A drop shot is not the most common groundstroke you see in tennis, given the amount of disguise and control required to pull it off. And a well-executed drop shot is even rarer. That is probably why spectators love it when players like Roger Federer and Novak Djokovic use their silken touch to execute one of these beauties and surprise their opponents.
But the drop shot was given an entirely new meaning by Hugo Gaston on Sunday, as he nearly pulled off the upset of the year against Dominic Thiem in the Roland Garros fourth round.
For Gaston, the drop shot was not a surprise tactic or an artful change-up. The Frenchman instead used it as a stock shot, launching a full-fledged onslaught of droppers that almost brought the reigning US Open champion to his knees.
Dominic Thiem has made a habit out of standing 10 feet (or more) behind the baseline and using his raw power to muscle his opponents into submission. But anyone who's watched him do that must have wondered how effective the drop shot would be if it was used regularly against the Austrian.
On Sunday, Hugo Gaston showed the world how it could be done. He put the theory into practice at the biggest of stages in tennis, which made for a thrilling - as well as instructive - sight.
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Dominic Thiem faced a mammoth 55 drop shots from Hugo Gaston
Despite having gotten the better of Stan Wawrinka in the third round, Hugo Gaston wasn't given much of a chance to cause an upset against Dominic Thiem. After all, Thiem is arguably the second-best claycourter in the business right now, and is also among the favorites for the title this year.
Even if there were any fears in the Thiem camp at the start, they were allayed when the World No. 3 raced to a two sets to love lead.
It was at this point Gaston realized that outhitting his opponent wasn’t possible; he just didn't have the necessary muscle strength. So he decided to take advantage of the fact that Thiem was camped well behind the baseline, and started throwing in drop shots on practically every point.
Even after a dozen or so drop shots that beat him, Dominic Thiem refused to budge from his defensive court-positioning. And Gaston, clearly pleased that the shot was working so well, went full steam ahead with the strategy.
Gaston ended up deploying the drop shot 55 times in the match, out of which he was directly or indirectly successful 40 times. The 20-year-old was also a little lucky on some of those shots as Thiem chased them down but inexplicably pushed his returns well wide.
But some would say Gaston earned his luck. It can be argued that the Frenchman managed to get Thiem totally rattled by the drop shot ploy, to the extent that the Austrian stopped thinking clearly.
The crowd thoroughly enjoyed the approach from the local hero, and by the end of the fourth set every successful drop shot by Gaston was greeted with thunderous applause. By the end of the fourth set Dominic Thiem also seemed to have been tied up into knots; there was nothing he could do in the face of the Frenchman's intelligent shot placement.
Time and time again Gaston would invite Thiem to the net with a deft dropper, before coolly lifting a sublime lob over the Austrian’s head.
What also helped Hugo Gaston in the third and fourth sets was his ability to run to the moon and back in every single rally. The Frenchman had one thing on his mind throughout the contest - to put the ball back in play no matter what the cost. And he was largely successful at that.
Equipped as he is with remarkable reflexes and anticipation, Gaston stayed in the rallies longer than anyone could have expected. Dominic Thiem's missile-like shots, which would have been winners against most opponents, just kept coming back; it was no surprise that the Austrian looked flustered and frustrated midway through.
Thiem's coach Nicolas Massu seemed stupefied too; it was clear he had no idea how his ward was falling prey so easily to Gaston’s game plan. Thiem has occasionally been criticized in the past for his lack of a plan B, and that weakness in his game came to the fore again on Sunday.
The Austrian knew the rallies were going to last longer than normal, he knew he wasn't going to be able to hit through Gaston with heavy spin, and he knew the drop shots were coming. But he couldn't find a way to counter any of it.
Dominic Thiem needed a get out of jail card, and he needed it fast. He got that in his strongest shot - the forehand.
With some newfound vigor half-way through the fifth set, Thiem began unleashing total rippers on his inside-out forehand. By flattening out the shot and aiming for the lines, Thiem gave no time to Gaston to even react - let alone pull off his precious drop shots.
Towards the closing stages of the match, Dominic Thiem was no longer struggling against the drop shots, and Gaston wasn’t able to pull off enough high-quality ones either. But nerves were still a factor for the Austrian, as he served up a double-fault while serving for the match.
Was this insanely surreal match going to have yet another strange twist? The answer was no, as Thiem held firm after transferring all of his will and energy into his shots. Launching a couple more bazooka forehands, the Austrian finally managed to quell the Gaston challenge and book his place in the quarterfinals.
The champion in Dominic Thiem came out of hibernation in the end. It almost seemed like he decided that he wasn’t going out from Roland Garros this early, let alone to such a bizarre tactic. But some might say Thiem was lucky that he found his best forehands at around the same time that Gaston started misfiring on his drop shots.
Dominic Thiem managed to survive the scare with a 6-4, 6-4, 5-7, 3-6, 6-3 win. But every fan watching the match would have tipped their hat to the 20-year-old Hugo Gaston, who produced a strategic masterclass for the ages.
And every player watching the match would have internalized a nearly foolproof way to get under Dominic Thiem's skin: just go to the drop shot every single point.
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