The Backboard: Why Djokovic dominates the hard courts, the Occasionally Magnificent Seven, and more

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:

Jerzy Janowicz.

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:

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

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”:

If you have any questions or suggestions for topics to be covered in this column, feel free to tweet or email them to me. See you next week!

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

21 Responses

  1. Deborah
    Deborah March 4, 2013 at 4:04 pm |

    Why do you think he’s never won Cincy? Is it just timing of the tournament or something else? I really enjoy your writing.

    1. Tennisfan
      Tennisfan March 5, 2013 at 10:26 am |

      I’d say he hasn’t won Cincy yet due to the surface and speed. Djokovic’s dominance on hard courts relies on him having time to defend and then get back into position on the baseline. Cincy is a super fast court that favours attacking tennis rather than defensive as we all saw in last year’s final. If every court was to that speed, Novak would not have had the success on hard courts he does now in my opinion.

  2. Aube
    Aube March 4, 2013 at 4:34 pm |

    You quietly judge people,I openly judge you on this one,you are simply a DJOKOVIC conaisseur!

    I name him the HURRICANE,I’m honestly not his fan, but I’m very impressed with his domination,his savoir-faire on hard courts is legendary…

    I will submit to him though to please not attempt any awesomeness on clay courts this year against Nadal or it might result in my total despise at him:)))

    Excellent analysis,lovely read too…Kuddos!

  3. MattV
    MattV March 4, 2013 at 5:04 pm |

    As always, great writing and and moreover, relevant. What seems interesting to me is Djokovic’s ability to win without going ”full flight” – makes the idea of a worked up Djokovic that much more scary.

    Cool music too!

  4. Master Ace
    Master Ace March 4, 2013 at 5:30 pm |

    Tennis Channel has nothing to lose especially the headquarters are located in California. They should start their coverage on Wednesday. They will give the excuses of why coverage will not start until Friday.

  5. mattm
    mattm March 4, 2013 at 5:47 pm |

    I liked the analysis JJ especially the part about Nole being made out of rubber. It seems to me that a part of his game that typically gets passed over is his flexibility which lets him not only play a monster defense but also gives him that quick ability to turn what looks like is going to be a defensive shot into something more (the same ability that made Kim Clijsters so dangerous). It seems to me like the rest of the crowd is doing their best to catch up in this department and it’s really making the tennis matches I’ve watched this year really exciting!

    great job with the articles and the podcasts too! I’m a real fan and I want you guys to keep up the good work.

  6. Ophelia
    Ophelia March 4, 2013 at 6:41 pm |

    Your first section reads an awful lot like a fan gushing shamelessly about his favorite player. 🙂 (Though I”m a Djokovic fan too, so I can’t say I mind. His flexibility is truly out of this world.) I’d love to read a similar analysis from you on why Nadal dominates clay to an even greater extent; everyone takes it for granted that he’s the King of Clay, but I don’t think everyone knows the specifics of *why*, me included.

    It’s ridiculous that Indian Wells doesn’t even air its first round matches. If the IW organizers really want their tournament to live up to its billing as the “fifth slam,” they should follow the Australian Open’s example and air these first round matches. As well as the qualifying ones, too.

  7. Fernando
    Fernando March 6, 2013 at 9:08 am |

    Fernando says your analysis is quite accurate, insightful and cogent. Well done. Respect from Fernando.

    For Fernando, as you have noted, Djoker’s ability to change ball direction on his ground strokes from both wings is one of the aspects of his game that sets him apart. And he does it on very difficult balls. This allows him to turn defensive positions into offensive positions like no one Fernando has ever seen.

    Djoker’s most under rated weapon is his serve. Especially on the big points. The way Maestro used to do it. Fernando’s staff is working on the analytics to determine Djoker’s first serve percentage on break points against him and other big point situations. It wil be very very high.

    The forehand no longer breaks down and the stamina is remarkable.

    I am Fernando @vivafernando

  8. Orangeball
    Orangeball March 7, 2013 at 11:28 am |

    Hi Juan,

    Why do you think the US Open is the most competitive GS judging by 5 different winners in the past 5 years?

