As I’ve mentioned before, I started following Novak Djokovic’s career after I saw him play Fernando González in the second round of the 2006 French Open. I noticed many things about his game during his run to the quarterfinals of Roland Garros, but there was one aspect of his matches that not only became a trend through the rest of that tournament, but that stood out more and more as I continued watching him play during that year:
Novak Djokovic was very good at winning tiebreakers.
From that 2006 French Open through the end of the season, Novak Djokovic played 19 tiebreakers. He won 14 of them. That’s good for a 74% success rate, which is nuts: the 19-year old was winning 3 out of 4 tiebreakers in which he participated. As a reference, John Isner, who had the most tiebreaker wins on tour in 2012, had a success rate of 69% for the year, which was the second highest rate of anybody on tour. Also, Roger Federer, who started 2013 by winning all 6 breakers he played in Australia, has the best success rate in history...at 66%
What makes you a great tiebreak player? There’s not a specific skill that translates directly into tiebreaker wins. Of course, we’ve all heard that in breakers, big serves have an edge. But Djokovic has never been anything close to a big server (even though his serve earned him a whole lot more easy points before 2009 than it does now – but that’s another story). And you have the case of Nicolás Almagro, who in 2012 ranked 5th in total aces, yet had a mediocre 19-24 record in breakers.
I’ve always thought that the key to winning a tiebreaker was to avoid making mistakes. Simple, huh? Sometimes, just one unforced error is enough for a player to concede the breaker. Yet we’ve also seen many tiebreakers so full of errors that it’s only the last one that ends up costing someone the set. Still, it’s usually the player who manages to play an error-free breaker, with the right balance of aggression, margin for error, and good serving, who tends to come out on top.
Novak Djokovic did all of those things back in 2006. His mental focus at such a young age was astounding. When I followed his matches in 2006 and 2007, I just knew the future World Number 1 was going to win a tiebreaker if he was ever forced into one. It didn’t even matter much if Djokovic was playing well or not – it just seemed that in the breaker, he would manage to be the mentally stronger player, and come up with the necessary shots to take the set.
Fast-forward to 2013. More specifically, to the fourth round epic between Djokovic and Stan Wawrinka at the recent Australian Open. As the men headed into a fourth set tiebreaker, with Djokovic up 2 sets to 1, I just knew the match was destined to go into a fifth set. There was no way Djokovic was winning the tiebreaker – I was sure he was going to lose it. Sure enough, Wawrinka took the breaker, and we ended up in a 12-10 fifth set.
Then in the final against Andy Murray, the surprise came not when Djokovic lost the first set in a tiebreaker…but when he won the second set by playing a very good breaker. When Djokovic held serve at 5-6 in the second set, I was sure that the eventual champion would have to come back from two sets to love to try and win this match, just like at the US Open last year (as we all know, he failed in that attempt). Turns out, Djokovic played a very clean breaker, and it was Andy Murray who came undone.
It came as a shocker to me.
Why do I expect the worst from Djokovic when it comes to the de facto moment of deciding a tough set? Well, here’s a clue: I made a graph detailing Novak Djokovic’s success rate in tiebreakers for each season starting in 2005:
There are a few things that jump out:
- The success rate for the first three seasons listed on the graph is insane, particularly the numbers for 2005 and 2006. Of course, Djokovic was only 18 years old in 2005, and he only played 22 matches on tour that year. 2006 was his first full season in the ATP, and 2007 was the year he joined the elite, winning two Masters 1000 trophies (Miami and Canada), as well as being the runner-up at the US Open.
- It’s amazing that Djokovic went from 3 seasons of absolute excellence to 5 seasons that range from “decent” to “mediocre.” What’s noteworthy is that Djokovic has yet to have a season that finishes with a success rate in the 60s. He’s come close three times, reaching 59% in 2008, 2010 and last year.
- The strangest part of the graph is the 2011 column. As we know, 2011 was not only Djokovic’s greatest season, but one of the greatest individual seasons ever: Djokovic’s 64-2 record from the start of the Australian Open through the US Open ranks as one of tennis’ most impressive accomplishments. Yet in this magical season, Djokovic lost more tiebreakers than he won, something that hadn’t happened before, and hasn’t happened since. Also interesting: in 2011, Novak Djokovic played his fewest number of tiebreakers in a season since 2005, as you can see in this graph:
It’s interesting to see that the relation between tiebreakers and matches played trended downward from 2007 until 2011. During his breakout season 6 years ago, Djokovic was playing almost a tiebreaker for every two matches he played. But in 2011 the ratio was all the way down to one tiebreaker for every four matches. Every year during that time period the ratio kept telling us one thing: Novak Djokovic was playing fewer and fewer tiebreakers per match played. Why did this happen?
Theory Number 1:
Starting in 2007 and culminating in 2011, Djokovic went from being a very good returner, to being one of the three best returners on the planet (the other two being Andy Murray and David Ferrer). Hence, Djokovic was being dragged into fewer tiebreakers for the simple reason that he was creating and taking more and more chances to break serve beforehand. I don’t think the improvement was necessarily due to a change in technique (though the body serve return has vastly improved since 2009) – I think Djokovic managed to be a more focused and consistent returner than ever before in 2011, whereas in the past he would take entire sets off in terms of returning.
