Novak Djokovic’s current form has a sense of finality about it. He is far ahead of the rest of the pack and has established himself as the best tennis player the world has seen. The statistics tell the story. The World No.1 has 16,790 points to his name on the Association of Tennis Professionals tour, nearly double that of next best Andy Murray at 8,945 points.
For Murray to dislodge him, it would require Djokovic to be out of action for a long period. In other words, he is almost uncatchable. So what makes the Serb the ultimate winner?
Merely watching Djokovic play does not convey his total dominance. The only way to get a measure of it is by reading the finer points in recent statistics.
For instance, take the Djokovic-Roger Federer encounter at last month’s Australian Open in Melbourne. The 28-year-old crushed Federer 6-1 6-2 3-6 6-3. His dominance was total despite dropping a set. But what was the marked difference between the two world-class players?
The world number one was superior in almost every facet – in second serve points won (73% to Federer’s 49%), in saving break points (75% to Federer’s 44%) and also in the mastery of the return, winning 44 out of every 100 returns to his opponent’s lowly 27. His win percentage on first serve returns this year has been 35% and a strong 61% on the second serve.
Given the level at which Djokovic is playing, it is difficult to ascertain the exact role of his coach, German great Boris Becker. What more does the World No.1 need to be told? There is no aspect of his game that needs to be improved, mainly because the Djoker holds all the cards even in the finer aspects of the game.
In areas where Djoko is not at the top, he neutralises his disadvantage. For instance, his average forehand speed is 78.2 miles per hour. It is not the best – Stan Wawrinka, who beat him at the French Open final in 2015, has an average forehand speed of 80 miles per hour.
However, the difference with Djokovic is that he can still make scathing returns. The direction and trajectory of his shots arrive late, thus taking the ball away from his body. This gives the Serb an advantage because by the time the ball arrives, the swing of his racket is at its apogee.
In the zone
Big servers like Sam Groth or Ivo Karlovic tend to hit many aces, but they fail to achieve greatness. Perhaps it's because these men lag in some of the overlooked aspects of the game, like breaking back immediately or scoring well on returns. When Djokovic loses serve, he immediately breaks back 38% of the time, while in the case of the World No.77, it’s only 6%. Djokovic can catch a big server like Groth flat-footed because by the time Groth recovers from the follow-through of his big serve, Djokovic’s return has already blazed past him.
Djokovic is king even when he has his back to the wall. In the Australian Open final against Murray, he saved 67% (four out of six) of the break points he faced compared to Murray’s 58% (seven out of 12). Top players have a good record when it comes to saving break points because it is here that the major difference with lower-ranked players can be seen.
But here’s what sets Djokovic’s game apart: he’s far more consistent than his competitors and he knows exactly where to hit, which shot to select and how much power to use. Unlike cricket, most shots are hit looking sideways at the ball in tennis, with no frontal view of the court. Federer, for instance, hits his lethal cross-court backhand facing away from the court, but the ball almost always kisses the corner of the baseline. Tennis players are required to have a near-perfect perception of the depth and width of a tennis court.
Above all this, what makes the difference between a champion like Djokovic and others who also have deadly, unplayable shots is his brain. From the recesses of his memory, Djokovic, more than any other champion, has the uncanny ability to understand the best shot to play at a particular moment. At that explosive instant, champions like Djokovic are in what is called “the zone”, where a sense of clarity combines with a jolt from memory to create lightning. In this respect, any sport is like chess where memory is supreme.