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How Novak Djokovic Took Over Tennis
Like an impassioned conductor galvanizing an orchestra, Novak Djokovic spread his arms toward the US Open crowd and smiled. He appealed for their appreciation after a brilliant, match-saving shot, and for their energy to sustain his improbable comeback. It worked. Spectators who had rooted wildly for five-time champion Roger Federer responded with a thunderous ovation for Djokovic.
On the brink of extinction—down 5-3, 40-15 in the fifth set—Djokovic had just blasted a forehand winner off Federer’s first serve. “It’s one of the all-time great shots you’ll see under pressure,” raved John McEnroe, a four-time US titlist. One match point survived, but another stared Djokovic in the face.
Click photo: On match point, Djokovic gave up caution. He gave up fear of missing. He gave up his inhibition. Then, like an impassioned conductor galvanizing an orchestra, Novak Djokovic spread his arms toward the US Open crowd and smiled.
Few could have thought Djokovic would now repeat his memorable Houdini-like escape against the legendary Federer in the 2010 US Open semifinals when he staved off two match points with eye-popping winners.
Inspired by boisterous New York fans who three years earlier had jeered him for criticizing American Andy Roddick, Djokovic barely returned a body serve on the second match point. Federer then pounced and pounded a forehand that clipped the top of the net and ricocheted wildly out. His spirit and momentum broken, Federer double-faulted to lose that pivotal game, and the surging Serb seized 17 of the last 21 points. A decisive four-set triumph over defending champion Rafael Nadal in the rain-delayed final seemed anti-climactic in comparison.
Djokovic’s stunning US Open turnaround encapsulated a spectacular 2011, re-igniting a career that had stalled at No. 3 since he dethroned reigning champion and then No. 1 Federer en route to capturing the 2008 Australian. (You may remember his proud mother Dijana’s premature declaration—“The king is dead.”) This year started with pundits debating whether rampaging Rafael Nadal, winner of the last three majors in 2010, would achieve a rare Grand Slam. If not, it was widely assumed that Federer, the other half of the duopoly that had split up 21 of the previous 23 majors, would add to his career-record 16.
Instead, it was the irrepressible Djokovic who nearly pulled off a Grand Slam. Like Caesar, who declared “I came, I saw, I conquered” after an overwhelming Roman victory, Djokovic vanquished 41 straight opponents to start the year and captured every major tournament except for Roland Garros where Federer ambushed him.
How did Djokovic take over the game?
Djokovic, with doctor-nutritionist, Igor Cetojevic (center).
His doctor-nutritionist, Igor Cetojevic, deserves plenty of credit for discovering that the lithe 24-year-old suffers from celiac disease, an intolerance of the small intestines to gluten found in many grains, such as wheat and barley. “I can’t eat stuff like pizza, pasta and bread,” explained Djokovic whose family, ironically, owns a pizza and pancake restaurant near Belgrade. “I have lost some weight, but it’s only helped me because my movement is much sharper now and I feel great physically.”
With his new gluten-free diet this year, Djokovic was no longer gasping for breath after punishing points or retiring from matches because of breathing problems and exhaustion. (Roddick once ridiculed him for having 16 diseases including SARS.) Djokovic’s health and fitness improved so much that he was outlasting opponents, even the ultimate warrior Nadal, who cramped after their grueling 4-6, 6-3, 7-6 final in brutally hot Miami. “For someone to out-tough Rafa? I’d never seen that,” said former No. 1 Jim Courier.
No Stone Unturned
Make no mistake: Djokovic left no stone unturned in his quest to become the best. His dramatic improvement resulted from better technique, particularly on his serve. At the Australian Open, respected TV analyst Darren Cahill noted, “There’s an incredible difference in Djokovic’s serve now.” There Djokovic, who had the dubious distinction of being the only top-50 player with more double faults than aces in 2010, smacked 21 aces against only six double faults in his decisive victories over Tomas Berdych, Federer and Andy Murray.
Click photo: Novak's dramatic improvement resulted from better technique, particularly on his serve.
Longtime coach and confidant Marian Vajda explains: “From 2007 to 2009 his arm was bent a lot at the end of the backswing like a baseball throw, and the same is true this year. That method is correct. But in 2010, his arm was straight, like a bowler in cricket. Another big difference is that from 2007 to 2009 and again this year, he had more racket head speed and forward and upward thrust, which caused him to jump three or four inches off the court. All these things gave both his first as well as his second serve more power, accuracy and consistency.”
Djokovic, called “Nole” by his family, friends, and fans, also added more power and depth to his forehand by flattening it somewhat, and then used it to punish the relatively weak backhands of Federer and Nadal. His picture-perfect two-handed backhand provided him with yet another weapon to dictate rallies. Djokovic exploited these assets by hitting balls on the rise very close to the baseline, like Andre Agassi, and with smarter shot selection.
What separates Djokovic most from the contenders, though, is that his relentlessly aggressive serve return off both sides defuses—even attacks—explosive serves. “The way Djokovic is returning [serve] this year is beyond belief,” praised CBS analyst McEnroe. Significantly, he leads the ATP Tour in return games won (41%, much better than Nadal’s 36% and Federer’s 27%) and points won returning 2nd serve (58%), and ranks second in points won returning 1st serve (37%) and break points converted (48%).
