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The ingredients that make Novak Djokovic the greatest of all time

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Novak Djokovic of Serbia reacts during his quarterfinal against Andrey Rublev of Russia at the Australian Open tennis championship in Melbourne, Australia - AP/Dita Alangkara

It is ironic that Novak Djokovic should be such a gullible fellow away from the court, easy prey for every chancer of a guru looking to sell a bottle of “brain nutrients” for $50 a pop.

Novak Djokovic of Serbia reacts during his quarterfinal against Andrey Rublev of Russia at the Australian Open tennis championship in Melbourne, Australia – AP/Dita Alangkara© AP/Dita Alangkara

Because, when it comes to the day job, he is relentlessly hard-headed. Where Federer was the artist of tennis, and Nadal the warrior, Djokovic is the scientist of the sport.

This clinical approach explains why Djokovic is an unromantic player to watch. His brilliance is cold and hard – almost mechanical, in fact. There are no frills to his all-court game, which is characterised by ruthless efficiency in every department.

But that ruthless efficiency has carried him to where he is today. On Monday, Djokovic extended the length of his overall reign at world No 1 to 378 weeks, eclipsing the unisex record of 377 that was set by Steffi Graf in 1997.

How has Djokovic achieved this mind-boggling feat? Through analysing his own weaknesses and continuously evolving his game. In fact, his approach to tennis sounds a lot like the classic scientific method – observation, question, hypothesis, experiment and conclusion.

Service reboot

For an example, let’s remind ourselves of an oft-forgotten fact. Djokovic’s serve was a mess in his younger days. Yes, he still won the Australian Open in 2009, thanks to his extraordinary athleticism and clean baseline technique. But the real Djokovic only stood up once he had rebooted his motion, some time around the end of 2010.

Here’s a picture of Djokovic’s serve from 2009, in the dreaded “waiter’s tray” position that afflicts so many amateur hackers. (The syndrome is so-called because the racket position resembles a waiter carrying drinks on an upturned palm.) In the words of John Craig from Performance Plus Tennis, this is a problem because Djokovic “lacks leverage”. You can’t imagine carrying a heavy weight in that position. Which means you can’t apply powerful force upwards into the ball.

Novak Djokovic

Novak Djokovic© Provided by The Telegraph

But here is Djokovic more recently on a training court. You can see that the elbow is much higher and that he is in an optimal throwing position.

Novak Djokovic serving

Novak Djokovic serving© Provided by The Telegraph

How did Djokovic make this vital shift? In 2009, he recruited Todd Martin, a former Wimbledon semi-finalist, as a specialist serve coach. Admittedly, their alliance backfired, resulting in 282 double-faults the following season. But the experiment was still useful.

Martin’s method may not have worked, but his very involvement signalled Djokovic’s determination to improve. Fed up with being stuck behind Federer and Nadal, he was developing into tennis’s great seeker. Within a couple of years, he had returned with a smooth, lissom motion which is almost indistinguishable from the one he uses today.

ATP stats show that Djokovic averages a moderate tally of six aces per match, but he still wins 89 per cent of his service games – the fifth-best on tour. At 6ft 2in tall, with a slim physique, he cannot compete with human lighthouses like John Isner, or even his own coach Goran Ivanisevic, but he is ferociously accurate and as canny as a chess player.

Second-serve strategy

This accuracy has allowed Djokovic to challenge orthodoxy on the second serve. According to received wisdom, you should aim the second serve towards your opponent’s backhand (almost always the weaker wing). But received wisdom is old hat.

Working up the numbers in his tennis lab one day, Djokovic calculated that a swinging second serve into the forehand corner of the box would have surprise value against most opponents. The tactic only works if you make the receiver stretch out of his hitting zone. But like a skilful darts player, Djokovic is confident in his ability to repeat this play over and over again.

Stats gathered by Golden Set Analytics show that Djokovic now directs his second serve to the forehand side almost a third of the time – the second-highest figure on the tour. His innovation has changed the game because more and more players are beginning to emulate their white-coated pioneer. The overall percentage of second serves aimed to the forehand side has climbed from 12 per cent on the ATP Tour in 2012 to 22 per cent a decade later.

