Brain Game: Djokovic's Drop Shot Success vs. Tsitsipas

Brain Game: Djokovic's Drop Shot Success vs. Tsitsipas

Forty-nine drop shots.

Novak Djokovic defeated Stefanos Tsitsipas 6-7(6), 2-6, 6-3, 6-2, 6-4 to win his second Roland Garros title on Sunday, with drop shots being an integral part of his stunning comeback victory. Djokovic hit 27 drop shots, including nine for clean winners, while Tsitsipas was not far off with 22 drop shots of his own.

The two players combined for an average of one drop shot every six points, or basically one a game for 48 games. The drop shot moved from a side-show, secondary tactic, to become a key strategic ploy to yank the opponent to all compass points of Court Philippe-Chatrier.

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The last drop shot of the match was hit by Djokovic with Tsitsipas serving at 30/15, 3-5 in the fifth set. Djokovic’s drop shot adroitly displayed the strategic cunning of the Serb to escape one pattern of play that favoured Tsitsipas and shift gears into another that attacked the Greek’s legs and spirit.

Tsitsipas hit two forehands cross court to Djokovic’s forehand to start the rally, trying to bulldoze a forehand error just like he had successfully done in the opening two sets. Djokovic bailed out of the Deuce court exchange by taking his second forehand high down the line to Tsitsipas’ backhand. The high percentage shot for the Greek was now cross court to Djokovic’s backhand.

That’s where the trap was set.

Djokovic stepped forward to the backhand groundstroke like he was going to rifle it back cross court to Tsitsipas’ backhand. He then switched at the last second and hit a deft drop shot up the line that Tsitsipas could only watch.

Wily from Djokovic. Deflating for Tsitsipas.

Djokovic started with a flurry of eight drop shots in the first set, while Tsitsipas hit back with nine of his own. These early drop shots were designed more as a clever surprise tactic by both players as well as inducing the lactic acid buildup in their opponent’s legs from sprinting forward.

Djokovic hit six drop shots in the second set, with two being outright winners from the forehand wing. He gradually moved away from drop shots with five in the third set and just one in set four. He had found other strategic ways to break down Tsitsipas’ game.

Djokovic came back to the tactic in the fifth set, hitting seven. As the match progressed, Tsitsipas attacked less and played neutral from deeper behind the baseline, which was to Djokovic’s benefit. Once the final set rolled around, Djokovic reached back into his bag of drop shot tricks to punish Tsitsipas for camping too far behind the baseline.

Break Points
In the initial two sets, Tsitsipas got a look at eight break points, converting three of them. In the remaining three sets, Tsitsipas failed to sniff a single break point, while Djokovic feasted on 13 break points, winning four of them. The depth of Djokovic’s groundstrokes pushed Tsitsipas back to a location from where he could not hurt Djokovic. Then the drop shot barrage savaged the Greek’s legs and lungs as he was constantly pulled to the front of the court. That took its toll as the break point opportunities evaporated.

Rally Length
The dominant grouping of points in the final was in the 0-4 shot range, where almost 54 per cent of total points were played. That means each player hit a maximum of just two shots in the point for over half of all points played.

Rally Length Breakdown

  • 0-4 Shots = 53.7% (167)
  • 5-8 Shots = 27.7% (86)
  • 9+ Shots = 18.6% (58)
  • Total = 311

When Tsitsipas had to hit two shots or less to win the point, he forged a three-point advantage (85-82) against Djokovic for the match. In the first two sets which Tsitsipas won, his winning margin in the 0-4 shot rally length was a healthy 40-25. Djokovic dominated the match when the rally reached five shots or longer, winning 82 points to 62. In the last three sets, that margin was a resounding 48-32.

Tsitsipas started so strongly, but the energy and focus that was required to build a two-set lead ultimately became unsustainable. Once Djokovic broke early in the third set, he said post-match, “I liked my chances from then onwards. I felt like he was starting to overthink… I got into his head,” he said.

Sprinting side to side against Djokovic in a Grand Slam final on the crushed red earth is challenging enough. Lunging forward to also cover 27 drop shots in the shadow of the net proved a bridge too far.