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The When, Where, How and Why of Drop Shots

Ron Waite Photo
Ron Waite, USPTR

One of the most underutilized yet wrongly utilized shots in the great game of ours is the drop shot! Indeed, it may be that you as a player have never really practiced this shot, although you may find yourself attempting this shot from time to time.
Those of us north of the Equator are in the midst of winter months, while those south of the Equator are enjoying the warmer months that lend themselves to outdoor play. Either way, this is a good time to work on the drop shot, and learn when and how to use it.
Let's begin with the most important concept to keep in mind. The major problem associated with when people attempt this shot is that it is more of a desperation shot or a shot that results from fatigue (either physical or mental).
Frequently when we are losing, we resort to drop shots as a sort of "shot of last resort." I assure the reader that the percentages of winners that result from this situation are minimum at best. Associated with this situation is a sort of mental fatigue that is the result of frustration.
If we have had a long match, we may often times find ourselves stretched when hitting any reply because we simply are not as able to get to balls as quickly and effectively. Physical fatigue results in us being strained to make any shot, and a somewhat natural response is to hit the drop shot to end the point.
The common denominator in each of these two uses of the drop shot is that they are not proactive. Rather, they are reactive in nature. These high risk, low return situations should be avoided at all costs. Although, I must confess that I have fallen victim to both more times than I would care to admit.
The drop shot when employed appropriately is really either an outright winner, or results in a reply that is so weak that it leads to a subsequent winning shot. In a sense, the drop shot is like either the ace or the winning serve. Either your opponent can't put her/his racquet on the ball, or is forced into making a shot that is weak or errant.
Pushers are players who usually understand the "offensive" benefits of the drop shot. They, for whatever reasons, are usually capable of hitting a truly effective drop shot off of virtually any shot you send their way. The rest of us mere mortals are normally not this proficient!
What should the reader take from all of the above? Well first, it is easy to fall into using the drop shot as a desperate measure. This rarely, if ever, works. Second, there should be a purpose behind hitting the drop shot. This purpose may be to hit an outright winner, setup a weak reply from your opponent, or if your opponent is not fleet of foot, you may use the drop to force her/him to run and increase her/his fatigue. The danger with this last tactic is that, if overused, the opponent will be anticipating the drop shot and hit a strong reply.
With all of this in mind, the drop shot has its place and can be used as an effective offensive weapon... and, this is the key. Drop shots that are truly effective and offensive in nature and rarely are a positive measure in defensive positions.
Let's review the basics of how to execute and produce an effective drop shot. As always, the grip one chooses is essential to success. Without a doubt, the most effective grip for either backhand or forehand drop shots is the continental grip.
The continental grip (and its variation known as the hammer grip) is the grip most likely to be selected for hitting volleys. Eastern forehand grip is not a bad choice for hitting the forehand drop shot. On the backhand wing, it is not uncommon to see effective drop shots hit with the eastern backhand grip. In a previously published article, I illustrate how to identify each of these grips. The reader can refer to this article by going to: The Grip: Picture Perfect.
When hitting a drop shot, the stance that one wants to use whenever possible is a sideways or somewhat "closed" stance. The motion of the racquet in hitting drops shots lends itself to a sideways (referring to body position with respect the net) stance. Still, I have seen effective drops shot hit from open stances where the player is facing the net. The odds are not favoring success when using the open stance, and I strongly recommend not using this open stance if at all possible when executing drop shots.
On rare occasions, I have seen pros who hit excellent drop shots using the semi-western and/or western grip on the forehand wing. Indeed, I have seen players who use two handed, backhand strokes to execute a drop shot keeping both hands on the racquet grip. Here again, the odds do not favor success with any of these extraordinary grips.
Much is made about being able to disguise the drop shot, and if one can, it is clearly a desirable thing to do. Even on the pro levels, there are few women and men who can hide their intent to hit a drop shot with real disguise. Probably one of the best pros to be able to disguise her drop shots was Martina Navratilova. Andre Agassi could surprisingly sneak in a drop shot, but not so much as a result of disguise. Rather, his groundstrokes and shot control were so good, many opponents just never expected to see him utilize the "dropper."
The drop shot in many ways is similar to hitting a volley. Generally, there is little to no backswing. In fact if there is backswing, it is usually used to mask and disguise the fact that a player intends to hit a drop shot.
When one describes attributes of great volleyers like John McEnroe, the concept of "soft hands" is often used. By this, we mean that the player is capable of releasing a tight grip on the racquet handle and increase the amount of "feel" she/he has as the ball makes contact with the strings. This concept of feel is essential in volleys and it is significant when one examines how to hit a good drop shot.
Generally, the idea in most strokes is to keep the grip, wrist and arm very loose during the take back of the racquet and continue this relaxed posture throughout the stroke... except at the moment of impact. At the moment of impact, if one tightens his/her grip on the racquet handle just at the moment of impact, he/she will be able to generate much power and "racquet head speed." Again, one of my previously published articles addresses the whole phenomenon of racquet head speed and is available in my article The Need For Racquet Head Speed.
