Friday, June 24, 2011

Is being a lefty an advantage in tennis?

Rafael Nadal leads the way of course. It’s impossible to dispute the fact of his dominance of men’s tennis over the past few years. It’s almost as if he reinvented the game, creating new angles and shots that often leave us gasping. And there are many other lefty players who too are doing quite well – including his countryman Feliciano Lopez, who destroyed Roddick today in straight sets. Was Roddick’s loss at least in part because his opponent was a lefty?

The notion of the lefty dominance of certain sports is often credited to French neuroscientist, Guy Azémar, who famously concluded that lefties tended to excel in sports that require the dominance of the right eye (i.e., the opposite side of the body). Azémar believed that lefties have a built-in neurological advantage in certain sports such as fencing.

He noted that our brains have two halves – a left hemisphere that processes verbal information and a right hemisphere that decodes spatial data. The right-handed tennis player is at a disadvantage because the left side of their brain has to first transfer information about the location of the ball to the right side before the player can respond. But for the lefty, the right side of the brain both receives and processes this spatial information, giving him or her an immediate and distinct advantage.

And it is a fact that the list of lefty tennis players who have made it to the fourth round of Wimbledon this year is quite impressive. Apart from Nadal and Lopez, the list includes lesser knowns like Ksenia Pervak and Melinda Czink, older balls like Michael Llodra and Gilles Muller, and ones-to-watch like Petra Kvitova.

The list of lefties who have historically done well in tennis is also impressive. It includes such luminaries as Jimmy Connors, Guy Forget, Goran Ivanesivic, Rod Laver, John McEnroe, Thomas Muster, Martina Navratilova, and Mark Woodford. Back in the day, lefty Greg Rusedski held the world’s record for the fastest serve ever (149mph at Indian Wells,1998). But then along came right-handed Andy Roddick who hit a 153mph serve at the Stella Artois. And just like that the world of handedness became confused.

British psychologists Charles Wood and John Aggleton disagree with Azémar’s brain-wiring theories. Instead they argue that the so-called lefty advantage is in fact an artifact of small sample sizes. In other words, given a large enough sample size, the lefty advantage largely disappears.

Wood and Aggleton concluded that lefties did not have any neurological advantage over right-handed players. Instead their advantage was both tactical and practical. Because most lefties grow up playing against righties, but not vice versa, lefties end up quite familiar with righty play but not vice versa. In other words, lefties end up with a technical advantage based on their relative unfamiliarity.

There is no rivalry in which this is better demonstrated than that of Nadal vs. Federer. It’s not that Federer has a bad backhand. On the contrary, he can do all kinds of amazingness on his backhand. But Rafa’s potent lefty forehand plays naturally crosscourt to the Federer backhand. And under its lethal pressure, Federer’s backhand can lapse into impotence. Lefties have this distinct tactical advantage in tennis.

This is probably one of the reasons why Martina Navratilova remains a popular practice partner to this day. She is a lefty player who can give her practice partners improved familiarity with lefty tactics. The right-handed Shuai Peng would do well to consider contracting Martina’s services if she has any doubts about her ability to get past lefty Melinda Czink. And maybe Petkovic should have spent a little less time coming up with silly new dances and a bit more practicing against a lefty opponent. Had she done so, she may have made it past the lefty Pervak.

But I am intrigued by the Nadal - Muller pairing. Both lefties, Nadal won the first set tie-break before rain sent them indoors. But Muller beat Nadal on this surface a couple of years ago. It’s lefty versus lefty. Do you suppose their brains are entirely confused?


happygeek said...

Very interesting topic! Enjoyed it thoroughly.

tennischick said...

thanks! glad you like.