“For sure he has reached almost perfection, Novak, in his game style, the way he plays, which is unbelievable to see honestly.” — Stefanos Tsitsipas, after losing in the 2020 French Open semifinals to Novak Djokovic.
“Perfection is not attainable, but if we chase perfection we can catch excellence.” — Legendary American football coach Vince Lombardi.
Every so often we enterprising tennis scribes produce a piece about the “perfect game.” This ambitious article, both debate-provoking and nostalgic, proposes the ingredients for the mythical “perfect player.” Strokes receive the greatest emphasis, but tactics, speed, stamina and mental qualities, such as poise, concentration and competitiveness, complete the profile.
Roger Federer, Rafael Nadal, Ivan Lendl, Steffi Graf and 1920s great Bill Tilden top my forehand list. You can’t go wrong with Novak Djokovic, Andre Agassi and 1930s star Don Budge for the most formidable backhands. The serve category is loaded with deserving candidates so, critics will likely challenge my picks — Pete Sampras, John Isner, Pancho Gonzalez, Andy Roddick, Federer and Serena Williams. For volleying — my favourite area because it most combines technique with athleticism — Stefan Edberg, Martina Navratilova, Pat Cash, Billie Jean King and Roy Emerson, best exemplify both attributes.
World Tennis (1953-91), which many cognoscenti still consider the most authoritative tennis magazine, periodically carried such “best strokes” articles. Hardcore tennis aficionados relished the deep expertise and subtle distinctions that informed the choices for each shot. Inevitably, passionate readers’ letters debated what they saw as errors of commission or omission.
The never-ending quest for stroke perfection has driven coaches and players ever since the sport’s inception in 1874. Like the Holy Grail, perfection has eluded even the most talented superstars. Just consider the relatively weak backhands of Sampras, Federer and Graf, and the flawed volleys of Agassi and Serena.
Of course, no player had ever placed at, or even near, the top in every category. Until now. Until Djokovic.
Even so, the handsome, world No. 1 Serb has long been the least loved and appreciated of the Big Three. Djokovic can’t match the otherworldly athleticism, ethereal gracefulness and sublime shot-making of Federer. Nor does he display the visceral competitiveness and unique left-handed style of Nadal. Lastly, the career records of Nadal and Federer are slightly better. They lead with 20 Grand Slam titles each, with Nadal adding an Olympic gold medal while Federer has amassed six ATP Finals titles.
But Djokovic is fast closing the gap. By winning his 18th major at the recent Australian Open, he’s captured six of the last 10 majors he’s played and might have won another had he not been defaulted from the 2020 US Open. He also owns a Tour-record 36 Masters 1000 titles.
Not only does Djokovic have the momentum, confidence and determination to surpass Nadal and Federer, but he also boasts the diverse skills required to win Grand Slam titles on every surface. (Nadal hasn’t won Wimbledon since 2010, and Federer took his only French Open in 2009.) With the Tokyo Olympics staged in August on hard courts, Djokovic’s most successful surface, he could rack up a few more prestigious titles this year.
What makes Djokovic one of the all-time greats and, barring injury, potentially the GOAT?
The perfect game
In short, the 6’2”, 174-pound Serb virtually possesses the perfect game. That means Djokovic’s flawless strokes effortlessly generate and handle power and produce accurate, deep shots with amazing consistency. The last attribute is critical because world-class players today frequently hit serves faster than 130 mph and groundstrokes over 80 mph.
Let’s start with the return of serve. This under-practised shot, the second most-important after the serve, is one of the most difficult to master. Faced not only with great service power, Djokovic must also deal with an array of spins and well-placed serves, plus variety and deception that make serves even more dangerous.
How has Djokovic returned the rocket, high-trajectory serves of Isner, Alexander Zverev and Milos Raonic, the well-disguised and pinpoint serves of Federer and the tough lefty spin serves of Nadal and Denis Shapovalov?
The primary reason, both for his two-handed backhand and semi-Western forehand, is his technically perfect attention to the execution of split-second details. He lands his wide-stance split step an instant after the server strikes the ball. His split step is low. His knees are flexed throughout. So, no time is required to load his legs in order to spring towards the ball after landing. He turns immediately onto the ball of his hitting foot as he takes a short backswing. From there, his highly grooved forward swing hits “through the ball,” never veering laterally or excessively upward.
