What makes the Djokovic backhand great?

Novak Djokovic’s two-handed backhand rarely falters. Its rock-solid reliability and excellence shine on both offence and defence, against diverse playing styles, and most impressively, when returning serve. Rick Macci, rated a Master Professional by the U.S. Professional Tennis Association and who has coached some World No. 1-ranked players, analyses the Serb’s much-celebrated stroke.

Published : Oct 26, 2016 15:44 IST

Novak Djokovic... the best backhand in the game today.
Novak Djokovic... the best backhand in the game today.

Novak Djokovic... the best backhand in the game today.

The flawless backhand of World No. 1 Novak Djokovic, the forehand of Rafael Nadal, and the serve of Roger Federer rank among the greatest shots in tennis history. Each of these mega-weapons is renowned for its point-winning aggression and its relentless consistency.

Whether he’s on hard, clay, or grass courts, whether he’s at Grand Slam or ATP Tour events, or whether he’s playing in the early or late rounds, Djokovic’s two-handed backhand rarely falters. Its rock-solid reliability and excellence shine on both offence and defence, against diverse playing styles, and most impressively, when returning serve.

I spoke to Rick Macci and asked him to analyse every aspect of the backhand that has propelled Djokovic to 12 major and a record 30 Masters titles.

Macci has been the personal coach of five players who have ranked No. 1: Serena Williams, Venus Williams, Andy Roddick, Jennifer Capriati and Maria Sharapova. He has also coached Grand Slam title winners Mary Pierce and Anastasia Myskina. Rated a Master Professional by the United States Professional Tennis Association, Macci received the USPTA Professional of the Year in North America award in 2003, and he serves on the USPTA Player Development board. For many years, he has been a featured instructor in the award-winning videos “On Court with USPTA” on Tennis Channel.

When Macci isn’t sharing his expertise as a featured speaker at clinics and seminars around the world, he runs a year-round junior tennis programme and a summer tennis camp at his eponymous tennis academy in Boca Raton, Florida.

Question: Rick, would you please describe the grip Djokovic uses for each hand and explain why the correct grip is essential to produce a consistently sound backhand?

Answer: Djokovic’s grip has a major impact on the point of contact between the racket and the ball. It determines the angle of the racket face. Djokovic holds the racket with a Continental grip with his right (dominant) hand and a semi-Western forehand grip with his left (non-dominant) hand. It’s one of the most advantageous ways to hold the racket to produce maximum power and spin. Severe or extreme grips adversely affect the racket face on contact, and that can really limit a player’s potential on the two-handed backhand.

Djokovic’s preparation starts with the unit turn. What is the unit turn? And why is it essential?

Players should always take the racket back with their shoulders — unless they’re in a state of emergency. When the shoulders take the racket back, it’s called a unit turn. You stay connected so that nothing from the arms becomes disconnected from the trunk. When players do that on the two-handed backhand, you see more consistent solidness, even at a young age.

What is the role of the wrist of the dominant hand and the non-dominant hand in Djokovic’s two-handed backhand?

There is no wrist action involved. The hands are relaxed. The wrists are locked but passive. The only time the wrists come into play is for an emergency shot.

Djokovic’s backhand is a little different from that of a lot of the women on the WTA Tour because they have what we call a “bubble loop,” which is an extra loop. Djokovic brings the racket back by taking his hands along his waist, and he stretches his arms all the way back. Then he pulls forward with his right arm and he pushes forward with his left arm. This action is effective only if the racket starts off all the way back. And you have to keep the racket on the hitting side of the body. Sometimes players take the racket back and make a “bubble loop.” They do that to create racket head speed, but the racket goes behind the body.

With Djokovic’s backhand, like that of Agassi and Murray and many of the other great backhands, the racket goes all the way back and then they pull with the right arm and push with the left arm. And when they pull it, it causes the racket to flip down and back. And biomechanically, that generates more racket head speed with a shorter stroke.

At the contact point, Djokovic’s left arm looks almost straight and his right arm is slightly bent on his two-handed backhand. Is this what you recommend?

Yes, absolutely. This is the modern ATP Tour backhand. But it will happen only if you take the racket back and set it, and then you pull with the right arm and push with the left arm. In Djokovic’s preparation, his right arm is straight and his left arm is bent. Then, if you look at the end of the stroke, the arms have reversed positions. The right arm ends up bent, and the left arm is almost straight. This is the optimal way in today’s game because of the great power and spin you’re facing.

How far in front of the right or front hip should the racket be when it contacts the ball?

If you’re hitting down the line, you’ll contact the ball a little later. But it’s still old school. You have to hit the ball in front of your body. If you don’t hit it in front, whether you’re using an open stance or a closed stance, something will be compromised. That hasn’t changed from the time people first played tennis. The contact point will be 6” to 12” in front, depending on whether you hit down the line or crosscourt.

Djokovic’s racket face is vertical at the contact point, but then he very slightly closes the racket face. Why does he do that?

The racket face closes both as a cause and an effect. Djokovic pulls with the right arm and pushes with the left arm. You can almost see the left arm go straight down, and as he approaches the ball, the racket face is a little closed. That is caused by the grip. Because he has a semi-Western grip, that naturally orients the racket face a little bit down. Some players close the racket face a little bit so they can impart more topspin on the ball.

Footwork is crucial for every stroke, and the split step is an important aspect of footwork. What is noteworthy about Djokovic’s split step?

At the highest levels of competition, if you don’t split step, you’ll get a late start when you run for the ball. The art of the split step involves timing it. You have to time it right before your opponent contacts the ball. Then you explode in either direction. Djokovic has tremendous make-up speed. So when you combine the timing of the split step with his great make-up speed and impeccable balance and optimal technique, that’s what makes his backhand the best in men’s tennis since Andre Agassi.

What about Djokovic’s next step, the decision step?

It’s all situational. The first step depends on whether or not you’re in a state of emergency. After you split step, your first step won’t be as long as your next one, when you’re going to be bursting.

Rafael Nadal recently said that his forehand has been less effective this year because sometimes he doesn’t arrive on time to hit the ball. Djokovic rarely arrives late to hit his backhand. Considering how hard groundstrokes are hit today, how does he do that?

Nadal, because of injuries and age (he turned 30 on June 3), has lost a half-step or even a step. Let’s face it. If he doesn’t have his great wheels, the quality of his forehand and backhand is going to be compromised. Djokovic’s movement has not diminished whatsoever. Tennis is a sport of time, and if you’re not set up early or at least on time, you’re not going to have as many options.

Tracy Austin, two-time U.S. Open champion and Tennis Channel analyst, praised Djokovic’s balance as “incredible.” What are the keys to his exceptional balance?

The first key is genetic. There are other players on the ATP Tour with tremendous innate talent. The second key is very high-level instruction at a young age. When your upper body is straight and your shoulders are level and you rotate your body (properly) as you approach the contact point, you’re going to maximise the power source.

When kids improvise or they lean toward the ball or they lean backward, this hampers the technique. When Djokovic hits the ball, he’s so balanced and stable, it’s almost like he has a cup of water on his head and on his shoulder. One of the biggest factors in producing a great stroke is your balance.

Djokovic hits most of his backhands — unless he arrives late to the ball — with a semi-closed stance so that the line extending from the toes of both feet is at a 45-degree angle. What are the benefits of a semi-closed stance?

Footwork for the top players is situational. The speed of the oncoming ball and where you’re positioned on the court and the shot you select dictates whether you use an open stance, a closed stance, a semi-open stance, or a semi-closed stance. When Djokovic is under a lot of pressure, he’ll hit as many open-stance backhands with his weight on his left foot as he will when he steps forward with his front (right) foot. So there is not a wrong way or a right way, though there is sometimes a better way. And Djokovic decides what is best in each situation.

What is your opinion of Djokovic’s extremely open stance, when he is totally stretched out and on the dead run?

His overall dexterity and flexibility increase his range of motion which enables him to make great shots in extremely difficult situations. When he’s stretched out and has to use an open stance, he can come up with the goods because of his athleticism and his overall flexibility. Biomechanically, because he uses the pull-push (stroke) method that makes the racket flip down and back, he can generate great racket head speed to produce a high quality shot when he’s stretched out. The game today is so fast that when Djokovic is in an emergency situation, his flexibility and elasticity make his shot-making, especially off the backhand, better than anyone in the world today.

