Left Or Right

Kauffman A Double Threat For EMHS

Posted: May 7, 2013

HARRISONBURG — It’s hard for Stephen Kauffman to pick his dominant hand. He uses both, but there’s no logic to it.

The Eastern Mennonite High School sophomore throws a baseball with his left hand but a Frisbee with his right. He writes with his right hand but bowls with his left. If he were to punch someone, that would be left-handed, but if he were to shoot pool, that would be right-handed.

And when he plays tennis?

Well, he actually doesn’t have to make a choice there. He can use either hand, and that, according to EMHS coach Luke Schrock-Hurst, is a tremendous advantage.

“It opens all kinds of chances because he can get to more, obviously,” the seventh-year coach said Monday afternoon. “He’s already very fast and quick, which is part of why he enjoys the net. He can just get to more stuff than the average backhander can because of that reach.” Kauffman, who turns 16 today, has no backhand, but he also doesn’t need one. His tennis ambidexterity negates the need.

To get to balls traditionally returned with a backhand, Kauffman just switches hands with what he described as a “mini toss” of the racket. He and his coach both said there’s little-to-no drop-off between the two hands, and the unorthodox playing style — also practiced notably by Luke Jensen, who won the doubles title with his brother, Murphy, at the 1993 French Open — helped earn Kauffman a late-season promotion from EMHS’s No. 6 slot to No. 3.

During the regular season, Kauffman went 6-7, but he was 5-4 at the No. 6 slot. It’s also just his second year playing tennis and first on the varsity squad after playing JV last season as a freshman.

Now, he’s trying to help the Flames (6-7 overall, 6-3 in the Virginia Independent Conference) reach the Virginia Independent Schools Athletic Association Division II tournament. If they do, it will be the seventh time under Schrock-Hurst that EMHS, which lost four of its top six players last season, has made the eight-team state playoff.

Weather permitting, the VIC tournament starts today when the fourth-seeded Flames host No. 5 Liberty Christian Academy — which EMHS beat 6-3 during the regular season — at 4:30 p.m. in the quarterfinals. Kauffman will be there and, as always, sans backhand.

He said his style developed because his backhand was “pretty bad.” Already prone to ambidexterity, Kauffman said switching racket hands was easier.

“It just felt natural,” said Kauffman, a 5-foot-10, 150-pounder with a love of rap music he’s tried (unsuccessfully) to share with his teammates on bus rides. “I can do it almost equally well with both hands.”

But, as it is with throwing, eating or punching, some hands are better at certain things. While he can volley with either hand, Kauffman said he gets more power and more top spin with his right. He also uses his right almost exclusively at the net because, he said, there’s less time to react and he doesn’t want to waste time moving the racket between hands. He also goes right-handed at the net because he’s just a bit quicker with his right.

Sometimes, though, the hand choice seems arbitrary. Despite getting more power and top spin with his right hand, he hits overhead shots with his left. He also serves with his left — but there is at least some logic to that.

A left-handed serve has different spin off the racket than a right-handed serve. Left-handers also are rare, giving Kauffman another advantage because, not only do players rarely (if ever) encounter an ambidextrous player, they rarely encounter a left-handed serve.

“I’m pretty proud of it. It’s pretty solid for a second-year player,” Kauffman said. “The lefty spin really tricks people because it spins the opposite way, so it spins to most people’s backhand and makes them miss it a lot. I’m starting to feel more confident in it.”

Kauffman said that if there is a difference in strength between his hands, it’s marginal.

 He said his ground strokes and control — such as if he’s trying to hit a winner down the line — are about equal. So is the frustration to opponents. Exploiting a backhand is a favorite tennis tactic. It doesn’t work with Kauffman.

Schrock-Hurst — who described his reaction to Kauffman’s ambidexterity as “sheer delight” — said his primary concern with Kauffman’s style is whether the player can get a correct grip on the racket after changing hands. But, really, it’s not that big a deal.

“I don’t see the point of trying to teach him a backhand,” Schrock-Hurst said.

And there is some logic to that.

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