Top-notch technique is necessary, but far from sufficient. Djokovic also boasts excellent anticipation based on studying videos of opponents, quick reactions, impeccable footwork, exceptional hand-eye coordination, a swing length determined by the speed of the serve and wonderful timing. All these enviable attributes enable Djokovic to return serve better than anyone in tennis history, an accolade previously accorded to Agassi and Jimmy Connors.
Djokovic’s backhand serve return has been more acclaimed, perhaps because he consistently returns first and second serves with power and depth. But his forehand return is just as effective, especially on pressure points. An aggressive forehand crosscourt return staved off the first match point against Federer in their memorable 2011 US Open semifinal, which Djokovic eventually won. Importantly, both wings are major weapons wherever serves are placed — up the T, wide, or at the body.
“It’s one of the most difficult things in our sport, holding your serve against Novak,” world No. 6 Zverev said after losing in four sets to the Serb at the Australian Open. That difficulty starts with Djokovic’s solidly returning Zverev’s booming first serve, which averages more than 130 mph, and attacking, whenever possible, the German’s second serve.
Once the Serb returns an opponent’s serve, their problems only grow. They’re caught between Scylla and Charybdis. Just like the two monsters that terrorised mariners in Greek mythology, Djokovic’s forehand and backhand present two bad alternatives for his foes.
Aslan Karatsev, whose Cinderella run was stopped by Djokovic in the Australian Open semifinals earlier this year, described his conqueror. “The difference [between Djokovic and other players he faced] is really big. He doesn’t give you free points. On my service game, there’s always rallies and rallies.”
“He doesn’t miss”
After Djokovic demolished Daniil Medvedev 7-5, 6-2, 6-2 in the Australian final, the Russian had a similar reaction. “When he’s in the zone, he doesn’t miss,” Medvedev said. “He goes down the line, cross[court], forehand, backhand, he doesn’t miss. That’s what is the most, the toughest part of playing against him.”
Both of Djokovic’s groundstrokes actually don’t have to have all those superb assets. Furthermore, he doesn’t have to be “in the zone” to win best-of-five-set matches at Grand Slam events. That’s because his relentless, ultra-sound strokes sooner or later break down his opponents’ strokes, stamina or fighting spirit.
One key to the effectiveness of the Djokovic forehand is his semi-open stance. “This type of stance is more or less a combination of the open stance and the neutral stance,” writes Tennisinstruction.com . “The good thing about this stance is that he gets the benefits of both stances. That is the generation of quick racquet head speed due to angular momentum [from the open stance] and the generation of linear motion and more forward movement [from the neutral stance]. It also allows the Djokovic forehand to produce so much of the kinetic chain of energy.”
Djokovic’s classic semi-Western forehand doesn’t have the incomparable versatility, tactical creativity or flashy shot-making of Federer’s. Nor does it have Nadal’s vicious topspin (averaging around 3,300 rpm and sometimes surpassing 5,000) and sharp angles. But it has more power and consistency than Federer’s and more depth than Nadal’s. If the Serb doesn’t try to hit forehands as spectacularly as that of his two archrivals, it’s partly because he doesn’t have to rely on it as a breadwinner. His backhand is significantly better than theirs, so his baseline game is more balanced.
That superior forehand-backhand balance gives Djokovic more confidence, especially during long rallies and on pressure points. The distinguished coach Vic Braden put it best when he said, “Basically, the reason you choke is that you don’t have the strokes.” Indeed, Djokovic rarely chokes precisely because of his terrific strokes. Since 2015, he’s lost just one ATP Tour/Grand Slam match after holding at least one match point. Conversely, since then, he’s won five ATP Tour/Grand Slam matches after saving at least one match point, the most memorable during the 2019 Wimbledon final when he outlasted Federer 7-6, 1-6, 7-6, 4-6, 13-12 after escaping two match points.
Every young player should study the impeccable Djokovic backhand. Early and correct preparation sets the stage for precise shot execution. His blazing speed allows him to arrive early and then make small adjustment steps to align his body at the proper distance from the ball laterally and also from the bounce point. That in turn allows him to plant his feet in a semi-closed stance with excellent balance. His head is still and his eyes focus intently on the oncoming ball. An early backswing is followed by smooth, fast acceleration on his forward swing through the hitting zone. After he continues to extend his arms straight ahead, like a train on railroad tracks, he completes his swing with a long, upward follow-through over his right shoulder.