Djokovic strives to hit most backhands in the middle of his “strike zone,” from about hip to waist high. But his strike zone seems larger than anyone else’s because he can still attack high balls near his shoulders and low balls near his knees. How does he manage to do that?

Watch his centre of gravity. When he bends his knees, he still keeps his spine straight and vertical. A lot of players bend over from the waist, and they’ll kind of scoop the ball, so their racket head speed diminishes. Djokovic is maximising the speed and spin whether the ball is at his shoulders or at his waist or below his knees. His picture-perfect posture allows him to maximise his technique.

For high balls, he takes the racket back to the level of the ball and uses his great grips to orient the racket face perfectly, and the bigger muscles in the legs, hips, and shoulders help bring the racket through. A lot of people don’t understand that the racket comes along for the ride. Just like when you hit a baseball or a golf ball, the bigger muscles run the show. And that’s also what helps him change the direction of the oncoming ball when he returns serve. He can produce power at the shoulder level because he’s all connected. He’s not playing (just) with his arms. He’s playing with the bigger muscles all the time, and the racket is like a passenger in the car.

According to the 2015 book Tennis Science, “Acceleration is one-half of the agility equation — the other is effective deceleration.” With these two criteria in mind, how would you evaluate Djokovic’s agility?

I totally agree with that. First, you have to have the ability to change directions because tennis today is like pinball. You’re often in emergency situations, and the ability to stop and start effortlessly is huge. That ability can be taught and enhanced a little bit, but that is more of a genetic quality.

Second, regarding deceleration, it’s one thing to get to the ball, but you don’t want to keep on running past the alley. You want to slow down and control your movement so you can create a relaxed balance. Djokovic’s ability to start and stop is incredible. Combine that with his terrific technique, and you get greatness from his backhand wing.

Djokovic can both handle pace and generate pace superbly. What are the keys to achieving that?

He loves to run and he loves to defend. That’s a mind-set. He’s like a little rat. He likes to get every shot back. He’s got to get the cheese. When he does that, he likes to take the pace off his opponent’s shots. But when the opportunity is there, every player, especially Djokovic, likes to pull the trigger and put pace on the ball. Because of the superb technique he uses, he can grab the ball. It doesn’t have that much to do with his feel or touch. I don’t think his touch is that great or you’d see it more at the net. His technique is so optimal that he can grab the ball like a vacuum cleaner and take the pace off it.

Djokovic’s backhand can also handle vicious spin routinely, as evidenced by the way he has returned Nadal’s heavily spun forehand with consistency and high quality. What are the keys to dealing with heavy and high-bouncing topspin?

First, it requires impeccable footwork. Djokovic adjusts his feet to the ball with little steps to get into position. Second, he wants to control the centre of the court. That’s why Nadal’s strength, his great crosscourt forehand, goes right into Djokovic’s wheelhouse, which is Djokovic’s high backhand. When Nadal hits that shot against Federer’s one-handed backhand, Nadal finds a weakness, not a strength. Djokovic wants to take Nadal’s forehand early and flatten his return.

So Djokovic’s mastery comes from the grips, the technique, how he sets up for the ball, and a mind-set that he has: I’m playing the ball, and the ball is not playing me. This is on my terms. Djokovic developed this mind-set at a young age. He wants to take the ball on the rise. So it’s not a big deal for him to handle high-bouncing balls. He does it calmly and without stress.

Great strokes like the Federer serve, the Nadal forehand and the Djokovic backhand have a lot of rhythm. How does having this rhythm help Djokovic’s backhand? And how do young players increase their rhythm on their groundstrokes, especially their backhand?

Tennis is about rhythm. It’s almost like you’re on the court performing ballet. The power starts from the ground up. The legs and the hips are the ignition. You push on the ground to ignite. A lot of players just want to hit the ball hard, and they think they can get away with it just by using their arms. You see that, especially with club players. But at the highest levels, the leg drive and the hips initiate racket speed.

Coaches and teaching pros need to emphasise that because a lot of players are not rhythmic, and they don’t time their feet to the ball. You have to start thinking about becoming rhythmical at a young age so you can hone it. Then it will become automatic even when opponents change pace against you.

