Welcome to The Backboard, the new home for some of my tennis thoughts and musings. This column will appear every Monday here at The Changeover. You can find last week’s column here. Let’s get started!
Why is Novak Djokovic so good at playing tennis on a hard court?
A year ago, Novak Djokovic produced a somewhat lackadaisical performance in the Dubai semifinals against a very motivated Andy Murray. Such an effort resulted in a rather tame straight sets loss for the man who had won Dubai three straight times until that point. Two weeks later, Djokovic played much better, but still lost to an impeccable (and probably peak) John Isner at the Indian Wells semifinals in a supremely tight third set tiebreaker.
Since then, Novak Djokovic has lost only three times when he’s come out to play a tennis match on the dominant surface of the sport: hard courts. Here are the losses:
- Roger Federer beat him 0-6, 6-7(7) in the Cincinnati final.
- Andy Murray defeated him in the US Open final 6-7(10), 5-7, 6-2, 6-3, 2-6
- Sam Querrey upset him in the Round of 32 of the Paris M1000 6-0, 6-7(5), 4-6 (Djokovic won the first eight games of that match. It was a strange affair that I chronicled here)
You might wonder how many hard court tournaments Djokovic played in that period. Here’s your answer: 10. Of those 10 events, two were Grand Slams, one was the World Tour Finals, five were M1000, and two were 500s. Out of those 10 tournaments, Djokovic made the final in nine of them … and took home the trophy six times.
Álvaro Rama of the great Punto de Break Spanish tennis blog noted some more interesting Djokovic hard court trivia on a post written after the Uniqlo ambassador trashed Andreas Seppi 6-0, 6-3 in the Dubai quarterfinals. For example:
- Djokovic is the first man in history to make six straight hard court Slam finals (winning four of them), dating back to the 2010 US Open final. The previous record was held by Roger Federer, who made (and won) five straight hard court Slam finals between the 2005 US Open and the 2007 US Open. Interestingly enough, that Federer streak was stopped by Djokovic himself, who straight-setted the Swiss in the 2008 Australian Open semifinals.
- Djokovic is now on an 18-match winning streak. Seventeen of those wins have come on hard courts.
- Starting with Miami last year, Djokovic has amassed a 48-3 record on hard courts (indoor and outdoor), which results in an absolutely insane winning percentage of 94.1.
Read that number again. Mind-boggling, isn’t it?
Still, the question posed in the heading of this post hasn’t been answered. Why is Djokovic so good at playing tennis on a hard court?
Much like Rafael Nadal on clay, hard courts enhance every single aspect of Djokovic’s game. The World No. 1′s movement on the surface is unparalleled: everybody knows about his defensive exploits. But it’s not just making incredible gets: it’s also about getting back to the baseline after said gets to get a chance to regain control of a point.
I used to joke that Djokovic is made out of rubber, given his extraordinary flexibility and apparent invulnerability towards the harsh surface. This is a part of Djokovic’s game that you can’t really teach or emulate: his body is somehow immune to the physical toll of running around on what essentially amounts to fancy cement. Ask all those runners out there how they feel about that (they’ll probably turn green with envy). To make matters even more ridiculous, Djokovic even slides on hard courts as if it were the easiest and most natural thing to do.
In terms of his serve, hard courts give Djokovic’s delivery more of a punch than clay does, allowing him to collect the occasional free point, which always comes in handy.
As for Djokovic’s groundstrokes, hard courts give him the ability to use every single part of his arsenal. The ex-Sergio Tacchini man loves to vary his spins off both wings, and hard courts allow him to do this freely, mixing in flat and topspin shots that are hard to read for opponents. Djokovic’s forehand can become quite safe (hit with a ton of topspin), or very violent (when hit flat) in order to end a point right away . The same applies to his backhand, which is the bedrock of Djokovic’s ground game. Those backhand down the line winners are never sweeter (or more damaging) than on hard courts. Not satisfied with his two-handed prowess, Djokovic has even been adding more one-handed sliced backhands over the past two years, and those tend to work far better on hard court than anywhere else.
Heck, even those crazy and ill-advised drop shots work well on hard courts.
Most importantly, hard courts let Djokovic take the ball early when he’s bossing the baseline, which helps take time away from his opponents. This is quite useful when this special skill is complimented by probably the most important element in Djokovic’s game: the return of serve.
In 2012, nobody won more points (or a higher percentage) off their opponent’s first serve on hard courts than the four-time Australian Open champion:
And the same applies for points played on opponent’s second serves.
Naturally, this translates in more return games won on hard court than any other male tennis player. By a wide margin, too:
Again, those are only numbers (even if they’re quite staggering). Why is Djokovic so good at returning serve on hard courts? I think it’s the perfect mix of natural athletic ability, natural instincts, sound return technique, great timing, and an above-average ability to identify service patterns. The perfect storm of return of serve excellence.
Of course, Djokovic is not a flashy returner of serve, like Andre Agassi, so not a whole lot of people appreciate this unique skill that the Serb brings to the table. The now four-time Dubai Champion prefers to direct returns back to opponent’s feet, and rarely will he go for outright winners. The thought process is that a deep return will yield a short ball. Couple that with Djokovic’s exemplary court positioning when setting up to return serve (not more than two steps behind the baseline for first serves, and not more than one step behind the baseline for second serves), and Djokovic knows that if he gets a deep return, he’ll be able to hit the second ball of the rally right from either inside the baseline or at most one step behind it. This couldn’t be more advantageous in today’s tennis.