Yes, Djokovic was playing fewer and fewer tiebreakers. But why was he losing more of them anyway? Here is another graph that illustrates his decline in tiebreaker success:
Theory Number 2:
Starting in 2008, Djokovic began the slow process of becoming stronger physically, since the rap on him early on was that he couldn’t outlast anybody. As Djokovic’s confidence in his body grew, he probably began to think that non-match deciding tiebreakers weren’t life or death anymore. I make the important distinction between middle of the match tiebreakers and deciding set tiebreakers because Djokovic does take deciding sets quite seriously. In fact, he has the 2nd highest winning percentage in deciding sets in history, only behind Bjorn Borg. In deciding set tiebreakers, Djokovic has won 10 and lost 6 – but only 3 of those six losses have happened since 2009 (Madrid and Shanghai that year, and Indian Wells in 2012). The other three took place between 2005 and early 2007. What’s fascinating is that Djokovic won his first deciding-set tiebreaker just in 2006 at ‘s-Hertogenbosch, From that point onward, Djokovic is 10-1 in deciding-set breakers, which is just nuts (the only loss came in the 1st round of Marseille in 2007, to none other than Mikhail Youzhny).
Still, the point remains: as Djokovic grew stronger, he had the confidence within him that losing a tiebreak set wasn’t the end of the world – he was ready to stay in the fight for longer if needed.
Theory Number 3:
This is my wife’s theory, which is related to Theory Number 1: the first element is that Djokovic became a great returner of serve, starting in 2007. The second element is Djokovic’s bad habit of getting frustrated with himself if something isn’t working according to plan. What if Djokovic has been letting himself get rattled when he ends up in a tiebreaker, for the simple reason that in his mind he should have broken serve before that? In that mindset, getting to a tiebreaker is a failure of sorts, since Djokovic could feel that as one of the best returners on the planet, he shouldn’t have to resort to a breaker to win the set.
Theory Number 4:
At the beginning of 2009, Novak Djokovic switched racquets, going from Wilson (which he had used for the past 4 years) to Head. Soon enough his forehand started letting him down, as well as his serve. As we know, Djokovic served more double-faults than aces in 2010. Perhaps the lack of confidence in these key weapons hindered Djokovic’s prowess in tiebreakers? Still, this doesn’t explain why the 4 time Australian Open champion went from a 70% success rate in 2007 to a 59% success rate in 2008, when he still had his Wilson racquet and wasn’t showing any issues with his serve or forehand.
Theory Number 5:
This is a simple theory: Novak Djokovic finished the 2005 season ranked at number 78 in the world. He then finished 2006 ranked number 16 in the world. The next year Djokovic would find himself in that #3 ranking that he would occupy until his monster 2011 season. The point is simple: as Djokovic climbed up the rankings, more and more people took notice of him, and the Serb started playing better opponents in the latter stages of tournaments. More pressure, bigger matches, and a tricky group of opponents that could help derail any type of tiebreak mojo.
The Big 4 problem
When I started compiling the graphs above, I wondered: how does Djokovic fare in tiebreakers against his biggest competitors, Roger Federer, Rafael Nadal and Andy Murray? Here’s a simple graph to show you Djokovic’s tiebreak record against them:
You can easily see a simple fact: Djokovic doesn’t have a winning record in tiebreakers against anybody in the Big 4. His record against Nadal is particularly abysmal. It’s actually surprising that Djokovic fares the best against Federer, who is apparently the greatest tiebreaker player in history, as I mentioned above. Still, if it weren’t for the pair’s eventful first set tiebreaker at the final of the World Tour Finals last year, Djokovic would also have a losing record in tiebreakers against the Swiss.
Now, how does Djokovic’s lack of success against his biggest rivals compare to his success against everyone else on tour? Here’s your answer:
I think the graph says it all. However, one question remained: we saw from the graphs above that the last time Djokovic had a success rate in tiebreakers above 70% was 2007, and that the best rate he’s achieved since then has been 59% three times, starting in 2008. I wondered, what percentage tiebreakers against the Big 4 took place before 2008, and how many took place after that? Here’s the answer:
In sheer numbers, Djokovic only played 5 tiebreakers against the Big 4 prior to 2008 (all against Federer, who won 3 of them). Interestingly enough, Djokovic has played all his tiebreakers against Murray and Nadal starting in 2008, and he’s a combined 6 and 14 against them.
Theory Number 6
Can it be that losing so many tiebreakers to his biggest competitors dented Djokovic’s own confidence in them? We know how much of an impact the Madrid 2009 loss to Nadal (in which he lost the last two sets in tiebreakers) had on Djokovic’s game in general.
Not everything makes sense about an athlete’s career. For example, Djokovic’s reputation as the Houdini of Tennis can’t really be explained logically. I thought that by looking at Djokovic’s history with tiebreakers I could get a glimpse into what made me expect a tiebreaker win back in 2007 and now has me expecting certain defeat in 2013. I’m not sure there’s one theory that explains this phenomenon at all: maybe it’s a combination of all six theories above, plus others that have escaped my notice. Or maybe I’m thinking too hard, and there isn’t an explanation.
What do you think?