Ten-year-old Teodor Davidov took the internet by storm a couple of weeks ago when a clip of him showcasing his ambidextrous tennis playing style circulated across social media.
The young talent from Denver, Colorado, was competing in the 12-and-under category at the Adidas Easter Bowl in San Diego, and made it all the way to the quarter-finals by exclusively hitting forehands off of both wings.
Davidov never hits backhands; instead, he switches hands mid-rally to strike both lefty and righty powerful forehands. He also alternates serving with each hand, and appears to do it all so seamlessly. Many assume that Davidov is ambidextrous off the court but his father and coach, Kalin, is the first to point out his son is a natural right-hander.
The Davidovs moved from Bulgaria to Colorado after Teo, as he is known to his family, was born and both Kalin and his wife Elena have a background in sports and holistic medicine.
Kalin played volleyball and tennis as a junior and holds a Bachelors degree in physical education and tennis coaching, and a Masters degree in high sports performance. Elena was a competitive diver and studied physical therapy. They also studied Chinese medicine, they’ve spent time in India studying yoga and ayurvedic medicine and they have a clinic in Denver, where they do neuromuscular therapy, acupuncture and several other practices.
Kalin is the mastermind behind Teo’s ambidextrous playing style but says the main reason he urged his son to use his left hand had nothing to do with tennis strategy.
“When Teo was about to turn eight years old, I decided he’s going to start playing left-handed, to affect his right hemisphere of the brain. He’s way too extroverted, too fiery, a little too imbalanced, so I just wanted to affect the right hemisphere of his brain, using the left part of his body,” Kalin told the Guardian in a video call.
“It’s driven by philosophy too; I’m into Chinese medicine, we do yin and yang balance all the time, I do balancing treatment with my needles. I’m into yoga, right and left nostril activity and all that, so balance between the left and right hemisphere is crucial.”
For the Davidovs, yoga is a way of life and Kalin made sure the family’s holistic approach extends to Teo’s lifestyle, on and off the court. Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal both say playing multiple sports helped their growth in tennis and prevented burnout, and Teo also enjoys activities such as skiing, hiking, soccer, ping pong and basketball according to his father. Away from sports, he plays the piano “a little bit” and spends time with friends.
That is welcome news, because the amount of work put in by Teo will sound alarming to some – 30 to 40 hours of training a week, both on and off the court. However, Kalin says he encourages his son to “use tennis as a form of spiritual growth”.
“The tennis is only the external part but it’s also in support of our deeper aspirations,” he added. Teo has already started to learn about manipulating the breath flow through each nostril, and can be seen checking his nostril activity during matches.
While Kalin initially introduced his son to ambidextrous tennis for philosophical reasons, the Bulgarian soon realised the numerous strategic advantages to having two forehands on court.
Besides confounding his opponents by switching hands, his father says Teo also benefits physically from playing this way.
“Now the load separates evenly when he plays with ambidextrous tennis, he uses his joints 50% less, shoulders and elbows and wrists, and even if he’s injured, he can just switch to the other hand and still have a complete workout or training session,” says Kalin.
It may seem like this is all an elaborate way to avoid hitting backhands, but Kalin says Teo has a very good backhand, and can hit it both double-handed and single-handed.
Kalin has bold ambitions when it comes to his son, and envisions a scenario where Teo can play a complete match by playing solely left-handed, right-handed, or ambidextrous with two forehands and two serves.
“I’m giving him options. He’s going to decide how he’s going to play one day,” he says.
Having that many options sounds like a dream but it also requires a tremendous amount of work. Rarely do you hear a coach advise a young child to train for eight hours a day but Kalin does not believe Teo would succeed otherwise. He feels his son is not naturally talented enough to spend less time on court and says the fitness training they do is the key ingredient to making his ambidextrous playing style work.
“No one can imagine what I’m doing, on the court, off the court, fitness. He does Olympic lifting several times a week, we go on the track and train like professional sprints. It’s not what you see on the court only,” says Kalin. “At home we have a gym, he would do short, explosive gym training like every day. It’s just an unbelievable amount of work.”
Ambidextrous tennis is a rarity on the professional tour, with very few examples making it to the upper echelons of the sport. Russia’s Evgenia Kulikovskaya was ranked in the top 100 in the early 2000s while playing tennis with two forehands, and American Luke Jensen, who won the 1993 French Open men’s doubles title, was nicknamed Dual Hand Luke for his ability to serve big with either hand, but these players are the exception rather than the rule.
Indeed, many question whether Teo would be able to thrive on the professional circuit with his style of play, but Kalin seems confident the current formula will work.
“A lot of people, a lot of coaches, they say he will not have the speed to change the racquet so fast in the future [and] to change grip. Everyone can have their own opinion, but that’s far from reality,” argues Kalin.
“The truth is they don’t how he specifically does it but he has a way of doing it in which he actually doesn’t have to change grips, his grips are ready on both sides for two forehands, so the way he changes grips is even faster than if he had a regular forehand and backhand.
“So that’s not going to be a liability at all. But even if it is, he always has backhands to go to if he needs to.”
Kalin acknowledges that Teo’s left forehand is still weaker than his right, which is why many of his opponents choose to target his left wing. He believes both sides will be equally explosive in due time and that Teo has fully bought into the process after initially feeling discouraged by the defeats he was taking while adjusting to his new approach.
“I would say his lefty forehand is like any 12-year-old kid that’s top 20 in the US, but his righty is probably the most explosive right forehand in junior tennis. So his righty is a little exceptional, his lefty is still top-level but not that exceptional yet,” Kalin adds.
It’s unclear whether more coaches will take inspiration from Teo’s methods but Kalin says ambidextrous tennis could become more common tour if players start training their non-dominant sides from an early age.
He believes the work should start no later than 12 and stresses that the volume of training required is huge – a burden many parents will not be willing to place on their child.
“Most likely it has to be a parent driving this, someone driven, a little crazy extravagant like me,” he concludes.