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Tennis Strategy #25 Drop Shots, Lobs, and Chip Shots

Giving Unwanted Time And Space


Up to the 4.0 level, there are plenty of players who are very impatient in the way they play. One of the earmarks of a 4.5 and above player is that their rally number is larger, they are less likely to feel more pressure in longer rallies, or suffer from poor fitness after five or more shots. Less experienced or fit players may want to bang the ball, just for the sake of shortening the rally. Longer rallies make some people feel more pressure, because the perceived stakes of the point go up, even though it is still only worth one point.


One shot that is notorious for extending rallies, is the high deep ball up the middle of the court. That would be any ball that is more than 3’ above the net up the center of the court, but traveling fast enough to go into the last half of the big rectangle. (Diagram) Giving the opponent some very high deep shots that push them back behind the baseline, and even up against he back fence, can give that player much more time than they want, and can test their patience in the rally. During this time they worry, think, and they get nervous about missing the shot, mostly it’s because they can’t wait for it to come down to them. It’s quite possible that they have recited in their head, “I hate high balls”. They also may feel like they have to bring the ball down into the court on the other side, even though that’s the job of gravity. Because many players intuitively snatch at the ball attempting, swinging in a level or downward path, to bring the down, they will often hit a short ball, or in the net. Smarter, better players are comfortable with sending that ball back high and deep, waiting for another opportunity. Often though, when you go deep down the middle, you will often get a short reply, which opens up the opportunity to now take time and space away from them, immediately after giving them more than they wanted.


Playing Further Back


When you are playing a power player, or someone who is also trying to pressure your time and space, playing a little further back in the court can give you more time, and also extend the time in between each shot sequence. So you change the time and space given to your opponent. You will find some players that because of their amazing reflexes, the faster the ball comes back to them, the more they like it, they enjoy less time to think, and more pace of shot. So you can pressure them by giving them more time than they want, testing their patience.


I generally recommend playing as close to the baseline as you can given how effective the opponent is at pressuring you, but once you realize you are too close, then you are best advised to give up another foot or two of court space. If you can stand closer and pressure them in the same way, perhaps you gain an edge, perhaps not. You will discover in the match which one works best, there is no way for me to tell you that now. Standing further back slows their shot down more, because it travels in the air longer, and there is more distance after the bounce. The downside of this is that you become vulnerable to the drop shot. I was watching a 2022 French Open match with Alexander Zverev beating Alcaraz, and it was obvious that the German was going to allow Alcaraz to hit numerous drop shots, while not completely giving up on them, because he wanted to play slightly further back in the court to defend against Alcaraz’s power. This is a subtle part of strategic play, in that you have to protect first against your opponent’s main form of attack, and not obsess about their secondary or tertiary attacks.


Rafa-Lution


Rafa Nadal has spent the vast majority of his career way behind the baseline, but as he has aged and his career arc has also changed, he developed more skills to allow him to play closer to the baseline, and make more of an immediate impact on the point by playing the first two shots with much greater purpose, and many more ‘first strike’ points. So he was a player who seemed to want to rally until the cows came home, but now his opponent’s seem first to have to thwart his early pressure movement game.


Drop Shot/Lob, Deep Ball/Drop Shot


There are two shot combinations that work well together in giving players more space than they are comfortable with, and as a contingency you may find they can combine to become three shot combinations. Three shot combinations are almost always formed by creativity on court. As I tell my players before every competitive match, “Build the point cross court, then wait for a down the line shot, or short ball from your opponent before you get creative”. They learn what that means through experimentation and ultimately at that level, which is the same level targeted to the readers of this book, it’s the core piece of advice, to be patient and take great care of the first two shots. You can send me a video of you playing, 10 points that you won, and 10 points that you lost, for a reasonable cost, I will analyze that for you, helping you find the place where your decision making can improve.


When To Hit The Drop Shot


When you do get the short ball, a drop shot is occasionally a great idea. When you use the drop, it’s not a great idea to try to cut it so fine that it will be a winner, because it’s more likely to go into the net. Instead of trying to win the point outright, think of the drop shot as a ball that you want them to barely reach, then proceed to lob back to the baseline, and between the two shots you can test the opponent’s ability to close space. Of course, if you accidentally hit a drop shot for a winner, that’s OK too. It really takes a great mover to get into great position to hit a great shot against a well placed drop shot, and then even more ability to move all the way back to the baseline to hit a great shot, between the two shots, when you execute well you are likely to get a weaker reply from one or both of those shots.


Imagine the devastation in the opponent when you then finish with another drop shot after sending them way behind the baseline.


The pressuring of the time and space in this way can also send them closer to their maximum heart rate. If they are also stung by losing the point in this way, you have a mental opening to win another quick point. But what is good for the goose is also good for the gander, so you want to be sure to be able to close space, and be fit enough that you are not taking a fitness hit in your own game by playing points like that.


Djokovic d. Nadal in the 2021 Roland Garros SF


Djokovic hit at least 20 drop shots to Nadal’s backhand, which pulled him forward to his backhand side, which served to keep Nadal closer to the baseline than he wanted. It also opened up Nadal’s forehand to being attacked, because there was much more court to cover, covering the drop shot to the backhand. In that match, Djokovic also played very close to the baseline, ready to play many balls at shoulder height and above, which Nadal did not seem ready for, because Nadal is more comfortable with keeping his opponents pushed back deep at the baseline with his heavy barrage of deep topspin shots to their backhand. Nadal’s opponents generally choose to play further back, to allow the ball to come down into the strike zone. Djokovic taking time and space away, while also drawing Nadal forward, did not allow Rafa to move far enough back to create as much high looping topspin.


Drop Shot / Passing Shot


Some drop shots function better to bring the opponent to the net on your terms, instead of their own terms. The opposing pressure time and space player wants to come forward on balance, but when you can draw them to the net off balance, then you can take advantage of the time and space created by the more difficult recovery they will experience. When you are playing a pressure time and space player, who comes to the net often, you can turn this to your advantage by bringing them in on balls that are not ideal for them, purposely short and to the side of the court. This way you bring them in off balance forward, and you may make them take a zig-zag path on their way to the net, instead of closer to a straight line, which would be more comfortable for them. Making them zig-zag also opens more space for your passing shot, or can make covering the lob much more difficult for them.


As a student of this book, you have learned that you should not be stung by the occasional passing shot by your opponent, but assuming they are not aware of this, if you can make it more difficult for them coming in, and thus improve your ability to hit the first shot passing shot winner, you can erode their confidence, even though you are setting it up as a two shot combination of pulling them to the side or low, then finishing to the open court is a higher overall percentage play.


Against Western Grip Players


Time and space is not simply a forward and back, side to side issue, it’s also related to altitude. Higher balls change time and space beyond extending the time, even though we did talk about how pushing the player backwards gives more space in front of them for drop shots and short angle shots. High balls are great, but low balls can be equal, if not more effective, especially against the heavy topspin player. You can pressure their time and space by making them get very low for the shot. The amount of load they will face in getting very low for the shot, makes them stick to the court. This slows down their movement to the next ball, and that lower ball is less than ideal for them to make a heavy topspin drive. The net in front of them becomes a more imposing barrier when you get the opponent down low for the shot. You are much more likely to draw a short ball out of them on the next shot. Using this shot against a ‘knuckle dragging’ topspinner could be the key to getting 5 to 10 more points in a match.


***


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