Just one year ago, Novak Djokovic was playing third wheel to the Roger Federer–Rafael Nadal show that was men’s tennis. It wasn’t his fault that he was born during the same era as two of the game’s greats, just unfortunate timing. He was primed for a break out year in 2008 after beating Federer in straight sets in the Australian Open semi-finals before downing Jo-Wilfred Tsonga to win his first major title. Nothing solidified for him in the Grand Slams for the rest of that year, though, and in 2009, he slipped back to number four in the world, once again in the shadow of Nadal and Federer. 2010 brought similar results, as he once again couldn’t break through in the majors. 2011, as we all know, was a very different story. So what changed? How did he transform into the machine he is today?
During the second half of the 2010 season, Djokovic was diagnosed with Celiac Disease, which meant he was allergic to gluten. The most common symptoms of the disease are cramping and fatigue, which speaks to Djoker’s case that he always had trouble on the court with conditioning; seemingly every close match he played had the potential for injury timeouts (though whether he was actually injured every time he summoned the trainer is another story).
Not surprisingly, health nuts around the world have attributed most of his success to the lifestyle change the disease necessitated, and I can’t knock that opinion. “I have lost some weight but it’s only helped me because my movement is much sharper now and I feel great physically,” he told reporters back in April. But while dealing with Celiac Disease may have made him healthier, it didn’t improve his serve, shore up the technique on his forehand or give him the most dangerous return of serve in tennis. Even though the new diet changed him physically, the diagnosis had a more profound impact because it inspired a re-commitment to both the physical and mental aspects of his game.
The New Djoker
What do you do against an opponent with no weaknesses? That’s the question one must now answer when facing against Novak Djokovic. It wasn’t always this way, however. His forehand, while a weapon, broke down in big moments (see the US Open 2010 Final against Nadal). His serve was weak, more of a liability than a weapon. He let Rafa and Fed dictate play in their matches; rather than employing his own strategies, he was playing on their terms. Not surprisingly, the results weren’t good.
A year later and Novak’s flipped the script. He uses a punishing approach with the ability to hit winners consistently from both sides and attack the net with uncommonly great feel. Court position is a vital element to the game of tennis, which is often overlooked in today’s slugfest-from-the-baseline style. If you observe 2011 Novak, he stands on top of the baseline, taking the ball on the rise in hopes of limiting the reaction time of his opponents. The only time he’s way behind the baseline is when he’s making an unbelievable defensive play.
“It’s just that I’m hitting the shots that I maybe wasn’t hitting in last two, three years now. I’m going for it, I’m more aggressive, and I have just a different approach to the semifinals and finals of major events, especially when I’m playing two great champions, Rafa and Roger. In last couple of years that wasn’t the case. I was always kind of trying to wait for their mistakes…” he said in Monday’s post-match press conference. The match facts from the 2010 and 2011 U.S. Open finals, both against Nadal, illustrate important differences in his strategy.
In 2010, Djokovic had 45 winners to Rafa’s 49. In 2011, Djokovic pounded out 55 winners while holding Rafa to just 32. One of the reasons why he’s been able to do this all year is because of his return game:
He won 10% more return points than in last year’s final, and had 10 more break chances. Novak holds a great advantage here not only because he’s armed with arguably the greatest return in tennis history, but because only a handful of players have great return games. That’s a huge and rare advantage, considering the service return is instrumental in gaining an advantage to begin half the match’s points.
One advantage Novak uses particularly well against Nadal is his backhand. When Nadal plays Federer, he hits 80% of his shots to Fed’s backhand, because it has a tendency to break down. That same strategy doesn’t work against Djokovic who has arguably the best backhand in the world, and hits winners from the backhand side as easily as anywhere else.
Djokovic’s physical tools were always there. It was just a matter of working hard enough to reveal his true potential. I remember a Novak who used to get weary on the court and seemed visibly dejected on the court at times. That Djoker is long gone. In the semi-finals of the U.S. Open, he became just the second player ever to beat Roger Federer after being down two sets to none. Vintage Fed was on display for the first two sets before Novak started to find his groove. He stepped into the court and started pushing Fed back behind the baseline. Eventually Fed’s backhand began to break down and his forehand went astray. Down two match points in the fifth sets, he persevered again, ripping a forehand return winner before a Federer error:
That kind of mental stability and strength wasn’t part of Djokovic’s game in years past, and it didn’t come from Celiac Disease. Time and again he’s downplayed the influence the gluten-free diet has played in this historic campaign because while he’s eating healthier, his success is the result of hard work. The diagnosis and subsequent diet helped unlock his true physical potential and he’s taking full advantage of the situation.
With his head and body finally right, Djokovic is going to be a scary opponent for a long time.
(Photo via Extradeportes/Flickr)