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Thanks to "the cool kids," the drop shot is flourishing with style and substance in a power-driven generation
Once derided as a way to bail out of a pressure-cooker rally, the dropper is now seen as a way to disrupt and reframe one.
Published Jun 07, 2022
HIGHLIGHTS: Alcaraz's first-round win in Paris
It is often said that if you wait around long enough, everything eventually comes back into style: bell-bottom jeans, vinyl, rye whiskey, German Shepherds, the afro—and, in tennis, the drop shot.
The drop shot—a slight gesture, really, better described as a “ploy” than a “stroke”—has often been maligned as cowardly. Roger Federer (ver. 1.2) once dismissed it as a “panic” shot. It was shoved aside in recent years because it lacks any component of the Holy Trinity that now drives tennis: pace, spin, power. But, after languishing in the toolbox, infrequently used, the drop shot is in the midst of a remarkable comeback as the antidote to exactly those three elements.
“People have taken a page from (Carlos) Alcaraz,” Tennis Channel analyst Andy Roddick said during the recent Italian Open, referring to the sensational newcomer’s reliance on the drop shot. “They are starting to mix in a lot more drop shots. Everyone is, like, ‘All the cool kids are doing it.’”
The statistics back up the claim. If Alcaraz is, as some say, a next generation update of Rafael Nadal, one of the new bells and whistles in this model is the 19-year old’s fondness for the drop shot. Tennis coach and ATP stat-cruncher Craig O’Shannessey tracked Alcaraz through his winning effort in the Miami Masters, tallying 50 drop shots, with Alcaraz winning the point 35 times for a 70 percent conversion rate. Alcaraz continued to rely on his deadly drop shot as he blazed his way across European clay this year.
And on the WTA side, we have Ons Jabeur to thank for breathing new life into the long-deflated stroke. She told reporters at the French Open that “a lot” of people, including coaches, always tried to dissuade her from using the drop shot. She feels it affected her confidence and even her “self-esteem.” The implied criticism led Jabeur to a watershed moment.
“I started to listen to myself more,” she said. “I started to believe in myself, in the shots that I was making, in the game style I was making.”
The drop shot as a therapeutic tool? Why not? It certainly worked for Jabeur, who used her drop shot to great effect in vaulting to a career-high ranking of No. 4 this week.
In a world where coaches as well fans (not to mention opponents) are blown away by 140 m.p.h. serves, where they live in thrall to bone-crunching serve-plus-one forehand winners that pin an opponent to the back fence, and feast on lashing, furious, table-turning defense, the puny drop shot is back by popular demand—and flourishing. The portal has been blown open by the very elements that define the contemporary game.
People have taken a page from (Carlos) Alcaraz. They are starting to mix in a lot more drop shots. Everyone is, like, ‘All the cool kids are doing it.’ Andy Roddick
In years past, the drop shot was a judiciously employed staple of high-level tennis, especially on grass and clay courts. But the pace of the game was slower then, and the pros worked on a much smaller canvas. Many players lacked the delicate touch required to rely consistently on the shot that ESPN analyst Patrick McEnroe, a drop shot visionary, simply calls “the dropper.” In times of greatest need, the risk-reward calculus just seemed unfavorable.
The evolution in equipment and fitness gradually changed all of that, first by nearly wiping out the drop shot. In a game of heightened aggression and increased velocity, who could make the time to carve out a subtle dropper? But it eventually got to the point where the plethora of pros who set up and took huge cuts from the baseline—or far beyond—made the drop shot as much of an appealing tactical choice as say, the slice backhand.
“Alcaraz has taken it to another level, but the dropper was already becoming effective again before he hit the scene,” McEnroe said. “Because of the power and pace these days, guys are so deep (back) in the court to return that short balls can be very effective—and especially so off the forehand side, where you can wind up as if you are going to hit a heavy one.”
Once sneered at as a gesture of surrender, the dropper is now embraced as a subversive weapon.
“I'm seeing a lot more of that on tour,” former US Open champion Bianca Andreescu said in Paris. “Especially [so] on the women's side. The first player that comes to mind is Ons [Jabeur], I played her. It's not fun, it's really not fun. Iga, too, it's not fun.”
Once viewed as a desperate roll of the dice, the drop shot is now viewed as legitimate counter-offensive. Once derided as a way to bail out of a pressure-cooker rally, the dropper is now seen as a way to disrupt and reframe one.
Once considered a popgun, the drop shot has morphed into a large-bore derringer.
The first player that comes to mind is Ons [Jabeur], I played her. It's not fun, it's really not fun. Iga, too, it's not fun. Bianca Andreescu
That weapon doesn’t fire a magic bullet, though. The dropper requires a dainty touch and remains the most difficult of shots to pull off—not least because it is used so situationally. Whole games may roll by without presenting a good opportunity unless, like Alcaraz, you can create one by pushing an opponent far off the court. It seems oxymoronic, but this precocious master of the drop shot also said recently that the thing that most distinguishes him from rivals, young and old, is his “aggressive” style and mindset. In other words, he sees the drop shot as an envelope-pushing, offensive tool.
Also: Jabeur was upset in the first round at Roland Garros by Magda Linette, who used her own drop shot preemptively to foil the No. 6 seed. Linette said she tried “to choose a really good moment” to go for the dropper in order to bring Jabeur forward, abandoning her defensive posture.
“I just felt like she might not like it, as well, and it really worked,” Linette said. “I think oftentimes people. . . don't like that somebody else would do [what they do] to them.”
Those who live by a rubber side may die by it, too.