Simple distinctions are easy to latch onto. The typical groundstroke looks different from a drop shot: fast and long vs. slow and shallow. A groundstroke is hit hard with topspin, and the intent is (generally) to hit the ball with pace and placement so it is difficult to retrieve. A drop shot is hit softly with extreme under- and sidespin and the intent is to make the ball die very short in the court before a sprinting foe can get a racket under it. (Like a change-up in baseball, the drop shot’s power has to do with how it toys with an opponent’s expectations.) If your objective is to make sense of tennis, you’re likely to assign undue explanatory power to those visually obvious differences.
Commentators and fans alike appear to attach a disproportionate level of blame when a drop shot fails, and disproportionate praise when it succeeds. If it works, the player might be praised as a “maestro” who wields a racket like a “magic wand”; if it doesn’t, the player was being “too cute” and it was asinine to even try it. I’ve been guilty of this outsized response, too, but I’m trying to scale it back.
Here is what is true of a drop shot: It requires finesse, it is exciting as hell to watch, (perhaps because) it certainly accelerates a point to its conclusion. But that does not mean a drop shot has a lower expected value than the alternative possible shots in a given situation. It does not mean it was a foolhardy decision to make. It might even be the savviest play, given the risk-reward calculus of the point at hand. A drop shot is a shot like any other, not some rarefied category of its own, and it should be judged by the standards of any other shot: was it a good idea at the time?
Take one annoying example from last Thursday at the Italian Open. Alexander Zverev was stuck in a tight tiebreak with Kyle Edmund. Zverev’s groundstrokes, typically so solid, began to abandon him, under steady pace from Edmund. At 3-1, Zverev executed a nice three-shot sequence that sent Edmund scrambling to the deuce corner, then the ad corner, then back to the deuce corner. He then got this medium-length ball, with Edmund pushed well behind the baseline—
—and Zverev went for the drop shot. It was late in the match, he had just worked Edmund’s legs pretty hard, and it was a smart enough plan to make him run more. As it turns out, Zverev left far too much air under the ball, Edmund easily retrieved it down the line, Zverev blocked a terrible lob back, and Edmund easily struck an overhead winner.
Later in the tiebreak, this time with match point, Zverev would attempt the drop shot again. The situation was slightly different: Zverev, returning serve, played two aggressive crosscourt topspin backhands that pushed Edmund out the ad corner, earning him a slightly shorter ball. In a similar situation, he went for the drop—
—only to eat the net cord. This time, the error earned him some scoffs from the Tennis Channel commentators, who couldn’t believe he’d attempted the shot with those stakes. Just to head off the obvious: Whether or not it’s “match point” or not has no bearing on whether this is good shot selection. In any case, the decision cannot be judged after the fact; if the drop shot was a stupid idea, it was a stupid idea before the swing is even complete. It has to be assessed based on the conditions in which it was attempted. Was the opponent far from the ball’s eventual destination? was the drop shotter sitting right on top of the baseline so that his ball would not have to travel far, affording the opponent time to catch up? was the shot well-disguised enough to frustrate the opponent’s expectations? etc. Freezing both of those moments in time, it does not strike me as especially stupid that Zverev opted for the drop in either instance.
Whenever a drop shot goes awry, it always invites the smug counterfactual: What if he had just done the “normal” thing and hit the ball back crosscourt? Well, then the two players would have just continued in a neutral rally. The point goes on. No clear advantage has been gained.
The drop shot radically disrupts a rally, and if struck well, nearly guarantees you the point. Unless you’re playing to Rafa, the opponent will either miss the ball entirely, or hit a weak reply due to how low the ball is relative to the net, and the fact that they’re straining to hit the ball on the stretch. So just follow your drop shot to the net and reap its rewards. Depending on the circumstances, it may well be smarter to take a 60-percent stab at winning the point outright than to play a 90-percent safe shot right back into a coin flip of a rally.
As it turns out, Zverev might have had reason to believe there was value in ending a point suddenly. His groundstrokes had tightened up; despite being up 6-3 in the tiebreak with two serves, a string of baseline errors evened out the match. In this match—admittedly a tiny sample size—his advantage tended to slip as the rallies lengthened. Per Tennis TV post-match statistics, among all rallies that lasted fewer than five shots, Zverev won 58 to Edmund’s 47, meaning that the German had the 55 percent edge when playing a decisive shot early. Looking at the rallies that went over five shots, the two players split them evenly, 35 points each (hence the rough assumption above). Late in that match, with his baseline game faltering, it might have been in Zverev’s interest to wrap up the rallies sooner rather than later. What might have seemed an idiotic risk to a color commentator could have been a considered one, based on a player’s intuitive read of the match.
If tennis were a less statistically impoverished sport, it’d be fascinating to understand the success of the drop shot as a function of myriad variables: surface, rally length, distance covered by the opponent in the match, opponent’s distance from the net, player’s distance from the net, average depth of groundstroke. No athlete could crunch the numbers in the split second they have to make a mid-rally decision, but a sober analysis might help correct the cognitive biases likely to afflict coaches, players, analysts, and viewers alike. It’d require match charting more thorough than anything publicly available to definitively answer this question one way or the other—not to say this would be especially difficult, the courts are already covered with Hawkeye cameras—but the goal here is just to offer some corrective to the common, reactionary thinking about shot selection and risk management.
What if it turns out that the drop shot is a grossly undervalued shot at this current moment? Here’s just one possible use case: it could be used as a sporadic trick serve to unsettle players who camp out miles behind the baseline on their returns. Tennis is, in every possible sense of the word, a conservative sport. Its grueling all-year-round tour schedule hardly offers its geniuses any offseason time for tinkering with new tactics. It would be extremely useful to find a player with outrageous racket talent and nothing to lose, who could test out these various theories and advance the frontiers of the sport. Somebody get Gael Monfils on the line before the French Open gets underway.