With the drop shot, one wants to actually release a bit of pressure on the racquet handle at the moment of impact. If you are capable of hitting a "stop volley," you are already familiar with this lessening of pressure concept.
Most strokes in the modern game of tennis utilize topspin, which has the racquet head moving from low to high through the stroke motion. With backspin or "sliced" shots, the opposite is true. This latter high to low motion of the racquet head is absolutely critical to executing a true drop shot.
True drop shots barely pass over the net, have lots of backspin and do not possess very much pace. Now, I must admit that I have personally seen some Spanish and South American pros who hit their drop shots with tremendous pace. Indeed, these expert executioners of this shot hit drop shots that frequently move backwards, toward the net after bouncing in the opponent's court due to the excessive backspin/pace combination.
However, we mortals are probably well advised NOT to attempt this "power drop shot." It is just too difficult to master and execute reliably.
Where you are on the court and where you opponent is on her/his court should be the deciding criteria as to when one hits a drop shot.
Ideally, you should be no more than 3 feet behind the service line when hitting a "dropper." Attempting a drop shot from any deeper in your court is too risky unless you have truly mastered this shot.
Your opponent should be deep behind her/his baseline and/or out wide near the doubles alley. When both of these conditions are in place, the drop shot is the perfect choice and the odds are very much in favor of you hitting an outright winner. Why? Well, you want your opponent to have to run fast and far to retrieve your drop shot. If he/she is indeed fleet of foot, his/her reply will probably be weak, which will almost always allow you to hit a put away volley, or at times, a winning groundstroke.
If possible, always try to hit your drop shot at an angle where is passes over the lowest part of the net (the center). For example, if you are in slightly behind the service line in your ad court, hitting a drop shot crosscourt that lands near the net and sideline in your opponent's ad court is very desirable. This is especially true, if your opponent is positioned deep in his/her deuce court at the time you execute the drop shot.
The more common drop shot, however, is one where you simply hit the "dropper" in a straight-ahead manner. In the above example, you would direct your drop shot forward so that it lands in the opponent's deuce court as close to the net as is possible. Although you are hitting the ball over the highest part of the net, you are generally not required to change the direction of the ball as much.
An old adage in this wonderful game of tennis goes something like, "always send the ball back in the direction from which it came." Although this rule is really not a true rule, it does speak to the difficulty that is added when you attempt to change the direction of a ball. A firm rule that is related to this adage, is never change the direction of a ball that possesses significant pace, lots of backspin or forces you to stretch to make contact with the ball as you reply.
Although the drop shot is really intended to be a winner, there are many times when the opponent will get to your shot and make a reply. You need to be prepared for two likely replies from your opponent.
First, the opponent may try to flick a lob over you head, which forces you to run backwards. I have seen this technique used frequently on the senior and recreational levels of play. Pushers almost always opt for this over the head, weak paced lob!
The second most common reply from your opponent will be to try and flick the ball crosscourt where it lands short in your court and at a severe angle. Skilled doubles player frequently will select this option. You need to be prepared to move to the cover the center of the net.
Now once in a while, an opponent will get to your drop shot and simply dump it over the net behind you as you move to cover the center of the net. This is not as likely as the first two options, but it can and does happen. So, you want to "drift" a bit backwards and a bit towards the center of the net as soon as you hit your "dropper." These motions will put you in the best possible position to handle any of the three aforementioned options.
You are going to be "burned" every so often when hitting a drop shot. Don't be discouraged! For every one drop shot properly executed that leads to you losing the point, there will be 3 or 4 that win you the point. When properly executed and selected in the right situations, the odds are very much in favor of the person who elects to hit the "dropper."
A great time to execute a drop shot is when you are in a position to hit a clear, winning groundstroke. Let's say your opponent in a rally hits a ball that lands short in your court. You setup to hit the big winner, but instead, you execute a drop shot that results in a clean winner. Some argue that it is always best to try and hit the groundstroke winner. Well, nothing is guaranteed in this great game. I have seen many "heavy hitters" blast away an errant shot when trying to "go for the outright winner." Rarely, do opponents expect a drop shot reply. Which is exactly why I believe it is an option that should be exercised 1 out of 5 times when presented with the "outright winner" situation.
Players need to practice hitting the drop shot to master it. There are three principle ways in which this can be done.
The best way is to have your coach or hitting partner feed you shorter balls. Stand at the center hash mark, and have your partner hit a short ball to either the deuce or ad courts. You want to be forced to run to the ball a bit, as this replicates the reality of match play. Once you get to the ball, hit a drop shot to one of several spots on your partner's side of the net:

