Novak Djokovic Serve Analysis Essay

Jan 16, 2018
  • Simon CambersSpecial to ESPN.com

MELBOURNE, Australia -- Ten minutes before his return to Grand Slam action after six months away, Novak Djokovic was in the locker room area stretching. And stretching some more.

Not his elastic legs, which have been so instrumental in helping him to 12 Grand Slam titles, but his right elbow, the offending limb that inconveniently broke down last summer and forced him off the tour after Wimbledon.

As Andre Agassi and Radek Stepanek, Djokovic's coaching team, looked on, while the Serb flexed his elbow with a rope, over his head and side to side, time after time as he completed the final preparations for his much-anticipated return.

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And what a return. His 6-1, 6-2, 6-4 win against Donald Young was as routine as it sounds, a convincing debut here and a statement of intent. But beforehand, Djokovic, 30, wasn't sure how his elbow would hold up or his overall game would fare in his first true test since last June.

"It felt great to be back on the court and compete again," he said. "It's been a while. Obviously, you don't know how you're going to start off. The first two sets went extremely well, considering that I haven't played for six months. The third was up and down a little bit, but in general, it was a great performance."

If there were nerves, they were not obvious as Djokovic ripped through the first two sets. Even his new serve, with an abbreviated take-back designed to protect the elbow, held up well. His stats were good, dropping serve just once, and he never allowed Young, the world No 63, any chance to really believe he might win.

"Second serve was very, very good," Djokovic said. "First serve was kind of up and down. When you come back after a long time and you play [your] first match, obviously all the things are a bit exaggerated -- whatever is not working well.

"All in all, I'm quite pleased. I know that it's going to take a little bit of time for me to kind of work my way in and get used to the specific changes that I've made in my service motion. It wasn't ideal, but it was still good. I'm looking forward to work on it more. I hope to improve in this aspect."

Last year, Roger Federer came off a six-month injury absence to win the title. It is asking a lot for Djokovic, whose game is based around consistency rather than aggression, to do the same.

But if his elbow holds up well, and there is no pain, then expect him to improve by the round. When you are a champion, you don't forget how to play.

“Every Grand Slam that I’ve won, I’ve had a different service motion,” she said. “I probably had like four or five since the surgery.”

Djokovic’s new, abbreviated motion is also linked to injury, though he insists he has not had surgery. While he has yet to disclose the precise nature of the ailment, he has a right elbow problem, and it forced him to take his first extended absence from the game.

He is still wearing a compression sleeve during his matches, and is now into the fourth round at the Australian Open, his first tournament since Wimbledon last July. On Saturday, Djokovic, a longtime No. 1 now seeded 14th, defeated Albert Ramos-Viñolas, the No. 21 seed from Spain, 6-2, 6-3, 6-3.

At one point on Saturday, the elbow seemed the least of his problems. He took a medical timeout in the second set and lay on the court to have his back and legs massaged and treated at Margaret Court Arena.

But he soon rose and resumed his dominating play. He did not lose his serve once in the match, which was played in much milder conditions than his steamy four-set victory over Gaël Monfils on Thursday, when recorded temperatures on court peaked at 69 degrees Celsius (156 Fahrenheit).

Asked about the on-court treatment, Djokovic answered without being specific: “I’ve never faced a situation where I didn’t compete six months. I mean that’s why I’m kind of forced to be very cautious of what happens day to day, be dedicated to my body and training. It’s nothing major to be concerned about. It’s just things that surface every day. I guess it’s normal. A lot of athletes are facing these kind of levels and stages of pain throughout their body in big competitions, and they deal with it. I deal with it. It’s fine.”

The biggest challenges for his elbow and serve lie ahead. In the fourth round on Monday, he will face Hyeon Chung, an unseeded but dangerous South Korean. Chung, 21, beat the leader of his tennis peer group, Alexander Zverev, in five sets on Saturday.

If Djokovic beats Chung, he is likely to face fifth-seeded Dominic Thiem, who plays the unseeded American Tennys Sandgren in the fourth round.

“Into the second week, it’s going to be a game of small margins, so let’s see what happens,” said Djokovic, who pronounced himself “pleased with where my game is at the moment.”

Many elite tennis players in their prime have tinkered with their service technique, be it their stance or motion. In an attempt to get more power, Rafael Nadal changed his grip on his serve in 2010 when he already was No. 1 in the world. Pat Cash changed his motion significantly after winning Wimbledon in 1987.

But some players have made more radical changes on other strokes. Consider Paul McNamee, the former Australian star who changed from a single-handed to a double-handed backhand at age 24 because he believed the stroke was holding him back.

“It was extremely hard,” McNamee said recently of the change. “Eight to 10 hours a day for four months. I made a pact with myself that I would never go back to a one-hander. It was very embarrassing to begin with.”

After the change, McNamee soon broke into the top 25 in singles and reached No. 1 in doubles.

“The key was the pact,” he said. “Otherwise, I would have retreated back to the familiar quickly. The mental commitment for me was more difficult than the physical, and harder to sustain.”

Other established pros have switched from two-handed backhands to one-handed ones, including Fernando Meligeni, the former Brazilian star, and Tatjana Maria, the German who lost to Sharapova here in the first round.

Jill Craybas, the 1996 N.C.A.A. singles women’s champion at Florida, salvaged her faltering pro career in the early 2000s by changing her forehand grip and switching from a closed-stance to an open-stance forehand. She upset Serena Williams in the third round of Wimbledon in 2005 and remained on tour until 2013.

“I remember matches where the racket felt like a foreign object in my hand,” she said of the changes in an interview at Melbourne Park on Saturday. “It took me at least a year to lock it in. Djokovic is a little bit different because it’s not a grip change, more of a motion change, and he’s doing it more to protect the injury whereas I was doing it more to progress.”

Djokovic’s serve is significantly different: He no longer drops his racket head low at the start of the motion, which is now more compact. He has said the change, designed to protect his elbow, was the product of discussions with his coaches Andre Agassi and Radek Stepanek and his own input.

“It had to come from Novak,” McNamee said. “If not, it is doomed, as he has to own it absolutely or he will revert after a bad loss.”

For now, he is 3-0 with the new serve and hitting first-serve speeds similar, on average, to what he hit in 2016, when he last won this title. Unlike in 2016, though, the speeds have tailed off as matches have progressed.

“The toughest thing about it is, the older you get, you become comfortable with routines and what you’ve done for so long,” Sharapova said. “We like to keep what we know. We want to keep it, especially if it’s helped us and if it’s won us Grand Slams.

“But at certain points in your career, if you’re faced with a challenge, you’re faced with an injury, you have to make those adjustments. If you’re able to break through and become successful with it, win another major, win a few more, it speaks a lot more for who you are as a person, as a competitor.”

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