  9. Orangeball
    Orangeball March 7, 2013 at 11:59 am |

    Btw I love your analysis on Nole, I think Nole is still improving and yes can you imagine that? I want him to have Sampras’s or Becker’s serve, Becker’s and Stich’s volleys and flatter forehands like Gonzalez’s and Verdasco’s or even Delpo’s.

    I think his problems last year where he didn’t win everything like he did in 2011 were due to the facts that he lost too many sets 7-5 and 7-6 in important matches, think losses to Murray at the Olympics (with a home crowd) and at the US Open ( where the heaven beats him, if he would have won one of the first two sets, the result would be NID), the semi at Dubai, 7-5 7-5

    He also lost the 3rd set tiebreak at IW against Isner, lost the 2nd set tiebreak to Querrey at Bercy, lost the 2nd set tiebreak to Federer at Cincy. And the loss to Federer at the French in 2011 and Wimbledon 2012, Nole lost because he didn’t win the sets where the results were 7-5 or 7-6.

    He lost the first set against Delpo at the Olympics as well.

    What’s about the losses to Nadal on clay? He was a better player in the first set at MC, just didn’t close it out as he should have, if he did he would have won the match, pls refer to his winning stats after winning the first set. Then Rome which I think he didn’t care as his grandfather died and he was still in mourning and has won it twice already, besides he beats Federer in the semi so he wanted to conserve his winnings for the French. Then come RG, if you have watched the match, he was good in the first set, and really demolished Nadal in the 3rd set then the old poor Nadal used his influence on the organiser to reschedule the match for the next day because of the rain, Nole had all the momentum going into the 4th set and could have won it after the great momentum of the 3rd set….

    The other loss was to Tipsarevic, I can remember if the score was 7-5 or 7-6???

    Anyway, I wish Nole would play conservatively in a sense that he shouldnt break his opponents’ serves 2 or 3 times during the set, just make sure he wins the set with a break each so all he needs is 2 breaks one in each set of the best of 3 matches or 3 breaks in GS matches. For example, he broke Querry 4 times in the row at Bercy but fail to break serve in the next 10 return games or so. That’s what I would have advised Nole if I was his coach.

    1. Daniel Hornby
      Daniel Hornby March 28, 2013 at 5:54 pm |

      Sounds like your making excuses for Novak to lose. How about sometimes the other guy is better?
      Using your argument, then I could suggest that Murray should have won in Shanghai last year, because for a start he had 6 match points, including a few on his own serve! Also, he could have won the Australian Open with a service break early in the 2nd set. He also should have won in Paris against Janowicz, had a match point whilst serving, and should have beaten Raonic in Tokyo in the semi having had 2 match points.
      I would agree that Novak is the best right now, but if we’re honest if Andy had the same mental strength of Novak or Roger, he would be doing a damn sight better than he has done now. Last year, as already stated he lost 3 consecutive tournaments having had at least 1 match point in all of them. Andy has also lost the last 3 to Djokovic having taken the first set, when in the 18 previous meetings, only once did the player that won the first set go on to lose the match.
      This suggests that Andy is definitely not as strong mentally as the other 3 in the top 4 and in previous years this is definitely true. Previous meetings against Nadal/Fed/Djoko have seen Murray throw away matches from positions of great strength – serving crucial double faults, miss 5 or 6 break points in one game and then go on to get broken in the next.
      If he sorts this out, he will just as good as Novak. Whether he can or not remains to be seen.

      Your last point (with me having drifted off somewhat) was about advising Novak to only break once or twice in a set and space the breaks out. Well that is a ridiculous suggestion. If an opponent is playing badly, it is important to break them at every opportunity in order to demoralise their confidence and potentially wreck their natural game. In 5 sets especially, players have their highs and lows and when Novak is on a roll and the opponent is playing badly, breaking in every game/every opportunity is a must because the opponent can suddenly find their game. If however an opponent loses 6-1/6-2 (or even 6-0) in the first set, there is a real opportunity to dismantle them in the second set. Winning 6-4 in every set gives an opponent the belief that things can change round.

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