Djokovic often has a long follow-through with the racket head finishing over his right shoulder and almost touching his back. Why is the follow-through so important even though a player has already hit the ball?

The follow-through is more of a teaching tool for teaching pros. It’s a blueprint or road map to hit through the ball because a lot of people might (otherwise) slow the racket down or they might not follow-through completely.

At the highest levels, the follow-through is both a cause and an effect. It’s all situational. For example, when Djokovic returns serve, the racket very seldom goes over the shoulder. His return of serve entails a unit turn, an abbreviated backswing, and an abbreviated follow-through. It’s almost like a block. When players have a lot of time, the racket will go over the shoulder. When players use too much arm or wrist, I teach the follow-through another way. I have them control their hands at the end, and they never continue over the shoulder. This was a real attribute of Jennifer Capriati, Anastasia Myskina, and Mary Pierce. A lot of these great backhands don’t whip it over their shoulder all the time. It’s situational.

What are the best ways to generate moderate topspin on the two-handed backhand?

It’s based on the forward trajectory of your racket. The grips influence the racket face. You have to make sure you have power grips. You don’t want funky grips where you have a severe Western grip with your left hand. That prevents you from hitting through the ball. To generate topspin, you have to swing low to high. But you want to vary the angle of the racket coming up. When the ball comes at Djokovic’s shoulder, he’s almost hitting straight through the ball (level). Sometimes he’ll even swing down at the ball. It depends on the height of the ball, where you’re positioned on the court, and what your intentions are. You adapt the technique to what’s coming at you.

How does Djokovic adapt to low balls, which can be difficult for two-handed players?

On low balls, Djokovic makes a greater effort to bend his knees more and lift his swing up more. He puts his left (rear) knee almost on the ground, like Serena. The racket face is closed more. His main goal is to add some topspin and arc and stay in the rally. He’s not trying to belt the ball.

Djokovic rarely hits the ball too early or too late, even against change-of-pace artists like Andy Murray. What are the keys to his great timing?

You have to be relaxed. I work with kids on this all the time. They’re so eager. They’re hitting the backhand like a flamingo. They’re already on one leg, leaning forward. They might get away with it to some extent, but they lose power and timing. Djokovic has made a habit of focusing on balance, while he takes the ball early. He’s never excited or sluggish. He rarely looks rushed. And that starts with great footwork.

Champions from Fred Perry to Connors to Justine Henin to Federer have taken the ball early to rush opponents and elicit errors. How do you rate Djokovic in this vital area?

All the players take the ball early. If you don’t, you’re going to be running around the court so much that you better be one of the fastest players in the world, unless you’re trying to win matches just on foot speed.

Djokovic, however, takes it a little earlier than other players. He’s like all the great boxers. The best players probe in and out of the baseline, and they try to take the ball even earlier when they have a little time and can move inside the court.

Once again, it’s all situational. They’re trying to play the game on their terms and not on their opponent’s terms. If you don’t take the ball somewhat early in today’s game, you don’t have a chance.

Because two-handed backhand players today almost always have a one-handed slice backhand in their arsenal but one-handed backhand players don’t have a two-handed backhand, does that give two-handed players a big advantage over one-handed backhand-only opponents?

The reason why you see one-handed backhand slices today is that the game is 10-15 miles per hour faster than ever and the spin rates are off the charts. Because tennis is more of a movement sport than ever before, you have to get the ball back low, you have to get the ball back crosscourt. You have to slow the game down so you have time to recover. You don’t want to try low-percentage shots when you’re outside the court. That’s why two-handers have been forced to develop and use a one-hander when they’re forced out wide.

The differences between two-handed backhands and one-handed backhands are very distinct. You can return serve better with two hands. You can attack short balls better with two hands. So most players should play with two hands unless at a young age, they handle the racket like a magician and one hand looks very natural and they want to do it. But in today’s game, the advantages of the two-handed backhand far outweigh the advantages of the one-handed backhand.

Connors and Andre Agassi boasted the greatest backhand returns of serve before Djokovic arrived. What makes Djokovic’s so great?

First, he takes the ball early. Second, he has great hand-eye coordination. Third, he has great balance. Fourth, he has great technique. Because the bigger muscles in his legs and hips and shoulder dictate what will happen, he can direct the return crosscourt or down the line, just as Connors and Agassi did.

