I thought I had seen it all on the tennis court until I watched Carlos Alcaraz at the US Open on Monday.
No, I’m referring to the speed and punch of his forehand. I’m talking about his outrageous creativity: While Alcaraz was working the net early in the match, Matteo Arnaldi lifted a lob over the Spaniard’s head. Alcaraz stopped, turned his back to the net, jumped, and reached high to unleash a rare overhead backhand, which most pros attempt to hit as hard with a snap as they can muster.
Alcaraz is not the most pros. Instead of a snap, he intended to kill his stroke, sending the ball slightly and with a curve so it landed not far from the net.
A backhand, overhead drop shot winner in front of a packed house at Arthur Ashe Stadium? Who does that?
It was a small moment in the middle of her 6-3, 6-3, 6-4 win, but it was beautiful, jaw-dropping and telling all at once.
In this age of power tennis — all players buff-bodied, every racket now stiff — Alcaraz was among the players who brought to life the softest, slowest change-of-pace stroke of them all: the drop shot, aka the marshmallow, aka the dropper.
Today’s players continue to hit harder than ever, as those who watched Alcaraz on Monday can attest. But to win big — as in, emerging-successful-in-Flushing-Meadows big — nuance is critical.
Increasingly, top tennis players are deploying drop shots, which until recently were out of favor.
“Oh yes, we see more now,” said Jose Higueras, who coached Michael Chang, Jim Courier and Roger Federer to major titles, as we watched the match from the stands lining Court 11 last week. He added: “You have to use the whole court, every part of it. Soft little shots do that. People think it’s defensive, but it’s actually offensive.
The dropper is the equivalent of a changeup pitch in baseball. It’s all about disguise and surprise. Its best practitioners — think Alcaraz, Novak Djokovic and Ons Jabeur in the women’s game — often finish as if they’re about to hit a powerful groundstroke or a volley aimed at the baseline.
But that was a ruse. The ball does not remove their strings. It fell gently, with a gentle lift that bowed slightly before starting a raindrop over the net.
Drop shots beg the question. “Hey, you, camped out there on the baseline, waiting for another two-handed backhand ripper. Are you expecting me?”
“Can you change direction, sprint and catch me before I bounce twice?”
There was a time in the professional ranks — think the era after John McEnroe’s dominance, through the power game of the 1990s and early 2000s — when the marshmallow of tennis was an afterthought. Once players pull it off, they stick to percentages, rarely hitting it from the baseline or the big, high-tension points.
The change comes as top tennis players increasingly gravitate from Europe, and particularly Spain, where they grew up playing on clay, a surface that rewards a deft touch.
Rafael Nadal fully embraces the drop shot. Andy Murray, who trained in Spain as a junior, became a master.
But it was Higueras’ pass on Federer that broke the dam. In 2008, when Federer hired the Spaniard to help take his game to a new level, Higueras immediately noticed that his new student rarely used the dropper, preferring instead to rely on his big forehand.
Higueras argued that adding softness to the mix would bring spice to the finish in Federer’s stunning game. Mixing in more drop shots will force the competition to defend shots in front of the baseline – no longer camping out.
Federer went on to win seven major titles after Higueras’ arrangement, including, in 2009, his only French Open.
After Federer accepted the changeup, a cascade of players followed on the men’s and women’s tours. Every year since then, the use of the drop shot seems to become part of the game.
“There are players who use it out of desperation,” Grigor Dimitrov, the veteran of the Bulgarian ATP Tour, said last week. “There are players who use it to change the rhythm. There are players who use it to get free points and players who use it to get to the net.”
So, have we reached peak drop shot?
“I think we’ll see more of it,” he said.
He’s not the only one. Martina Navratilova predicted that more pros will follow Alcaraz’s lead. “I think he’s going to have an impact on the game,” he said in March, “with players really seeing, ‘I can’t just hit amazing forehands and backhands, I have to be an all-court player, I have to I have to have a handle, I have to be brave, etc.’”
In each match, the No. 1-ranked Alcaraz would continue to wind up for a forehand, see his opponent prepare behind the baseline for a Mach 10 ball, and then, at the last nanosecond, slow his swing, slowly cup the ball, and send it plopping into the net at the speed of a wayward butterfly.
Alcaraz threw the percentage playbook out the window. He will hit drop shots at any turn, whether he is stationed near the baseline or at the net, whether a match is in the early waning stages or at its most tense moment.
When asked about the shot, Alcaraz recalled the joy of hitting it and fooling his opponent. What goes through his mind after hitting the perfect dropper?
“It feels good,” he said, smiling broadly. “I mean, I feel like I have something else to do!”