The other key element in Djokovic’s game comes into play soon after that second ball is hit: nobody changes the direction of the ball more frequently and with greater ease than Novak Djokovic. What’s more troubling for his rivals is that Djokovic will do so off either wing, at any point in the rally. His patterns are extremely hard to read, and even when you think you know a backhand down the line is coming … you still have to chase it down. Changing the direction of the ball so frequently also helps tilt the balance of a point in Djokovic’s favor, since he’s the one dictating where the ball will go, and his opponent will have to start hitting a higher percentage of shots on the run. Never a comfortable proposition on faster surfaces.
What’s also noteworthy is that for all the debate about the speed of hard court and what conditions benefit a specific player, Djokovic seems to thrive on either slow hard courts (he’s won Indian Wells twice and Miami three times) or fast hard courts (Djokovic just won his fourth Dubai crown, last year won Shanghai, and hasn’t lost before the semifinals of the US Open since 2007), as well as anything in between. I don’t think Djokovic minds whether a hard court is playing too fast or too slowly – although I’m sure he’d choose something like the Australian Open if he’s made to pick a preferred speed.
This week Djokovic will attempt to repeat what he did in 2011: go from winning on one of the fastest hard courts out there (Dubai) to nabbing the title on one of the slowest (Indian Wells). After his exploits on the harsh surface during the past year, I’m not sure many people are betting against him.
Things I’ve Read Recently That Made Me Think
Djokovic y el dominio sobre cemento (Translation: Djokovic and hard court domination) – by Álvaro Rama (Punto de Break)
As you can guess, everything you read above was inspired by this post. I also love that in my native tongue, hard courts are referred to as “cement.” Which is what they are, really.
Radio, Television And Live Streaming Coverage - by MVT PR
In another move that could be labeled as “We really want to be like every Grand Slam!” Indian Wells announced this week that they will be launching “BNP Paribas Open Radio”, which will provide “live play-by-play commentary of Stadium Court matches from Wednesday, March 6 through the finals on Sunday, March 17.” This is fantastic news for fans out there who like to listen to tennis matches on the radio. It’s an interesting experience (but not one that I delve into often), and I greatly admire the professionals who can do play-by-play commentary for tennis. It can get quite frantic.
However, the most interesting nugget from that PR release was that the TV broadcast (while expanded in relation to past years) will only start on Friday, March 8. Which means that the first two days of action (comprising first round play) won’t be shown anywhere. How does this make sense?
Bear in mind that there are no other tennis tournaments this week. There’s no competition! The Tennis Channel will be showing most of the Indian Wells tournament here in the United States, which is a good move (we all remember the horrors of the Fox Sports experiment from just a few years ago), but I have to wonder just what exactly does the Tennis Channel have to lose by showing the first two days of such a huge tournament. Would live tennis get in the way of more Destination Tennis reruns? Best of Five marathons? Those nice infomercials?
Surely it’s all down to economics, but I have to wonder what the plan is for the future, particularly given Indian Wells’ ambition to be as big as the Slams. After all, we don’t start watching the US Open two days after it already started, no?
Canadian Raonic leads charge of ‘Occasionally Magnificent Seven’ - by Bruce Jenkins (Sports Illustrated)
I love the title of this piece, even though I would probably switch “Magnificent” with “Decent.” During the Australian Open I ranted quite a bit on this site about the issues facing this next generation of ATP prospects, who have the unfortunate timing of sharing their formative years with the Big Four, and the most unfortunate task of following said Big Four as the main entertainers of the men’s tour in the future.
Bruce Jenkings picks Raonic as the guy who will lead the way for this rag tag bunch, and it’s difficult to argue against that (even though Bernie Tomic is younger than Raonic and has a significantly better ground game). Now, you might have noticed one name that is missing from this “select” group of seven individuals. If you haven’t already, let me help you out:
Apparently this glaring omission angered Sergiy Stakhovsky, who aired his grievances at Jenkins’ SI colleague Jon Wertheim, who had tweeted about the piece. Here is his reaction:
— Sergiy Stakhovsky (@Stako_tennis) February 26, 2013
Still, I’ll defend Jenkins, even though I do think he should have at least mentioned a young guy who is already ranked in the top 30 and has made a Masters 1000 final. Why? Because Jenkins did write this line:
“By most accounts, as identified two years ago, this group includes..”
I’m not sure who in this world had identified Jerzy Janowicz as a top prospect two years ago. Heck, until last fall most of us had never even seen him play. Ryan Harrison, on the other hand, won an ATP main draw match at age 15.
Tough luck, Stakho.
Tweet That Got Favorited For Very Obvious Reasons
Thank you Mohamed for killed my tournament! Exactly the same as against djoko in beijing but this time in a other way! #wirdcall
— Jo-Wilfried Tsonga (@tsonga7) February 26, 2013
Sadly, this tweet got favorited for all the wrong reasons. Lindsay and I already ranted about this on this week’s Changeover Podcast, but I’ll add a nice little bit of symmetry: Jo-Willy is blaming Mohammed Lahyani, one of the tour’s more respected chair umpires, for last year’s Beijing defeat. The result of that match? 7-6(4), 6-2.
What was the score of Jo’s first round loss in Dubai? 7-6 (3), 6-2.
Note to Jo-Wilfried Tsonga: You can’t blame an umpire for a straight sets loss . And you certainly can’t blame an umpire for a straight sets loss where you lose the second set by two breaks. You just can’t.
Music Used to Write this Column
I had no idea that the excellent Finnish/French duo The Dø had released a live-in-the-studio album called Live Sessions at Studio Pigalle, comprising many tracks from their excellent 2011 album Both Ways Open Jaws, which I absolutely love.
From those sessions, here is The Dø absolutely killing my favorite song off of Both Ways Open Jaws, “The Wicked and the Blind”: