The ingredients that make Novak Djokovic the greatest of all time

Novak Djokovic of Serbia reacts to the quarter-final match against Andrey Rublev of Russia at the Australian Open in Melbourne, Australia - AP/Dita Alangkara
Novak Djokovic of Serbia reacts to the quarter-final match against Andrey Rublev of Russia at the Australian Open in Melbourne, Australia – AP/Dita Alangkara

The irony is that Novak Djokovic must be such a gullible guy away from the court, easy prey for every adventurous guru who wants to sell a bottle of “brain nutrients” for $50 each.

Because when it comes to day-to-day work, he is ruthlessly stubborn. Where Federer was a tennis master and Nadal a warrior Djokovic – sports scientist.

This clinical approach explains why Djokovic is an unromantic player who is impossible to look at. Its glow is cold and hard, almost mechanical in fact. There are no frills in his general ship game, it is distinguished by merciless performance in all directions.

But that ruthless efficiency brought him to where he is today. On Monday, Djokovic extended his reign at number one in the world to 378 weeks, eclipsing the record for men and women of 377 weeks set by Steffi Graf in 1997.

How did Djokovic achieve this mind-boggling feat? Analyzing your weaknesses and constantly improving your game. In fact, his approach to tennis is very similar to the classical scientific method—observation, question, hypothesis, experiment, and conclusion.

Service restart

As an example, let us remind ourselves of an often forgotten fact. Djokovic’s pitching in his youth was terrible. Yes, he did win the Australian Open in 2009 thanks to his extraordinary athleticism and clean basic technique. But the real Djokovic only got up after he reset the movement, sometime in late 2010.

Here’s a photo of Djokovic serving in 2009 in the horrendous “waiter’s tray” pose that many amateur hackers suffer from. (The syndrome is so named because the position of the racket resembles a waiter carrying drinks on an upside down palm.) According to Performance Plus Tennis’ John Craig, this is a problem because Djokovic “lacks leverage.” You can’t imagine that you can carry a heavy weight in this position. This means that you cannot apply a powerful upward force to the ball.

Novak Djokovic
Novak Djokovic

But Djokovic recently on the training court. You can see that the elbow is much higher and that it is in the optimal position for throwing.

Novak Djokovic serving
Novak Djokovic serving

How did Djokovic make this vital shift? In 2009, he hired former Wimbledon semi-finalist Todd Martin as a serving coach. Admittedly, their union backfired, resulting in 282 double faults the following season. But the experiment was still useful.

Martin’s method may not have worked, but his very involvement signaled Djokovic’s determination to improve. Tired of being stuck behind Federer and Nadal, he turned into a great tennis seeker. A couple of years later, he returned with smooth, flexible movements that are almost indistinguishable from those he uses today.

ATP stats show that Djokovic is averaging six aces per game, but he still wins 89% of his serve games – fifth on the tour. At 6ft 2in and with a lean build, he can’t compete with human beacons like John Isner or even his own coach Goran Ivanisevic, but he is as fiercely precise and astute as a chess player.

Second serve strategy

This accuracy allowed Djokovic to challenge orthodoxy on the second innings. According to conventional wisdom, you should aim the second serve at your opponent’s backhand (almost always on the weaker flank). But received wisdom is old hat.

Once, while running numbers in his tennis lab, Djokovic calculated that a sharp second serve into the right corner of the box would have unexpected value against most opponents. This tactic only works if you force the receiver to stretch out of his strike zone. But as a skilled darts player, Djokovic is confident in his ability to repeat the game over and over again.

Statistics compiled by Golden Set Analytics show that Djokovic now sends his second serve from the right nearly a third of the time, the second highest on the tour. His innovation has changed the game as more and more players start to emulate their white coat pioneer. The overall percentage of seconds served to the right side has risen from 12% on the ATP Tour in 2012 to 22% a decade later.

Novak Djokovic stats
Novak Djokovic stats

Return mastery

Every tennis fan knows that Djokovic is the best return to the game. But what makes it so special? It’s not just a matter of freaky reaction, because there’s also a hidden skill when it’s on its own – and that’s reading the pitcher’s intent from his body position and throwing the ball.

