At the highest level of the sport, tennis is a game of small margins. In these settings, tactical innovations can be very effective.
Whether it's Novak Djokovic often serving to the forehand on second serve or Maxime Cressy regularly storming the net to serve and volley on second serve, strategic innovations breathe new life and excitement into the game.
One recent and highly effective tactical innovation is the use of the forehand drop shot by the 2022 year-end World No. 1, Carlos Alcaraz.
Drop shots are nothing new on the tour, particularly on clay. But for players at the very top of the game, Alcaraz has employed the forehand drop shot with an unusually high frequency and effectiveness, including on hard courts.
On average, ATP players tend to deploy about 0.85 rally-ending forehand drop shots and 1.05 rally-ending backhand drop shots per match, winning about 51.5% of the points off the forehand drop shot and just 39.7% of the points off the backhand drop shot.
But not Carlos Alcaraz. The Spanish teen phenom employs the forehand drop shot a breezy 2.83 times per match, with an impressive win rate of 67.7%, and the backhand drop shot at a high 1.34 times per match, with a respectable win rate of 52.1%. This pattern is even more pronounced on clay, where Alcaraz hits 3.81 forehand drop shots per match and 1.84 backhand drop shots per match.
Unlike most players on tour, who slightly prefer backhand drop shots, Alcaraz strongly prefers the forehand drop shot (see below). During big moments in a match, Alcaraz does not shy away from this shot either. One in six of his forehand drop shots occurs on break points and points that can lead to break points, with an exceptionally high win rate of 71.4%.
Remarkably, once Alcaraz started making his way up to the Pepperstone ATP Rankings during the 2021 season, players took notice and started using the forehand drop shot much more frequently. Players who already used the forehand drop shot often (e.g., Ruud, Fritz, Sinner, Tiafoe, and Bublik) turned to it even more. Yet, unlike Alcaraz, the increased use of the forehand drop shot after Alcaraz burst on the scene has not resulted in a high win percentage; in fact it has declined from 52.4% to 48.2%.
Forehand and backhand drop shot win percentage for leading ATP Tour players.
Ultimately, no other player in the Top 100 executes the forehand drop shot as well and as often as Alcaraz. The forehand drop shot is a hard shot to pull off on a regular basis. So, what explains the success of the Alcaraz drop shot and his use of it?
The animation below illustrates some of the key ingredients of the efficiency of the Alcaraz drop shot.
First, before resorting to a forehand drop shot, Alcaraz pushes opponents far behind the baseline. Prior to deploying the drop shot, his opponents stand 14.5 meters behind the net on average (compared to 12.9 meters on average in rallies versus Alcaraz). To do this, Alcaraz uses high-speed rally shots (134 km/h on average) to push his opponents into a defensive posture just before hitting his forehand drop shot (compared to a 113-115 km/h average rally speed by Alcaraz, consistent with other top players).
Next, Alcaraz often places his forehand drop shot to the other extreme distance from that point: usually, right in front of the net on the ad side. With a well-placed shot, opponents must cover 10.9 meters on average in 2.1 seconds from the time the shot is hit to reach the Alcaraz forehand drop shot. Subtracting the average time to recognise the shot, stop, and hit it (1.0 seconds), leaves 1.1 seconds for the run itself, requiring about 9.9 meters per second speed off the gun. Although a world-class sprinter like Usain Bolt could easily accomplish this feat, it is difficult for even fast ATP players to hit a high-quality shot in response.
The rise of forehand drop shots before and after the emergence of Alcaraz among the Top 100 players (excluding Alcaraz).
Covering this distance is even more difficult because Alcaraz is a master at hiding his forehand drop shot. Alcaraz disguises it so well that his average opponent moves back when they see Alcaraz raise his racquet– as if he is about to hit another hard, deep shot – creating a lag time between Alcaraz’s racquet contact and his opponents beginning to move that is rarely seen. Moreover, Alcaraz sets up forehand drop shots not only with his deuce side forehand but also mixes in plenty of run-around forehand drop shots, and at all different points in the rally, including his serve + 1 shot. Combining all these features, Alcaraz’s forehand drop shot is the deadliest in the game.
Editor's Note: This is the second in a three-part series in which Golden Set Analytics and TDI strive to provide a better understanding of the dynamics of tennis for players, coaches, fans and administrators.