The Backboard: Offseason Thoughts on Boris and Fedberg


As most of the tennis world, I was slightly surprised when I heard the news that Novak Djokovic was hiring the one and only Boris Becker as his “Head Coach” for the 2014 season (do click on the link for the official announcement about the hire. It’s interesting).

Scratch “slightly surprised”. I was completely shocked. Not by the decision to add a coach – that was not surprising at all. There have been frequent murmurs of Marian Vajda wanting to spend more time with his family, particularly with his young daughter, who is about to enter a crucial stage of her tennis life.

The shock was caused entirely by the person who was chosen.

Boris? THE Boris? The one who’s known for being a mediocre tennis commentator and a frequent tweeter of either late or bizarre thoughts? The one who was never particularly known for being a tactical mastermind?

Yep, that’s the person Novak Djokovic chose to be his guide through what could be a crucial part of his peak years.

To be honest, the decision reminded me a lot of another surprising (and eventually damaging)  switch made by Novak at the beginning of a new season: going from Wilson to Head just before the 2009 Australian Open, a tournament he entered as the defending champion.

But much has changed since then.

To start, Novak Djokovic is now 26 years old instead of 20. He’s an experienced pro who’s seen (and done) almost everything in the tennis universe. The World No. 2 is currently in an extraordinary vein of form, winning 24 straight matches to close out a 2013 season that, while being a bit bittersweet, ended on quite a high note. At the World Tour Finals in London, Novak seemed firmly in control of every aspect of his game (including the backhand down-the-line, which was erratic for most of the season).

Given what we know about Boris (not exactly a nuts and bolts guy) and what has troubled Djokovic in the past two seasons (putting together good performances in some of the big matches that he’s lost), one can infer that Boom Boom’s role is more that of a beacon of confidence than a magical engineer who’s going to significantly alter any part of Djokovic’s game.

Sure, they’ll probably work on his serve (those of us who remember the Todd Martin era cannot help but wince at this), and Djokovic will keep trying to improve his transition game (which has indeed gotten better, though still remains a distance away from being optimal). But for the most part, Boris will probably be there to remind Novak that he’s more than good enough to dominate the ATP. And that he’s more than good enough to win the big matches that he’s been losing in the past two years.

There comes a stage in a great player’s career when all they need is constant reassurance. And even for a guy like Novak Djokovic, who’ll probably go on to eclipse what Becker achieved in his career, it has to feel good to look up to his box and see the world famous Boom Boom there, whose sole purpose is to cheer him on. It also has to feel good for Djokovic to see that a legend of the game firmly believes in his talents (or in the ability to provide a nice paycheck. But that’s neither here nor there).

Will this partnership last? It seems that they’ve at least agreed on spending a full year together. I’m sure Boris will say/tweet something inappropriate at some point (or points). Who knows what he’ll say to Djokovic in the locker room after a tough defeat. And what Novak’s reaction will be.

One thing I do like about the hire is that it’s not French Open-centric at all. I’ve thought that Novak’s discourse during the past two seasons has been misguided when talking about his goals. Of course he wants to win the French and complete the career Slam. Duh. But that’s an enormously difficult task, and you cannot afford to face a grueling 11-month season by focusing on just two weeks. Plus, the best chance he’ll have at winning the French is by being dominant before it, which means doing well in all three Masters 1000 on clay, not just one. Beyond that, focusing on just the Slams is a more appropriate mindset for an aging player who is not expected to dominate week in and week out. But a guy like Djokovic, who is just 26 years old and in the absolute physical prime of his career? That’s too small of a goal. At your peak, the hunger should be there to win everything you enter. You should aim to dominate the big events, and not just expect things to come together in four packs of two weeks.

Anyway, what I liked about the official statement regarding the hire is that Djokovic mentions the intent to win the Slams plus the Masters 1000. That’s highly appropriate. Being French Open-centric is a trap, a misguided gamble. And thankfully, no one will look at the Boris hire as a sort of boost or magic elixir that will translate into Rolly G success.

What I worry about this out-of-nowhere move by the Djokovic camp is the potential for disruption. Throughout Djokovic’s career, we’ve seen how several essential elements of his game have gone kaput in a relatively short amount of time. First it was the forehand after the racquet switch of 2009 (after a 2008 season that included a Slam, two Masters 1000 and a first World Tour Finals title). Then it was the serve, “aided” by whatever Todd Martin was trying to make Djokovic do (plus an injury, apparently), and in 2013 we saw how the backhand down-the-line, perhaps the most crucial shot for Djokovic against the elite, seemed as reliable as an anonymous email announcing you’ve won a million dollars.

Thorough all these trials and tribulations, the steady hand of Marian Vajda has eventually managed to get all the moving parts back into place. This is why it’s a great relief to read in that statement that he’ll still be around to check on the well-being of one of the sport’s great assets.

Hopefully he won’t have to do a whole lot of repair work.


