How Novak Djokovic changed his game to become the GOAT

Goran Ivanisevic has seen it happen many times over the past four years.

His star student, Novak Djokovic, arrives at the practice court in a bad mood, complaining that his game is a disaster, that he needs to improve… in everything. His serve, his attacking game, even his backhand (one of the best backhands tennis has ever seen) is a disaster.

There is hardly any recognition of the resume, of the 24 Grand Slam titles, of the other 74 Tour trophies and of the more than 1,000 match victories. He has to improve or he will be toast.

“He’s crazy,” Ivanisevic said of Djokovic, shaking his head, in the middle of last year, when Djokovic was in the midst of another of the best seasons a tennis player has ever had and was still complaining to his coach all the time. .

Very good tennis players often express a desire to try to improve, and Djokovic is no different. But it’s one thing to say it and another thing to do it, especially after you’ve reached the pinnacle of the sport, time and time again.

In 2015, Djokovic pulled off perhaps the most ridiculous tennis campaign ever accomplished by a man. It’s the season Djokovic often mentions when asked to choose the best version of himself. That happens a lot now, as he has made the debate about the greatest man of all time moot: the only person to compare Djokovic to is Djokovic.

He has won the most Grand Slam singles titles, the most Masters 1,000 titles, which are the next biggest events on the men’s circuit, and has spent more weeks (406 and counting) at the world number one spot than any other person.

He reached all four Grand Slam finals in that 2015 season and won three of them (losing at the French Open to Stan Wawrinka). He went from start to finish as number one in the world. He played in 15 consecutive finals and won 11 of them. Back then there was a ‘Big Four’ that also included Nadal, Roger Federer and Andy Murray. Djokovic was 15-4 against those three and 4-0 against Nadal, his biggest rival.

Normal behavior after a season like this is to keep doing what works. Djokovic doesn’t really have a normal demeanor, and he doesn’t really play tennis today like he did in 2015, when he defended the court like few others could, then pulled rabbits out of his hat and won so many points that he had nothing to do. victorious.

That’s a far cry from Djokovic’s winning formula last season, which he will likely use to start his 2024 this month in Australia. All of Djokovic’s best seasons share a theme: They begin in January in Australia, where Djokovic is about to try to win his 11th Australian Open men’s singles title. He won his 10th last year, the most in history.

He describes Australia as his “happy place”, a country where he finds his rhythm, and nothing, not even pulled or torn muscles, can get him out of there. He hasn’t lost a game in the ‘AO’ for six years.

“It’s important to have a good start, a kind of launch into the rest of the season,” he said during the United Cup, the mixed team competition he played before the first Grand Slam of 2024. “The more you win in a certain tournament, “The more comfortable and confident you will feel the next time you arrive.”

But Djokovic’s success is about much more than good karma. It’s about figuring out how to change his game to accommodate his aging body, which he recognizes doesn’t move as well as it once did, and keeping up with the evolution of a sport that’s now much less friendly to defenders who want to chase balls around. the back of the field and pulls rabbits out of hats.

With top players hitting with more power and precision than ever, defending all day, rather than trying to take the initiative and score points, has become increasingly difficult at the highest level.

Djokovic has had three truly epic years: 2011, 2015 and 2023. In each of them, he won three Grand Slam finals and many other trophies.

Luckily for us, his last epic season before 2023 occurred just after the revolution in advanced tennis analytics, making a deep and revealing dive into Djokovic then and now possible.

The metrics are the byproduct of ball and player tracking data collected through high-speed cameras and analyzed in real time using technology developed by a British company, TennisViz, and Tennis Data Innovations (TDI), a joint venture of the ATP Tour and the ATP. Media.

These combined efforts have given fans, players and coaches information that previous generations could never dream of capturing, showing whether a player is attacking or defending on every shot; the quality of those shots based on speed, spin and landing location; how often they earn points they shouldn’t (their so-called steal score); how clinical they are on the end points, they should win; and how often they win the important background battles that much of modern tennis has become.

The data tells the story of Djokovic’s evolution, from someone who specialized in winning wars of attrition in tennis, to someone who now seeks to attack at almost every opportunity.

