to play—and hit the ball—by their own set of unorthodox rules. What follows is a list of the pros with the weirdest techniques and playing styles.

Sofia Kenin’s ball toss

I’m surprised that more people haven’t commented on Sofia Kenin’s ball toss. She’s certainly been in the limelight for long enough: an Australian Open title and being in the top 10 tends to do that for you. The way she tosses the ball is… unique—and frankly a little vexing.

Kenin does not look where she’s tossing the ball. She simply stares down her arm at the ball, tosses it into the air, and then tracks it. This is literally the opposite of how everyone else serves. In general, you’re supposed to watch the ball as it leaves your hand up until the moment you strike it. But Kenin skips this first step—and just launches it up there. Even with her unorthodox technique, she manages to get it into the right spot the vast majority of the time.

Sofia Kenin’s no-look toss

Fabrice Santoro’s slice forehand

The Frenchman Fabrice Santoro, nicknamed “The Magician,” had a long and illustrious career on the ATP tour, recording wins over Roger Federer, Andy Roddick, Novak Djokovic, and Pete Sampras (to name a few). And he did it all in a way that would make many tennis fans scratch their heads in confusion. I know that was the case for me the first time I saw him play. What the heck is this guy doing? Why is he slicing and dicing, playing odd junk balls, and randomly rushing to net?

But perhaps the most unorthodox part of Santoro’s game was his slice forehand. It’s not that he couldn’t come over it when he chose to, he just had a way of lulling the best players in the world into prolonged baseline rallies with it. Santoro retired having achieved a career-high ranking of #17 and with over $10 million in prize money to his name. Not bad for a player that many considered to be just a glorified hack.

Santoro putting Novak Djokovic to sleep with his slice forehand

Marion Bartoli’s serve

Another player from France makes an appearance; former Wimbledon champion Marion Bartoli. Bartoli’s entire game was wacky. From the two hands on the both sides, to the extra-long racquet that she used (28.5 inches—1.5 inches longer than the regular racquet), there’s nothing about Bartoli that can be considered “orthodox.” To top off a truly unique game, Bartoli’s service motion dialed up her wackiness to the max. It was an odd frog squat, followed by a raising of the racquet head, followed by another small raise before the racquet was brought down and up into the trophy pose. Truly weird. Still, she’s a Grand-Slam champion, so I guess tennis writers are the only ones worrying about the quality of her strokes.

Behold the Bartoli serve

Ernest Gulbis’ forehand

No list like this would be complete without the mercurial Latvian’s forehand. In the late 2000s, Gulbis was considered a contender to do big things. And for good reason. The Latvian took down some of the biggest names in the men’s game.

With a powerful serve and a backhand that could do real damage, Gulbis’ forehand was the only thing that was off about his game. It looked like he’d spent too long hanging out at the local courts, watching a defeated coach drone on to his students again and again to “point at the ball when it comes to your forehand.”

Gulbis must have truly internalized that advice because his left hand used to shoot straight to the ball while his right hand took the racquet back. Except there was no shoulder turn. If a small child were asked what Gulbis was trying to do, you wouldn’t blame them for saying “Looks like that man’s trying to flap his wings and fly!”

Though Gulbis disappeared from the game for a couple years and has returned with a regular-looking forehand, it was truly weird in the early to mid 2010s.

Daniil Medvedev (in general)

One of the games’s most in-form players right now, the way Medvedev plays is such a contradiction to what’s expected of someone who’s near the top of the modern game. With his long limbs, he almost slaps the ball off his forehand side and his deep, consistent backhand is produced with a scooping motion. Imagine a daddy long legs spider anthropomorphized, and now stick a racquet in its hands (legs?) and you get Medvedev. His racquet always seems to be flailing around his head on his follow-through. But his balls always find their way into the court, whether they have topspin, backspin, or even sidespin. Compatriot and former #20 in the world, Dimitry Tursunov said of Medvedev’s game in an interview:

“He looks like someone who shouldn’t be playing tennis. Very tall, lanky, shouldn’t be very stable or fast around the court. Game not fluid like Roger’s. But he finds a way to put the ball in court with some weird spins. He finds a way to win with his head.” 

Tursunov is right. Mevedev covers the court well. There used to be this belief in tennis that if you played a taller opponent, their movement would be automatically compromised because of their size. But a recent crop of players like Stefanos Tsitsipas (6’4″), Karen Khachanov (6’6″), and Medvedev (6’6″) are proving that belief wrong. Medvedev is aware of his irregularities as well. In a short interview at the Citi Open, Medvedev says of his game:

“When I play I don’t think about it because I’m just trying to put the ball in the court. Then when I see myself in videos or photos, I’m like ‘What am I doing?’ [laughs].”

Odd technique, with a variety of spins, and great ball control, Medvedev stands out in the top 10 for his unique style—and way—of playing the game.