I started to think about Federer and Edberg when I saw this tweet:

Notice that Matt tweeted this over a week ago, well before Federer himself made the 10-week agreement with Edberg public. I happen to agree with Matt’s point: Edberg wasn’t being all that original with that pitch. Maybe he delivered the message in a very convincing way?

I don’t agree with the idea, though. I actually think Federer needs to go back to his roots, in a way, and stop putting so much pressure on his forehand. I think he should use his natural ability to hit almost every shot in the book (plus a few more that he’s invented over the years) to give people fits. I’m not advocating for Federer to become passive, mind you. I just think that his best bet against the people in the elite of men’s tennis is to use his variety to set up his forehand for better, safer shots, instead of being the one always going for the big forehand (and missing it).

For example, I’d love to see Federer use the backhand slice more, but not exclusively cross-court: it’d be nice if he could open up the court with some down-the-line slices, since that will almost surely force his opponent to hit a running cross-court forehand. Federer could anticipate this shot, and move in for a forehand down the line putaway of his own.

I’d also like to see more drop shots from him, along with some occasional, opportunistic net play after good approaches (serve and volley is only acceptable behind his fantastic slider out wide from the deuce court). I’d like to see Federer look to erode someone’s weakness rather than force his hand by being overly aggressive when he doesn’t need to. Use that nice slice to slow things down and make the other guy go for too much.

There are things that Roger Federer just won’t improve at age 32 and after the thousand plus matches he’s already played on the ATP tour. He won’t become a better second serve returner, and he won’t hit Gasquet-esque drive backhand down the line winners (though he does every once in a while). But I would like to see him return to the kind of game he employed in his prime years, when he would patiently wait for the right moment to attack, rather than look for opportunities to be aggressive that just aren’t there for him.

I also don’t think coming to net more frequently is a good idea, particularly if it’s off of constant serve and volleys. First of all, sprinting to the net and lunging for volleys cannot be the easiest thing on Federer’s back, no? Second, it’s a losing proposition against the very elite of men’s tennis (and lesser players on a good day, too). Plus, even though Federer has incredible feel at net, I’ve never thought he has the right character of a consistent net rusher. Looking at his body language, you always feel that whenever Federer gets passed, he takes it as a personal insult. But not the kind that makes him angrier or more determined – the kind that makes him want to sit in a corner and sigh because you were mean to him.

I think this emphasis on aggression has put an untenable amount of pressure on producing very difficult shots for an extended amount of time. Very few players in history can be so accurately aggressive all the time. And few will be able to achieve the feat consistently at age 32. Hence, if I were to make a pitch to Roger, I’d talk about increasing his margin for error, not reducing it. I’d talk about putting an extra emphasis on tactical breakdowns for every match, as well as using his vast arsenal of shots, instead of just his big forehands. Play looser, play differently than anybody else. Remind him that nobody on tour has the kind of backhand slice that he has. Few can hit better droppers. And even fewer can finish a point in as many ways as he can.

Because that’s what got him to where he is now, really. Sure, Federer isn’t as quick as he used to be. But he is much wiser, and he’s even added the drop shots he so comically derided during his meteoric rise to the tennis throne. Federer used to be a riddle: you never knew what shot he was going to come up with, since he had them all. He was happy to hang in a rally, only to punctuate a winner in a most unexpected way. He would carve people up with his backhand slice, neutralizing pace and setting up his own aggressive shots off of people’s startled replies.

In the end, asking Federer to be more aggressive at this stage of his career (as if he’s been passive in the past four years) just seems like what a fan might want out of him. We’ve heard sympathetic commentators mention it as well, to the point that it seems like conventional wisdom. That’s why the Edberg pitch didn’t seem original at all, but it’s not that surprising that it worked. At the end of the day, Roger Federer would much rather see himself as a very aggressive player than not.

And it might just be that at this stage of his career, Federer might also want 10 weeks of reassurance from somebody he called his childhood hero.

Unsolicited Song of the Week

Some of you might know that I’m a huge Lianne La Havas fan. I’ve listened to her debut album about 20850985 times, and seen almost every live clip there is out there on the YouTube. And yet, I only found this a couple of days ago. Enjoy.

Juan José loves a well struck backhand down the line, statistics that tell a story, a nice lob winner, and competent returns of serve.

2 Responses

  1. Jay
    Jay December 29, 2013 at 4:29 pm |

    This is really insightful stuff.
    You’ve nailed it with Federer. He has to trust in his patience and his sense of variation and tempo. The aggressive net rushing seems inspired by a kind of pessimism or fear as if he is making a compact with age. Watching him in 2007 and it was all there (more or less). A kind of passive/aggressive play that drew his opponent in, full of feints and lures but with the power to finish a point when the moment arose.
    Djokovic is the last best hope for a golden slam on the atp tour. He just needs that finishing instinct in the big games and close it. Its is a kind of escape velocity.

  2. Master Ace
    Master Ace December 29, 2013 at 10:12 pm |

    IMO, Federer needs to win cheap service games so he can exert his energy in the return game. Cheap = 2 minutes or less.

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