Written by Charles Lin
Commentary — 01 February 2011
How does Djokovic win?

Sometimes you watch a pro, and you see the way they plan to win.  Other times, you wonder, how do they do it?

Let’s look at the number 1 and 2 in the world.

How does Rafa win?

Rafa wins with speed, precise hitting leading to instant offense, great shots on defense, and tenacity.  Most people play Rafa the “same” way.  They attack.

Why?  Suppose you decide you want to play shots up the middle.  At certain spots, Rafa will be obliged to give you back a neutral shot, but if the shot lacks enough pace and enough angle, Rafa will pounce on that and hit a winner.  Rafa does as good a job at generating angles as anyone and it makes him dangerous.  Rafa, however, is generally content not hitting outright winners.  He uses the angles and spin to make his opponents run, and eventually elicit a weak ball.

Rafa doesn’t mind pounding on a weakness, and then going for the winner once you leave a ball short.  Because of this, most players aren’t willing to play neutral with Rafa.  They figure, go on the offense first.  That’s because, despite Rafa’s tremendous offensive skills, he’s loathe to make lots of unforced errors.  He knows which shots he can hit big on, and which shots he’ll just return neutrally.  So you get a chance to go on offense early.

Because of that, Rafa also needs speed to chase down powerful shots, and incredibly fast reflexes to thread a pass as you come to net.  Rafa now pays attention to when you are on defensive and plans to hit a slice, and he’ll close into net quickly to finish with a volley.

In a nutshell, Rafa wins by forcing you to hit weak shots by opening up angles.  He eventually elicits a weak shot, and puts it away, or you miss.

How does Roger win?

Federer’s game generally revolves around his serve.  He’s not the hardest server in the world.  Players like Isner, del Potro, Soderling, and Karlovic all hit with more pure pace.  Federer is a precision server who can hit corners.  He also has a very good second serve.

The serve buys him, on a good day, about 2 free points a game, and that is huge.  Nadal is getting a few more free points a game, but his groundstrokes are so powerful and he’s so steady, that he really doesn’t need a big first serve.  Nadal can just outhit most players off the ground.

If you hit a weak reply, Federer goes for a winner.  Federer wins primarily by being aggressive, sometimes too aggressive.  He’ll try for big shots even in bad spots.  Sometimes it pays off, and he plays sublime.  Sometimes it doesn’t, and he starts piling up the errors.  Federer likes that tradeoff.  More errors, but more aggression.  Nadal plays a more controlled aggression to keep his errors down.

Lately, Federer has been adding more wrinkles to his game.  He uses the drop shot more than ever.  The modern game forces players to hit balls several meters back of the baseline.  As quick as many players are, they are still vulnerable to the drop shot.  Federer, of course, uses his dizzying array of strokes to get out of trouble spots, typically flicking a wrist, hitting a squash shot, or hitting a tweener, to win points.

But primarily, Federer looks for opportunities to win the point quickly.  Federer rarely tries to play ultra-long rallies and wait for an error.  When he’s forced into long rallies, Federer often hits a shank, or plays an ill-advised shot.  It’s just not in his mindset to outrally his opponent.

Federer’s not the best returner in the world, which is why, sometimes, he plays close matches.  Occasionally, he’ll be hot and return well too.  But often you’ll see easy Federer hold followed by a long opponent hold.

How does Djokovic win?

Djokovic neither has the aggression of a Federer, nor the ability to generate crazy angles like Rafa.  He doesn’t have a huge serve.  So how does Djokovic win?

Most people will tell you that it’s easiest to beat a player if you play your own game rather than play outside your style.  Andy Murray, for example, has an aggressive style he uses to play Nadal, but he won’t use that to play other players (mostly).  Djokovic, on the other hand, tends to play his style against most players, including Nadal.

Djokovic is the kind of player that does everything well, but nothing (except maybe his return) exceptionally well.  The three big keys to Djokovic’s game?  First, his speed.  He may not be as fast as Nadal or Murray, but he’s just behind them.  This allows him to chase down shots that bigger, slower players struggle against (say, Soderling or Berdych).  Second, Djokovic is good at hitting down-the-line.

