Drop Shots and How Carlos Alcaraz Uses Them
Great champions often take our sport to a higher level. They do that simply by playing better than anyone ever has on a given surface, such as Rafael Nadal on clay, Roger Federer on grass, or Novak Djokovic on hard courts.
The legends also advance tennis by adding a new dimension, such as Bjorn Borg, who revolutionized tennis by hitting with heavy topspin on both his Western forehand and two-handed backhand. Even bigger game changers, Serena and Venus Williams became the first women to combine explosive shot power with mercurial running speed.
Those who worried about the state of men’s tennis after the Big Three declined or retired can rest easy thanks to a Spanish teenager. Carlos Alcaraz combines elements of all their games, resulting in stunning tactical creativity.
What makes Alcaraz different from past champions? “He has the best combination of raw power and touch I’ve ever seen,” noted all-time great Martina Navratilova, after Carlos won the 2022 Miami Open.
You can watch exactly how Alcaraz parlays these two extremes to tactical perfection on YouTube at https://youtu.be/DziRiB2vvSc.
Here are my observations and conclusions about drop shots in general and the Alcaraz drop shot in particular.
1. About 85% of Carlos’ drop shots are forehand, even when he’s near the backhand corner.
2. That huge disparity is because the mph difference between Alcaraz’s forehand and his forehand drop shot is greater than his backhand and backhand drop shot, and also because his opponent is often out of position and/or on his back foot when he whacks a powerful forehand.
3. However, if Carlos were to hit a backhand drop shot from the same spot, he’d create more backspin—the most critical aspect of a drop shot—and also would be in a better position for his opponent’s counter to his drop shot.
4. When Alcaraz hits his super-wide kick serve from the backhand corner of the ad court, even a mediocre drop shot gets the job done because his opponent is usually 40-60 feet away from the bounce point of the drop shot.
5. Interestingly, if you measure the distance between the first and second bounces of some of Carlos’s drop shots, it is way too much or long.
6. That’s because many of Alcaraz’s drop shots are not full-fledged drop shots. They are hybrids—a combination of a drop shot and a sharply angled slice, but without much backspin.
7. These hybrid shots won’t work unless the placement is excellent (laterally) and there is sufficient sidespin to pull his opponent very near or into the alley.
8. Put differently, that is one reason down-the-line drop shots are superior to cross-court drop shots—and they’re even better with sidespin. Jessica Pegula shows off her masterful underspin-sidespin touch with drop shots that land a foot or two from the sideline and swerve wickedly into the alley. Second, down-the-line drop shots are better because the ball is in the air for significantly less time. Third, down-the-line drop shots are better because they rarely land in the middle of the court laterally—which is very important because you want your opponent out of position to hit volleys or to sprint back for overheads.
9. The best drop shots have so much backspin that they bounce almost vertically—or even a bit backward. Carlos’s drop shots seldom do that.
10. However, it's much easier to create that much backspin with down-the-line drop shots.
11. Some so-called “drop shots” are not drop shots or even hybrids. These shots are hit from near the net and the alley and land near the net and the opponent’s alley. They are actually extremely acute angles that are hit around 50 mph—much faster than the 30-35 mph of drop shots—and with much less underspin.
12. Most of the time, Alcaraz’s disguise is excellent. That said, his opponents and their coaches will no doubt study his matches in person and on YouTube to learn more about Carlos’s shot patterns and tendencies. As they adjust, so will Alcaraz in this fascinating battle of wits.
13. But the muscular Spaniard sometimes hits drop shots at the wrong time, usually when A) he’s out of position and B) his previous shot isn’t offensive enough. His overconfidence and inexperience can get him in trouble here.
14. All things considered, Carlos is still the smartest teenage tactician since precocious Martina Hingis 25 years ago.
Drop shots are enjoying a crowd-pleasing resurgence this decade on both the men’s and women’s tours. Imitation is the highest form of flattery, and the pros are copying Alcaraz’s unique use of them. Increasingly, women are perfecting their kick serves, and a handful are already experimenting with combining them with drop shots. As Andrea Petkovic, the astute Tennis Channel analyst, said during the current Madrid Open, “Tennis is a game of geometry.”
That's why I wrote instruction articles in "The Fein Points of Tennis" about drop-shot technique, drop-shot tactics, and the geometry of tennis.
Are drop shots in your repertoire?