Novak Djokovic statistics

Novak Djokovic statistics© Provided by The Telegraph

Return mastery

Every tennis nerd knows that Djokovic is the greatest returner in the game. But what makes him so special? It is not simply a matter of freakish reaction time, because there is also a hidden skill where he is out on his own – and that is reading the intention of the server from their body position and ball-toss.

Let’s go back to Golden Set Analytics, and their vice-president of player analytics Ben Depoorter. “The players he has beaten most consistently over the years are the ones whose serve he just had a read on,” Depoorter told Telegraph Sport.

“We saw one opponent, one of the best servers on tour, change his ball-toss by just 15 to 20 centimetres from one match against Djokovic to the next. Amazingly, he picked up on it, adjusted his return position, and broke serve several times. If Djokovic has a read on your serve, it is pretty much game over. Just ask Tomas Berdych.”

The human swiss army knife

Given that the serve and return are the two most important shots in tennis, we have already gone a long way towards explaining Djokovic’s dominance. But let’s now turn to the rally, and see how he builds his advantage.

Remember that Djokovic doesn’t have a huge weapon – like Nadal’s forehand – to rely on for cheap points. Yes, he owns the most adaptable and resilient backhand that the game has ever seen, but multiple grand-slam winners cannot live on backhands alone. (That is the wing for defence and counterpunching, not for monstering your opponent.)

So Djokovic has gradually upskilled himself until he has mastered every aspect of the game: not just pounding groundstrokes but slices, drop-shots and his once wonky smash, which rarely misfires these days. His three-year collaboration with former coach Boris Becker – which ended in 2016 – coincided with a newfound eagerness to rush the net.

Novak Djokovic and his coach Boris Becker - Heathcliff O'Malley

Novak Djokovic and his coach Boris Becker – Heathcliff O’Malley© Provided by The Telegraph

It didn’t always work. In an echo of the Todd Martin scenario, Djokovic has taken losses while experimenting. But he has come out the other side with the ultimate tennis repertoire. Where most players rely on one game-style, he has dozens.

To offer some examples, here are three matches I have watched that featured Djokovic tactical masterstrokes, all adapted to the conditions, the opponent and his own state of health at the time

Quarter-final vs Alexander Zverev, 2019 French Open

Early on, the 6ft 6in Zverev was using his long levers to rack up winners from the baseline. So, after eating clay dust for half-an-hour, Djokovic stopped going toe-to-toe. He started throwing in “junk” (tennis jargon for slow balls) and pulled Zverev forwards towards the net, where he is far less comfortable. Then Djokovic picked him off with a stream of passing shots and closed out a 7-5, 6-2, 6-2 win without fuss. Simples.

Final vs Roger Federer, 2019 Wimbledon

During this final, Federer always felt like the front-runner, racking up more points, more games and more winners. And yet, in the tie-breaks that decided sets one, three and five, Djokovic went into lockdown mode, firing every ball deep without endangering the lines. Astonishingly, he made zero unforced errors across the three tie-breaks. It was the opposite strategy to the one he had used against Zverev five weeks earlier but then Federer is the anti-Zverev – a magnificent finisher at the net.

Fourth round vs Alex de Minaur, 2023 Australian Open

Again, this was the diametric opposite of the previous example. Djokovic was carrying a hamstring niggle that had frightened him during his previous win against Grigor Dimitrov. So, this time, he decided to be the front-runner. Moving away from his habitual fondness for playing the percentages, he went after his forehand with such venom that De Minaur – one of the two or three fastest movers on the tour – looked positively heavy-footed. The match was done in 2hr 6min and Djokovic’s campaign was back on track.

Cornering the odds

The versatility is uncanny. Djokovic is the swiss-army knife of tennis. Or perhaps the ultimate omnivore, capable of despatching his prey in so many different ways.

Tennis is a sport of tiny numerical variations. Whether you win 73 or 74 per cent of your first-serve points over a season could change your world ranking by five places at the end of the year.

Djokovic the professor is constantly crunching these numbers on his mental whiteboard. Which is why certain other numbers – such as the records for most grand-slam titles and most weeks at No 1 – will end up in his possession for decades to come. Perhaps even forever.

You can see why American tennis commentator Brad Gilbert says “I call Djokovic the taxman, because he always collects.” Or, in the words of his erstwhile analyst Craig O’Shannessy, “You play Novak, and it’s like playing the bank at Vegas.”

Who would you deem the greatest tennis player of all time? Share your thoughts in the comments section below

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