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Weapon Wednesday: Alcaraz, Jabeur surprise and disguise with the drop shot
With the pair proving its worth in the pros, the pace-changing ploy is a clever way to capture a point—if you know how to hit it, and when to do it.
Published Aug 24, 2022
FLASHBACK: Highlights from Alcaraz's Madrid final win over Zverev
It’s not as if the drop shot has been absent as a weapon in professional tennis players’ arsenals. But you could be excused for thinking that if you watched the pros at pretty much any point between Indian Wells and Wimbledon this year. During this interval, viewers were all but guaranteed to see the ATP’s Carlos Alcaraz or the WTA’s Ons Jabeur in the later rounds of a tournament. From March to mid-July, Alcaraz went 27–4 with three titles and a semifinal finish; Jabeur went 30–7 with two titles and three runner-ups, including at Wimbledon.
With the Spaniard and the Tunisian making their way through draws with almost comic regularity, the wrongly maligned and occasionally forgotten drop shot—one of their favorite shots—was given the spotlight like never before.
“Why did it take so long to come back?” said Chris Evert on ESPN. “It was always such a great shot!” This weapon of choice was used more frequently and more effectively than ever, no matter what tour you were watching. Alcaraz and Jabeur just hit it better than anyone else. “It’s so obvious why his works so well,” Hall of Famer Tracy Austin says of Alcaraz’s dropper. “With that massive forehand, he is constantly pushing opponents back. Then the forecourt becomes open. He has the finesse, and he’s great at recognizing when the right time is to use the drop. “It’s such a threat.”
Alcaraz’s spring and summer surge into the Top 10 was accelerated on the strength of his fastballs from both wings. To borrow another baseball term, his drop shot is a lethal changeup: something opponents must guard against but never get comfortable defending. Alcaraz’s coveted versatility adds to its effectiveness. “He disguises it well—he uses the backhand and the forehand,” notes Austin. “So many players favor one side with their drop shot.”
There’s versatility, and then there’s variety, the hallmark of Jabeur’s drop-shot barrage. The 27-year-old simply enjoys hitting this delicate shot so much that the more she tries it, the more successful it seems to become. “She’s the drop shot queen,” says Austin. “You’re never sure what’s coming. You never get the same ball twice from her. “She’s an outlier—she’s special.”
It’s a testament to Jabeur’s skill that even though opponents know her drop shot is coming at some point— much like that Alcaraz change-up—it still manages to surprise them. That’s because Jabeur uses the entire court as her drop-shot canvas. (Alcaraz, in comparison, opts for a more north-south assessment of when to deploy his dropper.) This is a direct result of Jabeur’s mastery of the game’s “secondary shots,” as Austin puts it. The history-making pro doesn’t allow an opponent to get settled into expecting the same pace and consistent ball throughout a match. That’s a goal for any tennis player can strive for, especially one that would like to add the drop shot to their arsenal.
As Alcaraz and Jabeur are showing, the drop shot works well in the pros, but it is particularly smart against lesser movers in the recreational game. But like anything else in tennis, this shot takes time to properly develop.
“Because it’s a feel shot, like a backhand slice, there’s almost nobody that masters it immediately,” says Austin. “You’ve got to hit a lot of them.” And that’s exactly what you’ll be doing, no matter which of Tracy’s drop-shot drills you do:
If you have a hitting partner… play mini tennis. Play in opposing service boxes, or use both boxes on each side of the net. If your skill levels permit, hit every ball with a slice, which makes for great drop shot practice. Points can last as few as a couple shots and, at higher skill levels, 20 shots or more. Use “soft hands to work and manipulate the ball,” says Austin. When hitting a drop shot, “you can’t hold the racquet like a vise grip.”
If you’re by yourself…the backboard is your friend. Stand about 10 feet away and hit slices. “If you hit it too hard, what happens?” asks Austin. “It comes back too hard.” The best part about the wall is the instant feedback you’ll receive. “You’re working on the pace of the ball, trying to get that rhythm and consistency. One shot, you know whether you’re doing it well.”
If you have a coach…have him or her feed you ball after ball. This one’s as simple—and as effective— as it sounds. “Hit 50 drop shots in a row,” says Austin, “and by the 50th, you’ll feel more confident than when you hit the first.”
He has the finesse, and he’s great at recognizing when the right time is to use the drop. “It’s such a threat. Tracy Austin on Carlos Alcaraz
In terms of court positioning, you’ll usually want to hit a drop shot on or, ideally, inside the baseline, because of the resulting ball flight. When one player is forward, the opponent typically must compensate by taking a more defensive position well behind the baseline. While this gives the opponent more time to react to an offensive shot hit from the mid-court, the drop shot helps diffuse that advantage. On the other hand, hitting one from behind the baseline gives the opponent more time to reach the ball—as it is airborne longer—and increases your degree of difficulty.
If you’re hitting a forehand drop shot, a subtle, last-second change to an Eastern grip from a semi-Western grip is the best approach. But the adjustment can be so severe and noticeable that it’s difficult to disguise— better to use the backhand more.
“An opponent may think, when the racquet is pulled up, that’s a backhand slice,” says Austin. “At the last second, cut under it, and it’s a drop shot.”
Timing is everything with the drop shot—and its time is now.