Let’s get back to Golden Set Analytics and their VP of Player Analytics, Ben Depourter. “The players he has beaten most consistently over the years are the ones whose serve he just read,” Depourter told Telegraph Sport.

“We saw how one opponent, one of the best pitchers on the tour, from one match against Djokovic changed his throw by only 15-20 centimeters. Surprisingly, he caught on to this, corrected his position when answering, and interrupted the serve several times. If Djokovic has your serve read, then the game is almost over. Just ask Thomas Berdych.”

swiss army knife for man

Given that the serve and the return are the two most important shots in tennis, we’ve already gone a long way to explain Djokovic’s dominance. But let’s now turn to the play and see how he builds his advantage.

Remember that Djokovic doesn’t have a powerful weapon like Nadal’s forehand to rely on for cheap points. Yes, he has the most flexible and consistent backhand the game has ever seen, but multiple Grand Slam winners can’t live on backhands alone. (This wing is for defending and countering, not for monstering your opponent.)

So Djokovic gradually improved his skills until he mastered all aspects of the game: not only powerful ground shots, but also chunks, throws and his once-wobbly shot, which rarely misfires these days. His three-year partnership with former coach Boris Becker, which ended in 2016, coincided with a newfound drive to throw himself into the net.

Novak Djokovic and his coach Boris Becker - Heathcliff O'Malley
Novak Djokovic and his coach Boris Becker – Heathcliff O’Malley

It didn’t always work. By repeating Todd Martin’s script, Djokovic suffered losses by experimenting. But he came out on the other side with an unrivaled tennis repertoire. Where most players rely on one style of play, he has dozens of them.

To offer a few examples, here are three matches I watched in which Djokovic demonstrated tactical mastery of shooting, adapted to the conditions, the opponent and his own state of health at the time.

Quarterfinal vs Alexander Zverev, French Open 2019

Early on, the 6’6″ Zverev used his long levers to draft winners from the baseline. So, after eating clay dust for half an hour, Djokovic stopped walking toe to toe. He started throwing “garbage” (tennis slang for slow balls) and pulled Zverev forward towards the net, where he was much less comfortable. Djokovic then finished him off with a flurry of passing shots to finish the win 7-5, 6-2, 6-2 without fuss. Simple.

Final against Roger Federer, Wimbledon 2019

During this final, Federer always felt like he was in the lead with more points, more games and more wins. Yet in the tiebreaks deciding the first, third and fifth sets, Djokovic went into blocking mode, driving every ball deep without endangering the lines. Surprisingly, he did not make a single unforced error in three tie-breaks. It was the opposite strategy to the one he had used against Zverev five weeks earlier, but back then Federer – the anti-Zverev – is a superb finisher at the gate.

Fourth round vs. Alex de Minor, 2023 Australian Open

Again, this was the diametrical opposite of the previous example. Djokovic had a hamstring injury that terrified him during his previous victory over Grigor Dimitrov. So this time He decided to be a pioneer. Abandoning his usual addiction to percentage play, he pursued his forehand with such vehemence that De Minaur, one of the two or three fastest players on the tour, looked decidedly awkward. The match ended in 2 hours and 6 minutes and Djokovic’s campaign was back on track.

Reducing the chances

The versatility is incredible. Djokovic is the Swiss army knife of tennis. Or perhaps an absolute omnivore capable of destroying its prey in a variety of ways.

Tennis is a sport with tiny numerical variations. Whether you hit 73% or 74% of the season’s first serve, your world ranking could change by five places by the end of the year.

Professor Djokovic constantly crunches these numbers on his blackboard in his mind. That’s why some other numbers, like the records for most Grand Slam titles and most weeks at number one, will end up at his disposal for decades to come. Perhaps even forever.

You can understand why American tennis commentator Brad Gilbert says, “I call Djokovic a tax collector because he always collects money.” Or, in the words of his former analyst Craig O’Shannessy, “you play Novak and it’s like playing at the bank in Vegas.”

Who would you call the greatest tennis player of all time? Share your thoughts in the comments section below


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