Tennis Note # 13

The Drop Shot: Is It Worth Using in Tennis?


There is a shot in tennis that is so soft it almost seems like the players are afraid to hurt the ball.

Sabine Lisicki hits a deft drop shot during BNP Paribas Open 2015

It is the drop shot. After reading Jeff Sackmann’s great article, The questionable wisdom of the drop shot, I thought this shot required further investigation. Veteran coach Bob Brett once said:

“Live by the drop shot and die by the drop shot.”

Are players killing themselves by using the drop shot or should they implement it more often? Does the drop shot win or lose you points? It is also interesting to consider the following questions: Do players prefer to hit a forehand or a backhand drop shot? And does it actually matter if you hit your drop shot with your backhand or forehand? Finally, does the drop shot serve its purpose of finishing the point?

Before I can answer any of these questions, I first compiled data. Now seeing that most data-based tennis research involves men, I thought it would be nice to look at it from the WTA perspective. With the help of Jeff Sackmann’s great shot-by-shot match charting project, I was able to collect data from 42 clay WTA matches.

I specifically choose clay matches for a few reasons. On clay, players tend to stand farther behind the baseline and for this reason, it is more difficult for players to reach the drop shot in time to return it. Also, players go into the clay court tournaments with a mindset of using the drop shot as a tactic. Thus, there are more matches where players want to use the drop shot. This analysis could be extended to grass court, in which the drop shot is also very effective but let’s begin with an overall picture of the data.

How effective were these drop shots?

How effective was the drop shot?

As the chart illustrates, 61 (16.9%) of the 361 drop shots were missed by the dropper. 119 (33.0%) were straight winners, 36 (10.0%) induced forced errors, which means the opponent touched the ball but missed the shot under pressure. Finally, 40.2% of the time the opponent got the ball back in play. When this happens, the dropper wins the point only 53 (36.6%) times. OUCH, that must hurt!

But don’t write the drop off just yet. Overall, the numbers are pretty good. The players that hit the drop shot win the point 208/361 (57.6%) of the time. And if you look only at drop shots that landed in (300), the percentage rises to 69.3%.

So based on these figures there are two conclusions I can draw:

  1. If the opponent gets the drop shot back in play, the odds are in their favor.
  2. Overall, 58% of drop shots are winning shots.

Okay, now that we have examined the big picture, let’s dive into the details.

Forehand [FH] or Backhand [BH] Drop Shots?

The first noticeable difference is the WTA players typically prefer to hit their drop shot with the backhand. In fact 60.7% of all drop shots were backhand drops. Well, why is that? It could be that because most players hit their slice with the backhand side, they prefer to go with a backhand drop shot as a complement to the slice. The similarity in movement and preparation for the drop shot and the slice provides more last-second options and help disguise the drop shot.

Despite the players’ preference for the BH-drop, the overall win percentage for the FH/BH drop shot is comparable: it is 58.5% and 57.1%, respectively. This suggests there is no advantage gained by going for a BH-drop rather than a FH-drop.

Let’s compare the two shots further. The forehand drop is hit over the net 83.8% of the time compared to 82.6% for the backhand. Then again, the forehand drop shot is a straight winner 37.3% of the time compared to 30.1% of the time on the backhand.

For the drop shots that landed in (the total drop shots without the unforced errors) on the FH-side, the players got the ball back in play 44.5% of the time as opposed to the BH-side, where it is 50.8%. This is a huge difference. If a player gets a BH drop shot in more than 50% of the time, your opponent is going to get it back and you will have gone from fifty-fifty odds of winning the rally to a situation where you will lose roughly two-thirds of the time. This is absolutely terrible because when you think about it, a drop shot is not hit in just any situation. Usually the player that hits the drop shot is in a far better court position because his opponent is way behind the baseline or is off balance from the previous shot. Why hit a drop shot that could take that advantageous position away? It seems like it would be better to go with a normal ground stroke to the open court, and maybe approach the net, as your chance of winning the point is well above 55% in that situation. *

Three Shots or Less

Most people use the drop shot in order to finish the point. The reason? Maybe it looks like a good option in a particular moment or perhaps they get tired of the point and want it to end so they can move on with ‘their lives’. Whether you support the first choice or second choice, the drop shot is the perfect shot to use. In 127/145 (87.6%) of the points that the opponent got the ball back in play, the subsequent rally lasted only 1 to 3 shots. After accounting for the probability of missing the drop shot and the odds of hitting a winner, the percentage of the point ending in 0–3 shots is ~95.0%. Thus, the drop shot serves its purpose: finishing the point.

Conclusion

All in all, we have seen that on the basis of this article, it would not be wise to use the drop shot often. Does it matter if you go with a backhand/forehand drop shot? Absolutely! We have seen that players prefer to hit their drop shot from the backhand side, winning the point ~57.6% of the time. However, a backhand drop shot is more likely a riskier shot than a forehand drop shot and using the drop altogether could also cost your advantageous position if not executed well. Finally, regardless of the outcome, the drop shot is a perfect way to finish a rally. Martina Hingis once said:

A lot of these young girls, they don’t even know what the game is about. They have never seen a drop shot, a slice and all the mixture and variety I have.

Even though the drop shot could get you in trouble sometimes, it is still a necessary tool. It is a must have in your tennis “bag” because you never know when you will really need it.

*The match charting project on Tennis Abstract shows that approaching the net wins you the point around 64%.


Get to know Isaac!

Hi everyone. My name is Isaac Brute. I’m 19 years old and in my last year of pre-university. I’ve been playing tennis since I was 8 years old. I have participated in a couple of ITF tournaments locally (Curacao a small island in the southern Caribbean Sea) and abroad. I have a passion for statistics, particularly sport statistics. Since last year (2014), I have been a contributor to the tennis match charting project. This has really changed the way I look at tennis and sports in general. I am convinced that having statistical knowledge in the back of your head may help you improve your game. I hope you enjoy my article(s) and that it/they will help you appreciate statistics more and change the way you look at sport. Feel free to comment, give suggestions on future articles. Thanks.


All data is from Tennis Abstract’s amazing database available on GitHub. It was talked about previously. Special thanks to those who took the time to chart the matches. If you enjoy reading these tennis notes, make sure to follow the publication, ‘Recommend’ and share! Check us out on Facebook! Made a cool observation? Interested in certain topics and writing? Are you a tennis photographer? Comment, add notes, and check out the submission guideline. Let me know which visuals are good and which are not so great. Cheers!