It is often said in reference to sport that defence is the best form of attack, a phrase that on the face of it means very little and in practice often does not make any sense. In tennis, however, defensive skills have become so impressive that the days of the out-and-out attacker winning the sport’s biggest events are now a mere memory.
It’s now 20 years since Stefan Edberg served and volleyed, on both first and second serve, to the last of his six grand slam titles and almost 30 since John McEnroe won the last of his seven. Though Wimbledon remained the domain of the big server and net player until 2001, tennis has changed so much that serving and volleying is a risk and often used more as a shock tactic than a game-style.
Like any sport, tennis evolves and we now have a generation of baseline brutes, supreme athletes who love nothing more than pounding the ball from the back, waiting for the easy ball before they even dream of coming to the net. But the very best players are beginning to realise that simple, albeit stunning, baseline play is not going to be enough, at least in the long run.
Anyone who has sat through the epic matches between Novak Djokovic, Andy Murray and Rafael Nadal on hard courts in recent years will know that they are bruising encounters. But look closely and you will see more variety creeping in than perhaps is obvious, especially in the form of the drop shot. Players know they have to take the baseliners out of their comfort zone and pulling them forward does that.
Not so many years ago, it was Roger Federer who described the drop shot as “a panic shot”, something players did when they were exhausted or had run out of ideas. For a player of his talent, I always thought that was bizarre but the emergence of Djokovic and Murray in particular, has made him think again. Take a quick look through YouTube and you’ll find any number of brilliant drop shots from Federer and now, it is a crucial part of his game-plan.
“I just realised it was very hard to hit through the guys time and time again, because they track down everything,” the Swiss said earlier this year. “Maybe by using the drop shot a bit more they have to play closer to the line; then it’s easier to hit through them again.”
Watch an Andy Murray match and you’ll sometimes hear groans of disapproval each time he attempts a drop shot. The groans are part experience, part ignorance. The experience comes from having seen the times when Murray has over-played the drop shot, which then becomes predictable, and others when he just played them badly. But the ignorance comes from thinking that losing a point because the drop shot was not perfect is absolutely a bad thing. Of course, winning the point would be better, but players who use the drop shot well know that even a losing attempt can pay dividends in the long run because it puts doubt in the opponent’s mind, perhaps creating more space for more traditional shots to be played. It’s classic cat and mouse.
The Spaniards and the clay-court experts in general have always appreciated the drop shot. Watch Nadal – when he forces players way behind the baseline, the drop shot comes out. Sometimes it doesn’t even have to be that short, when it’s played at the right time. Likewise, Djokovic and Murray have both become very good exponents of it. “Disguise is the most important thing because if the guy sees it, everyone’s so quick they’re going to get there,” Murray said.
Most players are better at drop shots on their backhand side and interestingly, Murray feels that disguising them is easier for players who normally use two hands. “With the single-hander, it’s easier to see what’s coming,” he said. “With the double-handers, they normally take the racket back a little higher, a little bit more up, and then it’s a lot easier to just take one hand off. I find it much easier to read other single handers’ drop shots.”
Jerzy Janowicz, the giant Pole who reached the final of the BNP Paribas Masters in Paris in November, did so with a giant serve but also the most deft and surprising of drop shots, occasionally even doing it on the return of serve. At the moment, perhaps he plays too many, but in the long run it could pay off. Jurgen Melzer’s drop shot is probably his best shot. In the women’s game, the likes of Chris Evert and Martina Hingis had superb drop shots and currently, no one plays them better than Poland’s Agnieszka Radwanska, who counters her lack of physical strength with tactical nous and superior touch.
The drop shot may have been a shot more used in the past, particularly when three of the four grand slams were on grass, but even in today’s hard-court dominated game, players are realising there is a place for them. Hopefully there always will be.