All the great two-handed players have a great return of serve. That’s because biomechanically their body and racket are connected. They’re not wristy players. They’re not over-using their arms. And they don’t have funky grips. Everything looks connected, like one piece.

What grip do you recommend for the dominant hand when returning serve?

I’ve done this for 35 years. There’s not a right way, there’s not a wrong way, there’s a better way. You will see different ways of doing this. I let players experiment. It’s really situational whether they use a semi-Western forehand grip and they change the grip when the serve comes to their forehand, or they wait there with a backhand grip and then change to the forehand.

Most of the players I coach wait for the serve with the forehand grip, and then, if necessary, they change it to the backhand. But other players wait with the backhand grip because they feel most of the serves are aimed at their backhand on the first serve. But on the second serve, most wait with their forehand grip because they know they can often run around and hit their forehand. With either grip, sometimes the serves are so massive that returners have so little time they just block or chip the ball back.

Despite the massive serves today, Djokovic seldom gets aced. What are the keys to his “reading” his opponents’ serves? What does he look for?

The conventional wisdom is that the best returners try to read patterns and tendencies. Everybody does that, and some players do it better than others. But Djokovic’s quickness, agility, and his ability to hit serves when he’s extremely stretched out give him another layer of versatility to get serves back. That’s why it’s hard to ace him. He’s able to hit balls when stretched — even better than Agassi — and that’s because of his genetic advantage.

Not surprisingly, Djokovic has one of the best, if not the best, backhand passing shots? Why is it so effective?

Djokovic has one of the best backhand passing shots because he’s so confident in it, his mechanics are so optimal, his balance is impeccable, and his footwork is so precise. He can thread the needle either crosscourt or down the line. He arrives early to hit the ball and that gives him options. So he doesn’t feel under a lot of pressure or anxiety. When you have great technique and you can hit the ball down the line or crosscourt, you can also create angles. So he has a total package.

Paul Annacone, the former coach of Pete Sampras and Federer, commented, “Djokovic can transform defence to offence better than anyone ever.” That’s high praise considering Federer and Nadal are sensational in this area. How does Djokovic pull off this most difficult tennis manoeuvre?

I don’t think he can go from defence to offence better than Federer. I have to disagree with Paul simply because Federer can regain court position with the chip, and then get back in control and whack his forehand. Fed’s forehand can do a little more damage than Djokovic’s. But once again, it’s all about movement. So three things explain Djokovic’s ability to go quickly from defence to offence. It’s his movement, his movement, and his movement.

Djokovic, like Nadal and Federer, has his eyes locked on the ball throughout the point. Is watching the ball intently the key to hand-eye coordination?

Obviously, you need to focus on the ball. Ninety-five percent of the players on the pro tours shift the head, and Djokovic is guilty of this sometimes, too. In the last three milliseconds, almost every player, except for Federer, shifts the head. You should look at the back of the racket strings after contacting the ball or keep your head still, which is the hardest thing to do.

We’ve done research on this, and the best corrective technique is to look at the strings. Biomechanically, that keeps you contacting the ball longer, which makes your shots more solid, and you hit the ball more in front. Djokovic does this right pretty much regularly on the backhand, but not so well on the forehand. Federer does it right all the time.

Not shifting the head is the hardest thing to teach because our brain and eyes are orientated toward the target. And that’s why Federer almost never mis-hits a ball unless he’s really nervous. When I get students to do this, it improves their game a lot. Billie Jean King was superb at doing this when hitting the backhand volley as are other champions hitting certain shots. But even great players who have won Grand Slam titles shift their heads sometimes. So the moral of this story is, we can all get better.

Even some superstars, like Federer and Nadal, don’t have excellent down-the-line backhands. The down-the-line backhand must clear a higher net, and it has less total distance available to hit into, compared to the crosscourt backhand. What are the keys to Djokovic’s outstanding down-the-line backhand?

That’s easy. Biomechanically, Djokovic is flawless. Federer uses too much arm on his backhand, so it’s a little harder for him to hit down the line. The same is true for Rafa on his two-handed backhand. The best two-handed backhand players — Djokovic, Agassi, Connors, Capriati, and Murray — are all connected with their big muscles in the legs, the hips, and the shoulders leading the way.

