At one point last week Novak Djokovic must have been wondering if the heavens were conspiring to drown his French Open aspirations in a flood. Forced to play four best of five matches in five days, at the most physically grueling major of the year, Novak not only had to dig deep into his energy reserves, but also had to find a way to cope with the heavy and slow conditions caused by the rain and the cold weather.
When a clay court gets wet, less of the surface gets moved around by the air and the court becomes thicker and softer. As a result, the ball sticks into the court longer, causing it to slow down and bounce lower. With a slower and lower bounce it is more difficult to hit powerfully through the court. It is no coincidence that the two men’s finalists are the two players that adapted best and utilized the tennis tool best suited to exploiting such conditions: the drop shot!
In his semi final against Stan Wawrinka, Andy Murray knew that he was at a huge disadvantage to slug it out with the bigger hitting Swiss in such heavy conditions. Instead, he time and time again used the drop shot, not just as a winner play, but also in a set-up fashion in order to pull Wawrinka off the baseline and tire him out. Even if he was not able to hit a winner with the drop shot, he forced his opponent into positions where he had to either approach the net or hit a touch shot back; both of these alternatives placed the rally in the sort of “cat-and-mouse” situation where Murray excels.
Novak Djokovic used a similar tactic to disrupt the power and rhythm of Tomas Berdych in his quarter-final match. Post match he revealed: “In these conditions, it’s good to have the drop shot in your game. Particularly when I play a player like Tomas. I tried to expose his movement and his weaknesses.”
Given both finalists’ abilities to adapt to the conditions, an interesting subplot to the the title bout was determining who used and defended both the drop shot and the drop volley more effectively.
Right from the start of the championship match, Novak showed his intent to use the the drop shot. He actually played four drop shots in just the first two games, but what was particularly interesting was his court positioning while hitting the shot. Often you hear coaches admonish players for attempting drop shots from behind the baseline; however, Novak did this routinely throughout the match and the tournament, in particular off his backhand side. Interestingly, of the drop shots that Novak hit in the match, all but one were hit from positioning behind the baseline.
This highlights an important level of sophistication with regard to the decision of when to play the drop shot. A simplistic view would suggest that you only hit a drop shot when you are positioned inside the baseline and can hit the right shot for a winner. However, of the ten points that Novak won off the drop shot, only two fit into that category; the rest were hit with consideration to other factors.
First, he considered the court positioning of his opponent. Novak was able to take advantage of his superior depth and use that to push Andy deep behind the baseline. This made the drop shot a more appropriate option simply because it became further for Andy to reach. Second, he determined his opponent’s comfort in moving forward. Despite his fantastic touch, in the final Andy struggled to defend the drop shot, even when he was able to run it down. On several occasions he either made an error or gave Novak the opportunity to pass him. These outcomes encouraged the Serb to persist with the tactic. Finally, Novak appeared to weigh what other options he had with the shot. In the final, all but two of the nearly twenty baseline drop shots were hit from the backhand side. This is because on a heavy clay court it is very difficult to do damage with a powerful ground-stroke backhand, making the drop shot an even more attractive option given the alternative.
By watching Novak’s artistry, and speculating on his thought process, we can all apply some degree of learning to our own game. Rather than allowing the drop shot to enter our play as a high risk or emotional shot that can leave us feeling like either a hero or an idiot, let us take a calculated approach, considering multiple factors, to guide our use of this fantastic option.
One final observation on the use of touch in the final, was a contrast in the ability to execute the drop volley. In the history of their rivalry, the advantage in finishing at the net has tended to lean towards Murray. A particular recollection is the 2013 Wimbledon final, where finishing with touch was a skill that helped Murray win some huge moments. In this match Murray’s execution of the drop volley left Djokovic altogether flustered when he himself could not convert the same opportunities.
It seems that Novak took notice of those little flaws. Presumably with the influence of Boris Becker he has obtained greater feel and confidence at the net, because he displayed it virtually every time he came forward for a volley on Sunday and executed calm drop volley winners. His success when coming forward was so great that it was 3-1 in the 4th set before he lost a rally approaching the net.
Andy on the other hand, really struggled in his execution of his drop volleys during the final. At crucial moments early in both the 3rd and 4th sets, he either made an error with the shot or allowed Novak to run it down and pass him. It is possible that it was the match’s physicality or Novak’s baseline and groundstroke pressure which contributed to this failing touch. However, in order to have a chance when their rivalry switches back to his favoured grass courts, Andy will need to reassert his dominance in this “touch battle”.
In developing your own skills with respect to touch, there is more to learn from Novak. In the post match press he advised that “growing up in Serbia we played a lot of mini tennis, a lot of different games. I tried to always keep that routine over the course of my career in practice.”
The philosophy of maximizing each moment on the practice court is something that Realife Tennis fully subscribes to. In our training camp ground-stroke and volley courses we have peeled back the covers on drills, tips and games that the professionals use to help their improve their touch and hope that they will be of use to you. Make sure you check them out and enjoy improving your game!