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

Not since Michael Chang’s underarm service to Ivan Lendl has the red clay on cheekiness been celebrated as much as this past month. Spanish teen sensation Carlos Alcaraz has made a habit of stunning 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 helped them reach the balls that seemed to mysteriously lose bounce on the net.

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

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

Pundits talk about a combination of reasons that helps Alcaraz to fox the fastest and fastest 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 shape of the last split-second change and the pull-off of the well-disguised shot of the grip have conspired to oppose psyche. It has also made 19-year-old break records, beat legends and counted among the favors 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’s tough even for 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 the way behind the baseline is deep but Zverev is still in a position to rule the rally. This is 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 of 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 his opponent over the ball.

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 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 the second

Early in the first set, Alcaraz attempts his favourite drop shot. A fresh Djokovic reads it. He reacts the ball and wins the point with smart net play. Having lost the first set, Alcaraz is 4-4 at a point away from getting broken. “Well played” and “your time will come” consolations will pour in soon, it seems. These are the points when lesser players play percentage tennis. Not the boy seen as the next big thing in the world tennis. Now Djokovic is ready for a long baseline rally. He is charged, running round and holding his racket tight to strike. In an intense rally of the middle, 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 closer 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, changing heights, 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. The flight should be such that the final dip should be close to the net on the other side.

Alcaraz has proven that he has the skill and the big-match temperament. At the end of the Madrid Open, he showed that he was just a kid and wanted to treat the world 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 I have done something wrong “.

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