  1. Hit the dropper crosscourt at a severe angle where it bounces near the net and the sideline.
  2. Hit a drop shot that lands near the center net strap on your opponent's side of the net. (This is generally not the most effective placement, but sometimes can be the most dependable/reliable.)
  3. Hit the drop shot directly forward with as much backspin as you can produce. The ball should land approximately in your opponent's court about two to three feet directly in front of you.

If you own a ball machine, you can program the machine to feed the same balls as described above. Just be certain to set your feeding timer in such a manner that you have time to return to the center hash mark after hitting your drop shot.
If you are like me and enjoy using a backboard, you can truly perfect the actual stroke production associated with hitting the drop shot. Simply stand about 10 to 15 feet from the wall or backboard and hit slice shots that hit the wall above net height, have little pace and as much backspin as is possible. If you are executing the shot correctly, it will take 2 bounces for the ball to return to you. In addition, you will note that if you have imparted significant backspin to the shot, the ball will actually rebound with a more severe downward motion.
Below, I have included a diagram that will hopefully help you understand how a ball hit with slice/backspin comes off the backboard or wall.

Although we frequently do not practice the drop shot, it is one of those specialty shots that every player needs in his/her arsenal of shots. If used as an offensive weapon and not as a desperate, defensive shot selection, the drop shot can pay big dividends... particularly on natural surfaces (grass, clay) and indoor "carpet" surfaces.
Once you master the "dropper" and use it judiciously, I assure you that you will be well on your way to becoming a tennis overdog!

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This column is copyrighted by Ron Waite, all rights reserved. Questions and comments about these columns can be directed to Ron by using this form.

Ron Waite is a certified USPTR tennis instructor who took up the game of tennis at the age of 39. Frustrated with conventional tennis methods of instruction and the confusing data available on how to learn the game, Ron has sought to sift fact from fiction. In his seven years of tennis, Ron has received USTA sectional ranking four years, has successfully coached several NCAA Division III men's and women's tennis teams to post season competition, and has competed in USTA National singles tournaments. Ron has trained at a number of tennis academies and with many of the game's leading instructors.

In addition to his full-time work as a professor at Albertus Magnus College, Ron photographs ATP tour events for a variety of organizations and publications. The name of his column, TurboTennis, stems from his methods to decrease the amount of time it takes to learn and master the game of tennis.


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