Alcaraz’s drop shot: When audacity meets playfulness and embarrasses legends

Alcaraz’s drop shot: When audacity meets playfulness and embarrasses legends

Not since Michael Chang’s underarm serve to Ivan Lendl has cheekiness on red clay been as celebrated as this past month. Spanish teen sensation Carlos Alcaraz has made a habit of stunning world tennis’ leading lights with his well-disguised delicate drop shots.

Among those who have scampered up the court in a hurry, only to see the ball float across the net, land inside the service box, bounce a couple of times and roll under their racquets are Novak Djokovic, Rafael Nadal and Alexander Zverev. Gymnast-like flexibility, well-sculpted sprinter’s legs or those long jumper’s limbs haven’t helped them reach the balls that seem to mysteriously lose bounce on crossing the net.

At times, when Alcaraz has decided to dramatically drop the pace of his stroke, even the game’s best hustler, aka Nadal, and the ultimate retriever, read Djokovic, have frozen on the baseline, uncharacteristically giving up on the point. Years on court have refined their judgement, the minds of the masters are programmed to quickly calculate the probability of them taking the ball at one bounce.

This last week in Madrid, there have been points in a rally when after watching the lazily floating ball from the other side, Djokovic and Nadal have realised the futility of their journey up to the net. Instead of sprinting ahead, as they have done for decades now, they put their head down and gulped down the embarrassment in the din of the crowd applauding the audacity of young Alcaraz.

Pundits speak about a combination of reasons that helps Alcaraz to fox the fastest and sharpest of tennis players with his surprise drop shots. The growing reputation of his blistering shots that hit the lines, his early aggression in matches and the last split-second change of shape and grip to pull off the well-disguised shot have conspired to psyche opponents. It has also made the 19-year-old break records, beat legends and be counted among the favourites for the French Open starting later this month.

Such is the strength, and the dread, of his monstrous strikes that the rivals spent most of the match well behind the baseline. And since there are no obvious clues to the drop shots he conjures, it is tough even for the likes of Djokovic and Nadal to read them.

Prime examples

Here are three drop-shots from Madrid 2022 that went a long way in building the Alcaraz hype.

Against Zverev (final):

Alcaraz leads 1-0 and 2-1 in the second set

Alcaraz gets a short ball on the backhand, he has time to move around and take it on the forehand. With enough time to position himself, he rips the ball down the line giving Zverev no chance to reach it. At 3-1, the Spanish star is a point away from breaking Zverev again. But the German comes up with a heavy serve. The return from way behind the baseline is deep but Zverev is still in a position to rule the rally. It’s an important point. Probably conscious of the consequences, Zverev plays safe. The ball lands in mid-court, Alcaraz hits the ball close to the forehand corner. Zverev is out of position, Alcaraz pulls out his drop. Zverev manages to reach the ball but it’s futile. He is too close to the net and his return is weak. Like a senior pro playing with kids on weekends, Alcaraz lobs the ball over his opponent.

Against Nadal:

Alcaraz leads 4-2 (15-15)

Nadal comes up with a strong serve which kicks up. It looks like the senior Spainard will be dictating the rally. Alcaraz hits a powerful forehand but it lacks depth. Nadal hits a baseline hugging ball to his opponent’s backhand. The young challenger is out of position, he somehow hits the ball on half-volley and sends it across the nets. Nadal has a chance to finish the rally but misses the opportunity. Alcaraz now pushes Nadal further down the baseline, it’s a perfect set-up for a drop. Can he pull the difficult shot from his backhand too? Yes, he does. With a slight slice, he gives just enough backspin to pull the ball back. Nadal is caught unawares, and takes a slow start to reach the ball. It proves to be his folly.

Against Djokovic:

Alcaraz trails 1-0, and 40-30 at 4-4 in second

Early in the first set, Alcaraz attempts his favourite drop shot. A fresh Djokovic reads it. He reaches the ball and wins the point with smart net play. Having lost the first set, Alcaraz at 4-4 is a point away from getting broken. “Well played” and “Your time will come” consolations would soon pour in, it seems. These are the points when lesser players play percentage tennis. Not the boy seen as the next big thing in world tennis. Now Djokovic is ready for a long baseline rally. He is charged, running round and holding his racket tight to strike. In the middle of an intense rally, the Serb didn’t expect the teenager to suddenly, on his backhand, while standing near the service mark, to come up with a drop. Alcaraz floats one close to the net on Djokovic’s backhand. He gives up before reaching the service line. The Madrid crowd is waving flags, they have sighted Nadal’s heir apparent.

Child’s play

Among the hardest of shots to master, the insertion of a drop in a rally needs finesse, bravado and a bit of child-like playfulness. It’s a shot where a player needs to suddenly give a big tweak and significantly change the parabolic path of the ball. In all regular shots, in varying heights, the ball peaks at the nets and dips on the rival’s side of the court. For a perfect drop shot, the almost entire parabola is on the hitter’s side of the court. Such should be the flight that the final dip should be as close to the net on the other side.

Alcaraz has proved that he has the skill and big-match temperament. At the end of the Madrid Open, he showed that he was just a kid and wanted the world to treat him like one. At the post-match interview, he would say: “I don’t like being called Carlos. I like Carlitos or Charlie. Honestly, Carlos seems very serious to me, and it seems that I have done something wrong”.

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