When we grab a racket, we think we hit the ball with our arms. But basically we use the bigger muscles to bring the racket to contact the ball. So the body pulls the racket, and the hands provide the feel. And these connected players can easily adjust their contact points to hit down the line or crosscourt.

Murray and Kei Nishikori have the best backhands after Djokovic. How does their technique — grips, footwork, and swings — differ from Djokovic’s?

They are all very similar. I haven’t looked at their grips, but I think they are very similar because you can see at the contact point their racket faces are vertical. Their swings have a pull with the right arm and a push with the left arm. They don’t have a bubble loop. And they take the hands back around the waist.

Murray’s racket head is not as high above the hands as Djokovic’s and Nishikori’s. When the racket head is a little bit above the hands and you pull it, like a baseball or golf swing, it flips the racket down and back a little faster. Murray’s backswing is a little straighter, but it is cocked. That’s essential because you don’t want to lower the racket right away, like Venus. Even though it works, it’s not optimal.

All three players are balanced and they have a common mind-set: take the ball early and try to dictate as much as possible with their backhand.

One of the great attributes of Djokovic’s backhand is that it’s extremely grooved. What drills do you recommend for young players to groove their backhand?

That’s a great question. The problem is, you don’t want to groove a train wreck. You better start from scratch and make sure you have grips that are going to produce power. Second, the bigger muscles have to run the show. There are many drills to instil this. I have the players just pivot their body and point.

In my experience, in 90 percent of backhands, players use their arms and hands too much. I did a study of the top 20 women on the pro tour, and they all had better two-handed backhands than forehands. That’s because as youngsters they all started with two hands and kind of locked into it, and that kept their body and stroke connected, in general. With a one-hander, a lot of things can go wrong. And when you use less of your arms, you tend to use more of your feet which improves your footwork.

Everything I’m saying is based on fact, science, and research. At our academy, I work with Dr. Brian Gordon, who received his Ph.D. in biomechanics. We’ve looked at 10,000 MRIs of players’ strokes. This 3-D analysis of stroke mechanics is considered the premier teaching tool in the world.

In your 2013 book, Macci Magic, you wrote this about Serena and Venus Williams: “After Rick Macci, no one really coached them…. Unfortunately, there are still holes in their games technically that they never really got sewn up, or they could have been even better.” Were any of those technical flaws on the backhand?

Biomechanically, Venus does not hit her backhand the most effective way. She lowers the racket immediately on the backswing. The racket head, just like a baseball bat or a golf club, should always be a little bit above the wrist. So she sacrificed some power with her technique, but she made up for that because she is strong, agile, and fast.

At an early age, Venus loved putting the racket down on the backswing and hitting backhands with an open stance. When you hit so much open stance, you have to make sure you turn your front shoulder all the way. With the open stance, you have a tendency to prematurely face the net and that slows down the racket. But even with the open stance, you can still get enough angular momentum from the body turning.

On the plus side, Venus is tall, and her technique helped her get down to hit low balls. Even more important for Venus and Serena, their down-the-line backhands are disguised. This freezes opponents who can’t “read” them. Their open-stance, two-handed backhands are the most disguised, deceptive shots in the history of women’s tennis.

Tennis strokes, especially groundstrokes, have evolved over the decades. Does the Djokovic backhand represent perfection? Or will the two-handed backhand continue to evolve and get even better?

That’s an easy question to answer. Djokovic is a little bit ahead of his time, and a lot of these guys are. If you look at the two-handed backhand in general, the men do it differently from the women. It’s all predicated on the speed and the spin rate of the shot. A lot of women take the racket back and have a bubble loop where they whip the racket around the body. As a result, the women are generating more left-arm speed from inertia. They’re getting it from the arm. The men have the racket all the way back at 6 o’clock or 6:30 or 7, and they pull-push it.

That really hasn’t been taught. They just figured out, out of necessity, how to do it. This is the optimal way to hit a two-handed backhand in the year 2016. And as the game gets even faster, this stroke is actually easier when you play closer to the baseline and you want to hit the ball on the rise against players who hit the ball harder. So if you want a player to emulate, it’s Djokovic.

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