Medvedev scoops a backhand past Stefanos Tsitsipas

Su-Wei Hsieh’s game

Su-Wei Hsieh is the #1 ranked women’s doubles player on the WTA Tour. Other than that, she’s also probably a nightmare to play on the singles court. I would imagine WTA players shake their heads in frustration when they find out that they’ve been drawn against Hsieh. Why? Because of how she plays: composed, with great defensive skills, and with the ability to create consistent drop shots and angles from the most ridiculous places. Now add flat, double-handed groundstrokes to the mix and you’ve got a recipe for a name that you definitely don’t want to see on your side of the draw. At #62 in singles, Hsieh isn’t at the top of the rankings. But that doesn’t mean that top players are thanking their lucky stars whenever they come up against her.

Su-Wei Hsieh toys with Angelique Kerber

Honorable mention #1: Brian Battistone

If launching oneself over the baseline and into the court volleyball-style to hit a serve isn’t enough for you, why not stick another handle onto your racquet? And that’s exactly what Brian Battistone (and his brother, Dan) did. Known for his distinctive serve style, where he would toss a ball into the air and leap into the court after it, Brian Battistone reached a career-high ranking of #853 in singles and #88 in doubles on the ATP tour. Anyone who knows tennis is aware that’s an impressive level; a player who can get into the top 1000 in the world in singles can play ball. And anyone who can get into the top 100 in doubles definitely knows what they’re doing.

That Battistone did it with a funky, double-handled racquet raises the question whether he would have reached higher with a regular frame. The ITF ruled that the racquet was legal and permitted in professional competition, but Battistone and the other players who used it were encouraged to carry the certificate which confirmed the ruling, in case they were challenged by players or officials.

Brian Battistone’s double-handled racquet

His serve is impressive, sure, but watching him play off the baseline you can see that he can’t really do much from the back of the court. Perhaps the racquet was too cumbersome for the modern game. Battistone’s last victory came with his brother, Dan against JC Aragone and Thanasi Kokkinakis at a Challenger in Las Vegas in 2018. No double-handled racquets have been seen on the pro tour since then.

Volleyball or tennis?

Honorable mention #2: “Drunk” Djokovic

World #1. 17 Grand Slams to his name. One of the greatest players to ever live. Uncoordinated amateur?

Novak Djokovic is probably one of the most coordinated human beings on the planet. The amount of overall body control he has under pressure is astonishing to observe. Yet in the video below, which I discovered when a friend once told me in excitement, “Look up ‘drunk Djokovic’ on YouTube,” Djokovic comes off as an off-balance amateur, flailing about wildly, unable to control his limbs.

The video is a minute of pure confusion. Either that or we’re witnessing a glitch in the software that Djokovic runs on. After all, he’s almost robotic in how he plays the game. Not exciting, or extravagant, just efficient. But watching him stumble around and lose his balance gives us mere mortals a little bit of reprieve. What caused his strange movements? I think the court was too sticky and his shoes kept getting stuck on the surface.

Needless to say, Djokovic’s inclusion here isn’t because of his unorthodox technique or style of play. It’s just to point out that maybe he was having an unorthodox day.

So there you have it. They make their livings by striking balls on tennis courts around the world, but the players I’ve listed above sure do have a unique way of doing it. But as you know, technique doesn’t account for everything. Grit, shot-making ability, intelligence, and tactical prowess all factor into what makes an opponent difficult to defeat.

Though these players might have some hitches and irregularities in how they play, they’ve all accomplished a lot in their own rights. In the end, and perhaps regardless of their weird techniques and styles of play, they’ve still managed successful careers on tour.â—‰

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8 Comments

  1. Avatar

    By the way: none of this is to disparage any of these players. I’m only pointing out that how they play is unorthodox. They’ve all accomplished a lot in their own rights! I’ve tried to focus on fairly current players, but did I miss anyone obvious?

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      Good list. Very funny but interesting to see these. You did miss Frederico Delbonis’ serve motion as a possible addition to the list.

      Reply
  2. Avatar

    What about Florian Meyer ? 🤔 I thought he had a pretty weird looking thing going on with his forehand… .

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    • Avatar

      Hey! You’re right, his forehand takeback was quite large/funky

      Reply
  3. Avatar

    As a part owner of the company Natural a tennis and close friend of the Battistone’s . They will tell you that the racquet was a big part of their success by the evidence that they had extremely limited international tennis success with a normal racquet in their 20’s. Although they were very good on the local levels of tennis it wasn’t until they met Lionel Burt and began playing with the racquet that they bloomed in their late 20’s and early 30’s. They did both garner ATP pts (Dann in doubles) Brian in singles and probably doubles with normal racquets prior to 2007!

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      Hey Trent, thanks for the comment and the background information. Definitely adds more detail/context to their stories. Is Natural Tennis still producing racquets? Have there been many updates to the tech since the Battistones used it?

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      • Avatar

        Hello,
        I am a minority owner of Natural Tennis, Inc. too…thanks for the article!
        Yes, we are still producing two-handled tennis rackets and we opened a store for Europe last year, we currently have 2 new models: The Freestyle and The Diamond…check out our Facebook page for more info http://www.facebook.com/NaturalTennis
        We currently have an ATP world ranked player, Tennyson Whiting, hitting the Tour with our racket.

      • Avatar

        Hey Roberto, that’s really cool. I’m always fascinated by tennis companies that bucks the trend and try to do things in their own, unique ways. I’ll be sure to check out the page to see the new models. Thanks and take care, Malhar

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