It’s the clay court season.
Temperatures soar at many of the picturesque stops along the WTA’s Road to Singapore and ATP’s Race to London. The very nature of the red clay upon which these tournaments are held makes a professional tennis player’s job all the more trying.
Traditional terre battue is made from crushed brick — as opposed to the dusted stone used on the green clay turfs sparsely found on Tour — and provides a distinct challenge for players not raised on it. Just ask America.
Although the altitude offered by the Mutua Madrid Open ostensibly allows for playing conditions quicker than what is typical, clay courts are ultimately defined by their slow speed and high bounce.
A shot loses quite a bit of pace when they bounce, and the resistance of the gritty and dusty red surface pushes them higher than usual. For players who prefer the shorter rallies and lower contact points afforded on grass courts and indoor hard courts, adjusting to clay demands a change in both tactics and mentality.
Caroline Wozniacki, who is having her best season on the surface in over three years, has credited a change of tactics — along with a new-found willingness to slide — to her 2015 clay court regenesis, which has seen her reach the final in Stuttgart the and quarterfinals in Madrid.
“We’ve been working so hard in Miami and kind of put the ground base and gotten a few pointers and learned a little bit more how to slide on the clay and mixing up the pace and all these things. I think that’s really helped me going into this clay season.”
Mixing up the pace, as Wozniacki notes, is an essential aspect of using the court’s unique characteristics to one’s advantage. While speedily paced shots will bounce high off the surface, those with little pace will essentially “die,” meaning one of the most surprisingly deadly weapons a player can have is their drop shot.
Drop shots are difficult shots, but have a greater reward to offset the risk on clay courts. If hit with enough back spin, the shot’s bounce will be almost non-existent, quickly ending the kinds of long and brutally exhausting rallies that characterize clay court tennis.
This week on #SaturdayNightShots, we’ll be looking at the drop shot dukes and dames of professional tennis, counting down the top five drop shotters on both the ATP and WTA tours.
Top Five Drop Shot Dukes
5. Andy Murray
The men’s game often lends itself to a vastly different set of tactics than the women’s. Players tend to play with more top spin, making drop shots even more difficult to execute. Yet the former Wimbledon champion possesses the very touch and disguise to make his drop shots among the best. His droppers are hit deftly off both wings and have been used to effectively turn defense into offense as a result of his exceptional speed and court coverage.
4. Jerzy Janowicz
I’m not sure there’s a player out there with less patience than Janowicz. The 6’8” Pole has every tennis skill in the book, but rarely the mentality to piece them together. His drop shots are well placed and have plenty of backspin, but he can be guilty of over-playing the shot at times. It remains an effective tactic, however, as it keeps his competition constantly guessing whether or not he’ll hit something delicate or devastating from the baseline.
3. Alex Dolgopolov
Gifted with one of the most unconventional styles that the game has ever seen, Dolgopolov employs all kinds of spin and variety to outmaneuver his opponents. His swings are so short and abbreviated that it’s difficult to discern when he’s hitting a drop shot instead of a slice, and he laces his droppers with a ton of back spin, making them difficult to manage — particularly on clay.
2. Novak Djokovic
The current World No. 1 has arguably one of the greatest backhands of all time — from returning serve to shot placement to sheer power — and the drop shot is an essential aspect of its legendary status. Djokovic’s backhand backswing is behind his body, hiding the grip change required for the shot. Drop shots on this wing are therefore disguised impeccably, allowing him to play them and facilitate a venture towards the net, or as a way to end a point against an opponent defending beyond the baseline.
All that and he can hit a mean one off his forehand too, allowing him to execute the drop shot/lob combination frequently and near faultlessly.
1. Roger Federer
It comes as no surprise that one of the greatest players of all time has the greatest drop shot today. Off forehands and backhands, you’ll find Federer play some of the most tactically efficient drop shots in the game, both with perfect balance of spin and placement to elegantly compliment his attacking game. He can also play the “fake out” dropper, instead hitting slice approach shots with his adjusted grip.
Honorable mention: Rafael Nadal.
While Nadal’s ridiculous success on clay has come on the back of insane athleticism and explosive movement, the occasional drop shot has been featured once he gets on the offense. While he doesn’t play it often, his forays to net are often punctuated with immaculate drop volleys — which are no easier for his already overwhelmed opponents to deal with.
Top Five Drop Shot Dames
5. Maria Sharapova
It might be hard to believe that the Russian has made this list given her track record of non-versatility. But the World No. 3 has pulled off the rare feat of implementing an effective late-career a drop shot into her power game. While they are rarely the prettiest shots in terms of stroke production, her disguise is noteworthy. After all, the last thing that players expect from one of the game’s hardest hitters is a shot landing a foot away from the net.
4. Petra Kvitova
Kvitova is another huge hitter, albeit one with a much more natural drop shot. The reigning Wimbledon champion can play the shot comfortably off both her backhand and forehand wings, and often catches opponents scrambling at the back of the court, completely off-guard. The top Czech’s forehand drop shot is particularly well disguised — the one she hit in her Madrid semifinal paved the way towards a stunning upset over World No. 1, Serena Williams.
3. Victoria Azarenka
Azarenka once described the use of slices and drop shots simply as a result of her “being French,” likely in reference to the versatility that so many flashy French players seem to have. Though she no longer works with Frenchman Sam Sumyk, her drop shots are still exceptionally well-executed. Particularly off the backhand wing, Azarenka’s backswing is positively Djokovician, in that it is also far behind her body, allowing her to change her grip at the very last second to hit perfectly placed drop shots to compliment her power game.
2. Agniezka Radwanska
There’s no denying that Radwanska is one of the most versatile players in the game. As she lacks the power that typically brings a WTA challenger into elite status, she relies on her anticipation and feathery racquet work to get her the win. Her drop shot is quite aesthetically appealing, and while not as well disguised as the No. 1 on this list, she can place her drop shots anywhere on court, even sharing Federer’s ability to “fake-out” her opponents with a drop shot griped slice instead.
1. Sara Errani
Clay court specialist Sara Errani tops the list of Drop Shot Damses. Her game is at its best on clay, a surface that allows her to attack with loopy forehands and defend with flawless movement.
And, of course hit some of the most lethal drop shots in the game.
Disguise, touch and variety: Errani can do it all. Just like Radwanska, she tends to lack power in many match-ups, but survives on the back of her guile and court sense.
Honorable mention: Serena Williams. Like Kvitova and Sharapova, the World No. 1 hits the ball so hard that the occasional drop shot is the last thing an opponent expects. She rarely hits them on her backhand wing, but the moments of feathery touch off her forehand are pure quality.
Any drop shots we missed? Sound off in the comments!