Directionals tell you to hit crosscourt.  Some players, most notably Murray and Roddick, love crosscourt.  However, Djokovic loves down the line.  Sure, he hits crosscourt as well as anyone, but at times, when you want to go for a huge shot, you need to be able to hit down the line under pressure.

Third, Djokovic is a great returner.  While Murray and Nadal usually top the charts on defensive stats, Djokovic has done much better lately (and historically).

Djokovic showed, in the Australian Open, improved defensive skills.  When you hit a hard shot to him, he can sometimes hit a big shot back.  Or, if you really get him scrambling, he can now hit a lob from the baseline that lands inches from his opponent’s baseline.  And this buys him time to reset and start the next point.

Djokovic is also very steady.  With Djokovic playing good defense and able to stretch out the rallies, he was able to beat Federer by forcing Federer to play more neutral ball than he wanted.  This may be what Federer said by “I was confused” playing Djokovic.  He got away from playing aggressive ball because Djokovic did such a good job chasing these balls down.  Federer must have felt like Connors when Borg finally figured out how to beat him.  Connors was used to being ultra-aggressive but to see the speedy Borg get balls back time and again was infuriating.

And Djokovic has found rhythm in his serve again.  It prevents opponents form attacking him too easily and allows Djokovic to pay more attention to the ground game.

Of course, the real question isn’t so much how Djokovic wins, it’s how Murray wins with even more liabilities than Djokovic.  But that’s a topic for another blog post.

Let’s see if he continues to use the momentum of this win and try to wrestle number 2 from Roger, which has happened before.

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  1. Basically, that’s not how Djokovic wins now, although he may played that way with his old racquet. His game is much like the way he played until 2009, but with more spin and power from the baseline.

    First, he’s got his serve back – and he was among the top ten servers a few years ago, making, just like Federer, almost half of his points just serving. Just look at the ATP stats page: he is among the ten best with his 1ST SERVE PERCENTAGE, SERVICE GAMES WON, 1ST SERVE POINTS WON. He doesn’t hit his first serve too hard, but it is very difficult to read its direction. Against most of the players, after a good serve he finishes the point hitting a big forehand. When it doesn’t work, he can rally, being efficient from both the forehand and he backhand side, able to play crosscourt or down the line, with spin, slice or hitting flat. He can consistently hit lines from every part of the court, and his shotmaking is outstanding. His forehand is a great weapon, and he can do whatever he wants with it.

    His skills in defense are exceptional, and he is a good tactician.

    He has liabilities – his smash, volleying are far from what it should be.

  2. A good, interesting start, but I’d argue there is a lot more to their strategies.

    I’ve watched Fed play completely different strategies in back to back matches, or dramatically change strategy within a match.

    Example: in consecutive matches where Fed beat Murray and Djokovic in four straights at (Cincinnati 09, was it?) Fed played hyper-aggressive against Murray, eliminating his patient cross court game, by attacking with the forehand from everywhere. As Cahill/Gilbert put it, “Murray must think his backhand is the size of a postage stamp”.

    Then, the next day in the final, Fed played a radically different strategy. Djokovic likes to change direction, so Fed stayed neutral, rallied deep, forcing Djokovic to go outside his comfort zone forcing errors.

    Roughly six months later, Fed beat Murray in the AO final, playing another strategy. Murray expected Fed to run around his forehand, so he hit wide, cross-court BHs only to find that Fed was content to out-rally him from the backhand — and he did.

    Here’s a fourth example, ATP Cup finals: Nadal tried to do the usual strength-to-weakness, heavy forehand tospin to Fed’s backhand. But to his amazement, Fed took the backhands down-the-line, forced Nadal to hit backhand errors, or leave the ball short, after which Fed hit, wide, short BH winners to Nadal’s open forehand wing.

    Four matches, four completely different Fed strategies.

  3. Hi Charles,
    So, how Murray wins :-)….