The Questionable Wisdom of the Drop Shot

More than any other shot in tennis, the drop shot can make the player who hits it look either brilliant or idiotic.  The line separating the two is rarely so fine.

When we combine the brilliance and the idiocy, how does the drop shot measure up?  How much does a player gain or lose with frequent use of the dropper?

In the final match of last week’s Challenger Tour Finals between Alejandro Gonzalez and Filippo Volandri, Volandri hit a whopping 23 drop shots–almost one per game (click the “Shot Types” links).  Volandri is a seasoned pro with an excellent sense of clay court tactics, so he avoided the clunkiest drop shot misses–only three of the 23 were errors.  Yet despite facing an opponent who prefers to camp out well behind the baseline, the Italian won only 11 of the 23 points.  Almost half the time the drop shot landed in the court, Gonzalez chased it down, got a return in play, and went on to win the point.

Volandri’s performance in the final wasn’t an anomaly.  In the semifinal against Teymuraz Gabashvili, he attempted 17 drop shots and won only nine of those points.  The other aggressive drop-shotter at the CTF, Oleksandr Nedovyesov, hit 19 drop shots against Gabashvili in a round-robin match.  Even though eight of those 19 drop shots were winners, Nedovyesov lost ten of the ensuing points.

With my shot-by-shot analyses of five matches from last week’s event in Sao Paulo, we can take a somewhat broader look at drop shot tactics and their results.  While this subset may not be representative of all clay-court tennis (for one thing, the altitude makes it a bit easier to chase down a dropper), the aggregate numbers raise some questions about the wisdom of the drop-shot tactic.

As a whole, the six players who took part in these five matches hit 95 drop shots.  16 (16.8%) of them were unforced errors, compared to an overall rate of about 1 unforced error per 10 rallying shots.  29 (30.5%) were outright winners, while another five induced forced errors, immediately ending the point.  That leaves 45 points (47.4%) in which the opponent got the ball back in play.  Of those, the dropshotter won only 19 (42.2%).

Taken together, the results aren’t bad.  The player who hit the drop shot won 53 (55.8%) of the points, and 67.1% of the points when the drop shot landed in play.

There is a noticeable difference, however, in the success rates of the frequent dropshotters (Voladri and Nedovyesov) compared to those of the other four players, who averaged fewer than four drop shots per match.  While the players of what I’ll call the “infrequent group”–Gabashvili, Gonzalez, Guilherme Clezar, and Jesse Huta Galung–may not be as practiced in the art, it is likely that they chose their moments much more carefully, hitting drop shots when the tactic was obvious.

The infrequent group hit 22 drop shots, missing only two.  Not only did nine go for winners, but the overall results were positive as well, as they won 14 (63.6%) of those points.

Remove the infrequent group from the overall numbers, and the aggressive dropshotters won a mere 53.4% of points in which they used the tactic.

53.4% isn’t awful–if you win 53.4% of the points in a match, you almost always win.  However, the type of point in which the drop shot makes sense isn’t an average point.  Usually the dropshotter has better court position than his opponent, who may be off-balance or far behind the baseline.  This isn’t always the case, especially when the dropshotter is simply trying to end the point, or when his brain stops working.  But in the majority of cases, the dropshotter has such an advantage in court position, it seems likely that a more common tactic–such as an aggressive groundstroke, perhaps followed by a net approach–would do better.

Another consideration goes beyond the outcome of a specific point.  A player who fails to run down a drop shot will probably remember that lost point for a game or two and play a little closer to the baseline, maybe making himself less comfortable in the process.  It’s possible that the long-term effect gives an advantage to the player who regularly uses the tactic.

But somewhere between Gonzalez’s four drop shots on Sunday and Volandri’s 23, the marginal advantage of each additional dropper must wear off.  I find it hard to imagine that one drop shot per game has any more of a long-term strategic effect than one drop shot per three games.  If that’s true, Volandri hit 13 or 14 more drop shots than required.  Thus, in about 8% of Sunday’s 162 points, he took an advantageous court position and wasted it on an even-odds shot.

More evidence will surely give us a fuller picture of drop-shot tactics on clay courts.  We may be able to determine whether there is a post-dropper “hangover effect” and if so, how many drop shots are required to reap the benefits.  Until then, it’s worth considering whether drop shots are worth the risk, especially when there may be such a high-percentage alternative.