Djokovic has developed into a complete package with blazing speed and elastic agility that enable his highly athletic 6’2”, 176-pound physique to slide even on abrasive hard courts. “Now Djokovic’s defense is just as good as Nadal’s, and he has a lot better offense,” all-time great Martina Navratilova pointed out during his 6-2, 6-4, 6-7, 6-1 triumph in the US Open final.
Finally, Djokovic credited a new-found maturity for his then-unbeaten season going into the French Open. “I wasn’t emotionally stable,” he confided. “I went through some crises over the past two years, especially the first six months of 2010, when I was disturbed by things in my private life. The difference is my growing up. It improved my self-belief and confidence.”
Greatest Year Ever?
Was Djokovic’s magnificent 2011 “the greatest year in the history of our sport,” as McEnroe contended?
Supporters point to his three Grand Slam titles and 10 overall, including a record five Masters Series trophies, plus a dazzling 64-3 match record (two losses coming when his shoulder was injured). In addition, Djokovic dominated two tennis giants who have amassed double-digit majors. Amazingly, he shut out Nadal 6-0 (all in finals), prevailing on every surface, including the Spaniard’s beloved clay in Madrid and Rome; he ruled Federer 4-1; and he racked up a terrific 20-2 record against the top 10. Indeed, Djokovic faced tougher competition, including gifted No. 4 Murray, than any champion in history.
When discussing the question of the greatest season ever, it's difficult to overlook Rod Laver's 1969
In 2006, Federer edged Djokovic’s 2011 record slightly at Grand Slam events, winning three and reaching the French final, while notching 12 titles en route to a 92-5 mark. However, his competition, aside from Nadal, then a superstar only on clay, was considerably weaker—with Nicolay Davydenko, James Blake, Ivan Ljubicic, Andy Roddick, Tommy Robredo, David Nalbandian, Mario Ancic and Fernando Gonzalez filling out the top 10.
While comparing different eras is dangerous and probably impossible, I rate Rod Laver’s 1969 Grand Slam—winning all four majors—as the mythical greatest year ever. “Rocket” stopped savvy all-courter Andres Gimeno in the Australian final, clay maestro Ken Rosewall in the Roland Garros final, grass specialist John Newcombe in the Wimbledon final, and formidable serve-volleyer Tony Roche on grass in the US final. Laver, who also had to contend with stars Arthur Ashe, Stan Smith, Pancho Gonzalez, Cliff Drysdale and Tom Okker, won an astounding 18 tournaments.
Emulating Laver’s Grand Slam, the last achieved in the men’s game, should prove daunting for Djokovic in 2012 with competition tougher and deeper than ever. After he knocked off Federer and Nadal to win Indian Wells back in March, he acknowledged, “The challenge [of beating them back to back] is as hard as you can get in this sport.” But after capturing Flushing Meadows, Djokovic did not rule out a 2012 Grand Slam, saying, “I don’t want to say it’s not possible. Everything is.”
Nadal also faces an enormous challenge to dethrone the king and regain his throne. In his autobiography, RAFA, he revealed: “With Federer, the rule is always to keep patiently plugging away, knowing you’ll force him sooner or later to make mistakes. With Djokovic, there is no clear tactical plan. It is simply a question of playing at your very best, with maximum intensity and aggression, seeking to retain control of the point, because the moment you let him get the upper hand, he is unstoppable.” Nadal wrote that before Djokovic’s wonder year.
Come what may, the extroverted Djokovic will undoubtedly retain his joie de vivre. While “The Djoker” stopped doing hilarious impersonations of players like Maria Sharapova, Roddick and Nadal, the court jester wants to become another kind of entertainer—an actor.
“Yeah. Why not? I might do something if I have time soon. And I would like to,” Djokovic said the day after winning the US Open. “I just think show business is something that attracts me, that I really like watching, that I like being a part of. It’s part of my personality.”
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Oscar Borras, Uncle Toni, and Rafa: Anatomy of a Service Change
When Rafa won the US Open in 2010, a big deal was made by commentators on how his serve got so much better, and they attributed this to a grip change. But these commentators missed the real story. In this video, you'll see how Oscar Borras broke down Rafa's serve, separated it into segments, and rebuilt it from the ground up. This is a groundbreaking video that demonstrates how deliberate practice and chunking works, even with world class athletes. It is a road map on how to improve at any level. Christophe Delavaut
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ProStrokes 2.0 – Jo-Wilfried Tsonga Backhand
On the tour since 2001, Jo-Wilfried Tsonga has been a top 10 world-ranked pro for most of 2011 but was really knocking on the top-ten door since 2008 when he had his ‘break-out’ season reaching #6 in the world late in the year. A very physical player, Tsonga possesses a serve that limits attacking opponents, on top of having one of the best second serves on tour. Tsonga plays an all-court, attacking game, covers the court well and pops a formidable forehand, and a two-handed backhand that is as consistent as it is conventional, Tsonga is a great player to watch and emulate! New this issue, Tsonga's backhand.
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