Alcaraz cushioning: When daring meets playfulness and embarrasses legends

Not since Michael Chang’s underarm serve to Ivan Lendl has cheekiness on clay been more celebrated than last month. Spanish teenage sensation Carlos Alcaraz has made a habit of stunning world tennis stars with his well-disguised tricky drop shots.

Novak Djokovic, Rafael Nadal and Alexander Zverev are among those who rushed onto the pitch to see the ball float over the net, land inside the service box, bounce multiple times and roll under their racquets. The flexibility of the gymnasts, the well-sculpted legs of the sprinters or those of the long jumpers did not help them to reach the balls which seem to mysteriously lose their bounce as they cross the net.

At times, when Alcaraz decided to slow the pace of his shot drastically, even the game’s best hustler, aka Nadal, and ultimate receiver, read Djokovic, froze on the baseline, uncharacteristically dropping the point. Years on the court have honed their judgment, masters’ minds are programmed to quickly calculate the likelihood of them taking the ball in a single rebound.

Last week in Madrid there were points in a rally when after watching the ball floating lazily on the other side, Djokovic and Nadal realized the futility of their journey to the net. Instead of sprinting ahead, as they have done for decades, they bowed their heads and swallowed the embarrassment in the din of the crowd applauding the audacity of the young Alcaraz.

Experts speak of a combination of reasons that help Alcaraz pass off the fastest and sharpest tennis players with its surprise drop shots. The growing reputation for his searing shots hitting the lines, his early game aggression and the latest split-second change in form and grip to land the well-disguised shot conspired to psych opponents. He also broke records at 19, beat legends and is among the favorites for Roland-Garros from the end of the month.

Such was the force and terror of his monstrous strikes that the rivals spent most of the game well behind the baseline. And since there are no obvious clues to the drop shots he conjures up, it’s hard even for Djokovic and Nadal to read them.

Early examples

Here are three Madrid 2022 drop-shots that went a long way in building Alcaraz’s hype.

Against Zverev (final):

Alcaraz leads 1-0 and 2-1 in the second set

Alcaraz recovers a short backhand ball, he has time to move and take it with a forehand. With enough time to position himself, he rips the ball down the line, giving Zverev no chance to reach it. At 3-1, the Spanish star is one point away from breaking Zverev again. But the German arrives with a heavy serve. The comeback from far behind the baseline is deep but Zverev is still in a position to dominate the rally. This is an important point. Probably aware of the consequences, Zverev is playing it safe. The ball lands in midcourt, Alcaraz hits the ball near the corner from the forehand. Zverev is out of position, Alcaraz releases his drop. Zverev manages to reach the ball but it’s in vain. He is too close to the net and his return is weak. Like a senior pro playing with kids on weekends, Alcaraz throws the ball at his opponent.

Against Nadal:

Alcaraz leads 4-2 (15-15)

Nadal offers a solid serve that kicks off. It looks like the senior Spainard will dictate the rally. Alcaraz hits a powerful forehand but it lacks depth. Nadal hits a baseline ball on his opponent’s backhand. The young challenger is out of position, he somehow hits the ball half-volley and sends it through the net. Nadal has a chance to finish the rally but misses the chance. Alcaraz is now pushing Nadal further down the baseline, it’s a perfect setup for a fall. Can he also pull off the difficult shot from his backhand? Yes, it does. With a slight slice, it gives just enough backspin to roll the ball back. Nadal is caught off guard and takes a slow start to reach the ball. This turns out to be his madness.

Against Djokovic:

Alcaraz trails 1-0 and 40-30 at 4-4 in second

At the start of the first set, Alcaraz tries his favorite drop shot. A fresh Djokovic reads it. He reaches the ball and wins the point with clever play at the net. Having lost the first set, Alcaraz at 4-4 is one point from the break. “Well done” and “Your time will come” consolations would soon be pouring in, it seems. These are the points when the lesser players play tennis in percentage. Not the boy seen as the next big star in world tennis. Now Djokovic is ready for a long base rally. He is charged, running in circles and firmly holding his racquet to strike. In the middle of an intense exchange, the Serb didn’t expect the teenager to suddenly, on his backhand, while standing near the service mark, come in with a drop. Alcaraz floats one close to the net on Djokovic’s backhand. He gives up before reaching the service line. The Madrid crowd are waving flags, they have seen Nadal’s dolphin.

Child’s play

Among the most difficult shots to master, inserting a drop into a rally requires finesse, bravado and a bit of childish playfulness. This is a shot where a player suddenly has to give a big adjustment and change the ball’s parabolic trajectory dramatically. In all regular shots, at varying heights, the ball peaks at the nets and dips down the side of the rival’s court. For perfect cushioning, almost all of the parabola is on the batter’s side. The flight should be such that the final dive should be as close as possible to the net on the other side.

Alcaraz has proven that he has the talent and the temperament for big matches. At the end of the Madrid Open, he showed he was just a kid and wanted the world to treat him like one. During the post-match interview, he said: “I don’t like being called Carlos. I like Carlitos or Charlie. Honestly, Carlos looks very serious to me and it looks like I did something wrong.”

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