In Paris, romancing the drop shot

The drop shot is a radical disruption of the engine that drives modern tennis - powerful, fast and hard rallies - it’s grace, softness and sleight of hand to encounter brute force. Where else but Paris to rekindle a shot that’s wrapped in romance?
Novak Djokovic plays the drop shot.(Getty Images)
Novak Djokovic plays the drop shot.(Getty Images)
Updated on Oct 08, 2020 09:09 AM IST
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Mumbai | ByRutvick Mehta

An 18-shot rally marked the start of the seventh game of a closely contested first set, split equally between Novak Djokovic and Karen Khachanov. Both players exchanged powerful forehands and neat backhand slices from the baseline.

On the 18th shot, the world No.1 made his play: for a short ball that sat up for a forehand crosscourt winner, Djokovic swung with intent and then undercut the ball instead. It lost all its momentum and gently dropped to the other side of the net. Khachanov made no attempt to even chase it.

Among all top players on the professional tour, Djokovic - a master of defence and offence from the baseline - is the least likely to attempt a drop shot from a position of strength in a rally.

But this is no ordinary French Open; in autumnal Paris, players have to contend with cold and humid conditions and one effect of that is the low bounce on offer on the red clay.

“It (drop shot) is going to be a very important shot in these conditions, because it’s just so heavy and so slow,” Djokovic said after the first round.

“The tendency of the players on clay is to go a bit further back to give themselves a little bit more time and space, because the ball bounces higher on clay than any other surface. But obviously now the bounce of the ball is significantly lower because of these conditions.”

The drop shot is a radical disruption of the engine that drives modern tennis - powerful, fast and hard rallies - it’s grace, softness and sleight of hand to encounter brute force. Where else but Paris to rekindle a shot that’s wrapped in romance?

According to data provided by Infosys, the official digital innovation partner of Roland Garros, the quantity of drop shots played in the first week of the 2020 French Open compared to the same period of the 2019 event has almost doubled. The 116 men’s singles matches played in the first week of this edition saw 982 drop shots, up from 587 from the 112 matches in 2019.

The corresponding figure for women’s singles encounters is 539, a boost from 362 last year. Include drop volleys and the volume rises further: 1,194 compared to 657 in 2019 for men; 593 compared to 394 for women.

Play it right

The tactic has been, arguably, best used so far by French wildcard Hugo Gaston, who almost sent reigning US Open champion and two-time French Open finalist Dominic Thiem packing from the fourth round.

After stunning Stan Wawrinka, the left-handed Gaston dished out a barrage of drop shots against the third-ranked Austrian - 58 in total.

“I was sprinting around 400 times to the net,” Thiem said after the match in which he needed all his experience and fighting spirit to eke out a nervy five-set victory against the world No.239.

Against players who glue themselves deep behind the baseline, like Thiem and Rafael Nadal, the strategy can be more fruitful.

Sure, when a drop shot fails - if it has too much air, or collapses into the net - it invites a disproportionate amount of ridicule from viewers.

Do it right, and you have one of the most effective winners in the game; but even those that don’t end up as straight out winners, but are executed well, can bring the opponents out of the comfort zone of the baseline and mess with their court positioning.

The contrast in the quality of its use came to the fore in Diego Schwartzman’s five-set quarter-final win over Thiem on Tuesday night.

The Argentine returned with 13 winners off the drop shot, and got Thiem, his legs already sore from his five-setter in the earlier match - to scurry to the net many more times over the course of their five-hour marathon.

Thiem, not quite a touch player, in turn made 12 unforced errors in trying the shot, none more apparent than in two consecutive points to end the match where he dropped the ball into the net standing behind the baseline.

There are others who are rediscovering the skill, like 2017 Roland Garros champion Jelena Ostapenko, who put the drop shot to good use in her second-round upset of second seed Karolina Pliskova.

“I kind of forgot that I have this good shot, because I think I do good drop shots, sometimes winners, and it’s tough for girls,” she said.

This year’s Australian Open winner Sofia Kenin, the American not entirely at home on clay, had seven drop shot winners in her fourth-round match against Fiona Ferro, including five off her double-handed backhand.

“Drop shot heaven,” Kenin was quoted as saying by The New York Times. “It definitely is the right play here this year.”

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