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It’s not often that a young player comes along with the credentials of Carlos Alcaraz – the 19-year-old Spaniard, touted as the “new Rafa”, who will start Sunday’s French Open as second favourite with the bookies.
Equally, though, it’s not often that a young player comes along with a tactic as inspired as Alcaraz’s forehand drop-shot – the secret weapon that is turning him from just another superb ball-striker into a strategic mastermind as well.
Tennis is a game of small margins. Consistently winning 52 per cent of rally points is enough to make you a serial champion. But Alcaraz’s success rate when he pulls out his forehand drop-shot approaches 80 per cent, an extraordinary figure which gives him a unique trump card.
The drop-shot itself is an increasingly popular tactic in an age when players move seamlessly from side to side. But nobody else deploys this sneak attack quite like Alcaraz.
The received wisdom on drop-shots states a) that it’s easier to hit them on the backhand side (because the stroke is essentially a variation on that familiar old staple, the backhand slice). And b) that you’re better off hitting one when you’re well-advanced in the court, because of the difficulty in judging how far the ball is going to fly.
Alcaraz turns both precepts on their head. Firstly, he hits twice as many drop-shots with his forehand as his backhand. Secondly, he feathers the ball over the net from a deep position behind the baseline. It is a phenomenally difficult skill, yet one that he carries off with complete insouciance.
According to Ben Depoorter – vice-chair of player analytics at Golden Set Analytics – the power of Alcaraz’s conventional forehand is what makes his drop-shot so effective, especially as it is almost impossible know when he is going to deploy it.
“Look at where he prefers to hit the shot from,” said Depoorter. “He’s behind the baseline, slightly towards his own left-hand corner, in what we call the ‘run-around’ position [because he has run around his own backhand].
“His run-around forehand is a monster: he can go crosscourt or down the line, so players are expecting a deep and heavy ball. Then he switches to the drop-shot, and the disguise is impeccable. A lot of players are super-fast but they can’t read the change-up early enough.
“This is a new thing for a lot of players. They’re adapting to the new reality of the Carlito forehand drop-shot. The backhand drop-shot is more common, but Alcaraz’s win-rate is through the roof on his forehand side. And one other notable aspect is that he is happy to use it at crucial moments. Like the very best players, he goes about every point in the same way.”
In person, Alcaraz has a chubby-cheeked, almost goofy look about him. He has a boy’s face, tacked on to the musclebound body of a man in the manner of one of those fairground cut-outs that you stick your head through.
But when Alcaraz turns to his player box after winning a point, and makes intense eye contact with his coach Juan Carlos Ferrero, you see the competitive fire that has already earned him four titles this season, three of them on clay.
The transformation is sudden and unexpected – at least, until you have watched him enough to know his routines. And the same could be said of his favourite ploy.
“There are two elements to a drop-shot,” said Tim Henman, the former British No 1 who will be covering the French Open for Eurosport over the next fortnight. “There's obviously the execution, which needs to be good. But it's how you set it up. And when you're hitting the ball as hard as Alcatraz does, it’s inevitable that players have to drop back in the court.
“As the opponent, you only read it at the very last second, but you’re not doing it with the grip - because he doesn’t change that - so you’re doing it with the racket face. He's shaping up with the racket in the ready position. And then, just in the last minute, instead of releasing the racket head, it comes underneath the ball.”
“I watched a lot of his matches in Miami up close from courtside,” Henman added. “And the thing that struck me most was his athletic ability: his movement, his speed, his balance, his flexibility. For someone so young, the way he's able to get into position to early, and the power that he's generating at the back of the court, it’s so impressive.
“I'm not always a massive fan of players looking over at their player box, but I have to admit, when Alcaraz was looking over, it just had a look of ‘I've got this, this is totally under control. I'm going to win.’ To portray that type of confidence at 18 – as he was then – is incredible.”
Alcaraz finds himself in the top half of the draw at the French Open, along with both Novak Djokovic and Rafael Nadal. It is an unfortunate glitch, meaning that only one of the three leading tournament favourites can thus reach the final.
But with Djokovic and Nadal on course to collide in a quarter-final blockbuster, Alcaraz could potentially come up against a weary opponent in the semis.
Don’t be surprised if, in a fortnight’s time, the man with the devastating combination of power and touch finds himself joining Nadal, Michael Chang, Mats Wilander and Bjorn Borg in an elite club: men who won Roland Garros as teenagers.