LONDON — Serena Williams was preparing to face Harmony Tan last week in her singles return after a year’s absence from Wimbledon — she was ready for almost anything: the pressure of the occasion, the physical battle, the test mental.
She wasn’t ready for the forehand.
“I think I could have played anyone, I probably would have had a different outcome,” Williams said. “But I wasn’t ready for – I knew there was a lot of slice, but not so much on the forehand.”
“She beat a legend.”
— Wimbledon (@Wimbledon) June 28, 2022
Tan, a No. 115-ranked Frenchwoman, sliced and diced her way to a remarkable win over the 23-time Grand Slam champion, turning down her pace and constantly putting her in an awkward position.
It’s the kind of tennis that hasn’t been seen consistently since the days of Pam Shriver, the former world No. 3 whose forehand was integral to her success, especially on grass.
“I’ve seen more women play Pam Shriver’s forehand than I’ve seen in a long time,” ESPN colleague and former world No. 4 Brad Gilbert said on air this week.
Shriver said she was thrilled to see the forehand slice make a comeback.
“I love it,” she told ESPN.com.
“I think in our time, with the power and getting the ball out of the big hitting position, the slice is terrific,” Shriver said. “And while the sliced backhand has kind of maintained its consistency of being present over the years, I think people have finally realized that there’s no reason why it can’t be replicated from the side of the forehand.
For Shriver, whose forehand slice has taken her to three Wimbledon semi-finals – and five women’s doubles titles – choosing when to play is key.
“Maybe for a while they didn’t think you could hit the slice with that kind of ball coming at you and control it. I think as long as you’re committed to the slice and you get that under the spin you can do And maybe sometimes you don’t hit the super, super heavy topspin spine so much, you kind of expect a flatter ball or one that has a little less.
Three-time Wimbledon champion John McEnroe said he didn’t use the forehand slice much, but it was “not a bad game”.
“I haven’t done it as much as Pam,” he said. “From time to time, [I’d hit] sliced approaches. Chip and charge, I would kind of block it, wouldn’t say it would slice it, more like a block.”
Staying low and often with added side spin, the forehand slice was once a staple at Wimbledon. In recent years it has almost entirely disappeared, replaced by heavy topspin. Changes to the grass at Wimbledon in 2002, which made conditions slower, made the slice less effective, in general. Advances in string technology and the ability for players to whip up and over the ball, even when it stays low, have also had an effect.
This year’s Wimbledon saw it reappear as a real weapon, not just in the form of the “squash kick” when pushed wide, more as a pick shot.
Tan, Ons Jabeur, Tatjana Maria, Amanda Anisimova, Coco Gauff, Jelena Ostapenko and many others have used it regularly and even Nick Kyrgios, always ready to experiment, has tried it several times this year, with a cushioning of slice faded, sealing victory over Stefanos Tsitsipas in the third round.
— Wimbledon (@Wimbledon) July 2, 2022
Tan, who had never made it past the second round of a Grand Slam before this year’s event, said she had always used the forehand, even though some people tried to convince her to change her style.
“When I was young they told me I couldn’t be a very good player with this game, so it was really difficult for me,” she said. “I had no help, and financially it was really difficult.”
It was Nathalie Tauziat, vice-champion of Wimbledon in 1998, who realized that she had talent. A serve and a volley. Tauziat also used a flat forehand with a touch of slice. Maybe she recognized a kindred spirit.
“There’s a person who believes in me,” Tan said. “It was Nathalie Tauziat when I was 18, and we worked on this game. I think it works today.”
Shriver said part of his resurgence can also be attributed to Ash Barty and Roger Federer, who both showed the traditional backhand to be an attacking blow.
“Because Ash Barty could toe the line with and cross the court, I think she gets to No. 1, that backhand was such a backbone of her game, I think it helped elevate the slice overall “, she said. “I think Roger Federer with his short and convincing backhand also helped.”
Germany’s Maria is in the quarter-finals of a Grand Slam for the first time, a feat all the more remarkable given that she has two young children. But it was her style of play that helped her reach the last eight. “Obviously she likes weed,” said Maria Sakkari, her third-round victim. “She slices everything.”
Jule Niemeyer, the German who is in her first Grand Slam quarter-final, will be next to face Maria on Tuesday. She knows what to expect. “She’s a delicate player, she uses slices on the forehand, on the backhand. She uses drop shots.”
For Shriver, the forehand slice is a natural extension of the squash stroke.
“It’s another specialty shot today, when you’re at the absolute maximum stretch, people realize what a valuable shot it’s become,” she said.
“And then I think people probably worked on the quick change of grip, whether it was to play like a little finesse court…people just worked on that and realized the more strokes you have to disrupt someone’s rhythm. ‘one, the better.’
Jabeur, who will face Czech Marie Bouzkova on Tuesday for a semi-final berth, said anything that takes an opponent out of their comfort zone is beneficial.
“I think one of the things that really helps me, I think most players would say, is you don’t know what to expect from me,” she said. “I can really hit hard, I can really change the pace, I can really slice. It’s tricky. If I play someone who plays like that, I’d be annoyed too.”
Serena Williams would agree.