In numerical terms, the changes may seem, on the surface, incremental, but in a sport that generates a handful of points each match, seemingly small changes can result in big differences. Remember, Djokovic has won 14 of his 24 Grand Slam titles from 2015.

Start with the serve.

Djokovic’s serve is almost unrecognizable from 2015. All props to Ivanisevic, who possessed a lethal serve in his playing days and has worked tirelessly with Djokovic since 2019, achieving amazing results. Djokovic’s first serve averaged 120.1 miles per hour in 2023, compared to 115.4 in 2015.

It is not about improving racket technology or lighter balls. The course average has barely been budgeted, increasing from 116.1 mph to 116.7.

That Djokovic serve is not only faster but also lands in better places: five centimeters closer to the lines in 2023 than in 2015, and eight centimeters closer to them than the tour average. That’s important no matter what surface you play on, but it can be especially potent on the slippery, fast Melbourne Park, where serves to the side corners slide off the court almost instantly.

Djokovic has long been one of the great serve returners in tennis history. He’s better at it now too. His opponent’s second serve return landed on the backhand wing with 47 percent of points in 2023, compared to 39 percent in 2015, putting him in a much better position to attack. .

Once points took shape last season, Djokovic took up an attacking position 26 percent of the time, compared to 21 percent in 2015. Tennis fans refer to a player’s ability to win points from an attack position such as “conversion rate”. Last season, Djokovic’s conversion rate was a clinical 72.1 percent, the highest in the sport and 3.3 percentage points higher than his 68.8 percent conversion rate in 2015. The average circuit is 66 percent.

How did he become so clinical? His forehand got faster by two miles per hour in the last eight years. That helps.

Additionally, his attacking position was 60 centimeters further into the court than in 2015, meaning he hits the ball much earlier than he used to, suffocating his opponents by stealing tenths of a second from their recovery and preparation times.

The result of his increasing aggressiveness was a decrease in how much he had to defend, how many balls he had to chase, and how many rabbits he had to pull out of hats. Tennis fans refer to this as a player’s “score steal,” which is the percentage of points a player wins after being in a defensive position.

As exciting as it is to recover a point that seems lost, it is exhausting and very hard for a 36-year-old physique. Nobody knows this better than Djokovic.

In 2015, Djokovic and Nadal co-led the sport with a steals score of 43.3 percent. It’s a little crazy to think about: almost half the time their disadvantaged opponents had Djokovic and Nadal running away, those poor overmatched souls still lost the point.

Last season, Djokovic’s steals score was much less miraculous, 36.4 percent, still above the tour average of 34 percent and much kinder on the 36-year-old’s knees. In other words, he’s still better than most at making magic happen when he needs it, but he’s become much more efficient and wins without expending as much energy.

It’s a logical strategy for any aging great. Federer became more aggressive and Nadal tried too, reaching the net to finish points when the opportunities were there. But Djokovic has been more successful than both, winning many of the sport’s biggest titles at this point in his career.

For opponents, there is really only one solution: attack before attacking, make them run and force them to play more defensively, as he did during his previous tennis life.

Easier said than done, of course.

The winning formula has Djokovic setting big goals for 2024. “It’s no secret that I want to break more records and make more history,” he said. “That’s something that continues to motivate me.”

He wants more Grand Slam titles, an Olympic medal, which has somehow escaped him, a Davis Cup with Serbia. He loves to hit young players: tennis players two generations away from him who can’t understand how he has refused to budge.

Djokovic battled a wrist injury during the United Cup. But anyone hoping that will stop him should remember that he won the Australian Open last year with a serious hamstring injury that Ivanisevic said would have caused most other players to quit and, in 2021, with a tear in an abdominal muscle.

“I know what I have to do to keep my body, mind and spirit in the optimal state to have the opportunity to break records and go further,” Djokovic said.

He still loves playing tennis, but winning is still his main motivation, especially when he is traveling and away from his family for weeks at a time.

“That mentality won’t change for 2024 or the next year I potentially play,” he said.

How the game actually plays, well, that may be another ever-evolving story.

Ask Ivanisevic.

(Top photo: Manan Vatsyayana/AFP via Getty Images)