Bruce Emond, The Jakarta Post, Jakarta
This year's abbreviated Australian Open women's singles final carried more significance than Amelie Mauresmo finally dealing with her big-match demons, or Justine Henin-Hardenne becoming the first woman to retire in a Grand Slam final in 30 years.
For the first time since Jana Novotna overcame Natalie Tauziat at Wimbledon in 1998, both women's finalists in a Grand Slam had one-handed backhands, among the rare breed on the women's circuit who continue to rely on ""classic"" stroke-making.
While the almighty serve has come to define the men's game in recent years, the double-handed backhand, once a crowd-pulling curiosity, today is the rule, not the exception, among the women.
The ranks of one-handed players, now numbering at most 15 players in the top 100, were diminished last week, when 1994 Wimbledon champion Conchita Martinez announced her retirement.
Amid the last 30 years' inexorable advance of the double-hander from public tennis courts and country clubs around the world to the upper echelons of the game, world number one Mauresmo and fourth-ranked Henin-Hardenne are the lone one-handers in the women's top 10.
The two-handed stroke has had an impact on the men's game, too, with the achievements of Jimmy Connors, Bjorn Borg, Andre Agassi and Andy Roddick, but one-handers continue to make their mark. Pete Sampras and Roger Federer have been the preeminent players of the last 15 years, and four of the current ATP top 10 -- Federer, Ivan Ljubicic, James Blake and Gaston Gaudio -- use one hand.
The backhand, along with the serve, is probably the most difficult shot for most players to hone. ""Because it feels awkward, most beginners shun the backhand, preferring instead to hit the easier, though more difficult to master, forehand,"" former player and tennis commentator Gene Scott wrote in Tennis: Game of Motion.
Yet it also is a thing of beauty: Images of diminutive Henin-Hardenne coiling her racket back and unleashing a powerful backhand, Federer's graceful arc as he slices through the ball or the famously uninhibited strokes of Rod Laver, Ken Rosewall and Evonne Goolagong Cawley remain in the memory.
Both shots have their advantages but for young players, lacking the strength to wield a heavy racket, two hands provide control and power. Sampras played much of his junior career with two hands, before a coach decided a one-hander would be better suited to his attacking game.
The latter gives more reach (Maria Sharapova frequently improvises with a forehand when stretched wide) and more variety in shotmaking, with a player able to switch from heavy slice (very difficult for most two-handers) to topspin.
The contrast in style of the two strokes has made for enthralling viewing in some of the game's greatest rivalries, including Borg-McEnroe, Evert-Navratilova and Graf-Seles.
Interestingly, the first prominent players to use two hands were Australian men. Vivian McGrath beat another two-hander, John Bromwich, for the 1937 Australian Open title, while Geoff Brown reached the 1946 Wimbledon final. Two years later, Bromwich held match points before losing the Wimbledon final.
A top woman with the stroke did not emerge until the 1960s, when Australian Jan Lehane was a losing finalist at four consecutive Australian Opens.
She drew crowds at Roland Garros and Wimbledon: The two-hander was still an anomaly, an aberration that no self-respecting coach would teach his students.
Borg recounted in his autobiography My Life and Game the opposition to his use of two hands when he was growing up in the early 1960s. ""'You'll never amount to anything with that two-handed shot', they all said. 'If you want to be a good player, you have to hit a one-handed too.'""
It was the emergence of Evert, accompanied by Jimmy Connors, in the early 1970s that changed the game and made the two-hander respectable. In the days before sports equipment manufactured for children, the young Floridian held her racket with both hands. When she began winning junior tournaments, her coach-father desisted from plans to teach her to hit one-handed.
When the then ""sweethearts"" won Wimbledon in 1974, with Connors' power game dissecting the textbook shotmaking of Rosewall, the double-handed revolution began.
Evert's backhand -- uniquely beautiful in itself and very different from the belabored, bludgeoning slugshots of many contemporary women players -- opened the floodgates for double-handed baseliners. Young girls around the world copied her style, and she was briefly usurped by Tracy Austin and Andrea Jaeger before injuries cut short their careers.
It changed the very nature of the game. Serve-and-volleyers dominated women's tennis throughout the 1960s and early '70s -- Maria Bueno, Margaret Court, Billie Jean King, Goolagong, Virginia Wade -- when the Australian and the U.S. Open were still played on grass.
Coaches suddenly embraced the double-hander as the most effective stroke to teach young players, touted as a sure-thing to wear down even the strongest one-hander.
The widespread switch to hardcourts and artificial surfaces suddenly made the serve-and-volley game less effective, and nulled the effectiveness of skidding, low-bouncing sliced backhands. Although Martina Navratilova dominated on brawn and talent in the 1980s, technically perfect baseliners came to dominate on hardcourts and especially clay (the last all-single-stroke final at Roland Garros, between Steffi Graf and Navratilova, was in 1987).
The one-hander, knowing pundits predicted, was going the way of the dodo in women's tennis, destined to be a strange spectacle exhibited by one or players raised outside of mainstream tennis practices.
Graf, with her uniquely rushed sliced stroke, Gabriela Sabatini and Novotna were stalwarts among the small group of one-handers by the 1990s. When they, as well as U.S. and Australian Open finalist Helena Sukova, retired, single-handed backhands became an even rarer sight in Grand Slam finals amid the rise of the power hitters led by Serena and Venus Williams.
Still, the success of Henin-Hardenne and Mauresmo, their ability to stand up to the onslaught of the Williamses, Kim Clijsters and Sharapova and give some of their own back, shows the one-hander is doggedly sticking around.
Former world top 20 tennis player Yayuk Basuki, now a coach, said she did not favor one stroke over the other.
""If they lack something in their grip (technique), then I would rather switch them to the one-hander when they are strong enough,"" said Yayuk, who played a sliced one-hander.
""For the two-hander, you have to be really smooth and loose to hit it well.""
She disagrees with the identification of the two-hander -- brought onto the scene by the ultrafeminine Evert, battling against the more aggressive style of King, Court and Navratilova -- as a ""woman's stroke"".
""Some people think that women have to hit with two hands, it's more feminine, that a one-hander looks mannish. But look at Henin, Steffi -- those are beautiful strokes.