As a consequence of such technical perfection, Djokovic effortlessly produces powerful, accurate and deep backhands like a ball machine set on high. When pulled way off the court and stretched to the limit, he shows off his signature shot, an open-stance two-hander that often turns defence into offence.
The only technical imperfection in Djokovic’s entire game is his one-handed slice backhand. It has too much underspin, and its low net clearance sometimes results in net errors. Unlike his other strokes, his slice backhand looks unnatural and even awkward. Strangely, for such an experienced player, especially one with a great two-handed backhand, Djokovic sometimes uses his one-hander too much and also when he should be attacking with his two-hander.
Besides serve returns, the ultimate test for groundstrokes is passing shots. Can a world-class player execute passing shots on the dead run? Can he handle great power and both topspin and slice? Can he hit them equally well down the line and crosscourt? Can he keep the ball low when he can’t hit an outright passing shot? Is he consistent? Above all, can he pass opponents when it matters most: on game points, set points, and match points? Djokovic gets an A- to A+ grade in all these categories.
The Djokovic volley, though overshadowed by his groundstrokes, is finally getting well-deserved acclaim as yet another super-sound shot in his arsenal. At the Australian Open, he won an excellent 73 percent of his points at the net, peaking at a terrific 89 percent in the final.
Precise footwork and a contact point well in front of his body are two keys to his volleying balls coming at varying speeds, spins and height. His unmatched agility and flexibility enable him to handle lunging volleys. Djokovic isn’t blessed with the great touch of Federer and Nadal, but he’s still capable of hitting drop volleys. His only weakness at net is positional. Occasionally, Djokovic doesn’t move laterally to the centre of possible returns or move far enough forward.
The no-frills Djokovic serve seldom exceeds 125 mph and doesn’t produce a fusillade of aces, although he did average 14.7 aces a match in Melbourne. It has no flourishes or stylistic uniqueness, such as Raonic’s pronounced rocking motion, Boris Becker’s deep knee bend, or John McEnroe’s extremely closed stance. From a narrow platform stance, he consistently tosses the ball to the ideal height and hits it with a compact, perfectly executed swing. This precision has resulted in impressive consistency — a 65.2 first-serve percentage, second only to Zverev among top-10 players, and a stingy 2.9 double faults per match during the past 52 weeks. Tellingly, like all outstanding strokes, when his serve errs, it doesn’t miss by much.
What the Djokovic serve lacks in flair, it more than makes up for in results. During his 2018-21 dominance, its accuracy and depth have been better than ever. So has his average first serve power, which has increased from around 115–118 mph to 120 mph in the Australian Open final. Almost as important, his second serve averaged a respectable 97 mph, more than the 6’6” Medvedev’s 93 mph. Against the Russian, Djokovic won an impressive 58 percent of his second-serve points, far better than Medvedev’s 32 percent.
As for supplementary shots, the Djokovic lob and lob volley are excellent, though he tends to indulge in the latter too much. His drop shot is also used too often, especially on hard courts, and sometimes injudiciously from behind the baseline. While the technique is correct, he sometimes overestimates his touch. For example, in the 2020 French Open final, a series of mediocre drop shots badly backfired against Nadal. He corrected this tactical problem at the Australian Open in February.
So what’s not to like, even love, about the Djokovic game? His overhead, of course. The issue isn’t consistency, although he blew two routine smashes against Medvedev. That prompted ESPN analyst Patrick McEnroe to say, “As great as he is, it’s amazing how poor his overhead is.”
That’s an overstatement because Djokovic rarely misses overheads. The problem is, he just doesn’t put enough of them away. Although his sprinting, positioning, technique and timing are first-rate, the Serb doesn’t accelerate his swing enough to produce knockout power. That timidity lets opponents hang in there and return some of his smashes. This inexplicable lack of aggressiveness when striking the sport’s most lethal shot creates a vicious cycle. As a result, Djokovic has seemingly lost confidence hitting lobs from more than a yard beyond the service line.
The moral of this story is: no one’s perfect, not even Djokovic. But he comes closer than any player in tennis history to achieving technical perfection.
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