Djokovic Defends and Matures; Serve vs Grit
by Ben Pronin | March 1st, 2010, 10:00 am

“I know. It’s the serve. I know.”

Novak Djokovic started his press conference with that classic line before he was even asked any questions. Djokovic had come through a talented yet under-ranked group of players to defend a title for the first time in his career at the Barclays Dubai Tennis Championships. Throughout the event, Djokovic struggled mightily with his serve due to some tinkering by Todd Martin.

While Martin may have good intentions, Djokovic has always had a pretty solid serve. Perhaps the problem was that when he lacked confidence, it could really let him down, but that’s not a technical problem. In 2008, when Djokovic was on a real hot streak, he was hitting second serves at 118mph! That’s not a typo. 118mph second serves.

However, Djokovic hasn’t been the most confident player for a while now. He had a good fall at the end of last season but fatigue really got to him at the World Tour Finals and then some stomach problems tracked him down in Melbourne during the Australian Open. Then he went and got beaten by Mikhail Youzhny in the semifinals of Rotterdam a mere two weeks ago.

I wouldn’t be surprised if Youzhny holds some sort of record for the most times retired in matches for at least players in the top 50. However, he’s shown that he can still hang with the big dogs and he played some great tennis of his own in reaching the Dubai final. He really rolled through Jankko Tipsarevic who, all controversies aside, played a brilliant match against Andy Murray in the previous round.

As for Djokovic, he won this event (a generally fast hard-court event) by grinding his way through just about every match he played. I have never doubted Djokovic’s ground game. In fact, I think this idea of coming into the net more often is the wrong direction for Djokovic to head in. Djokovic really has maybe the second or third best natural ground strokes in today’s game. When he’s on, he can hurt you from both sides rather easily. The good thing about Martin’s coaching is that he’s improved Djokovic’s technique on his volleys, but all these random forays into net are not going to help him win multiple slams (just ask Andy Roddick).

One of the reasons for Djokovic’s struggling serve could be because of this new idea to volley more often. Roddick was told for years he should serve and volley because he has such a big serve. Doing it all the time, even for him, is still a terrible idea. But Djokovic doesn’t have the luxury of a constant big serve. Unfortunately, he needs to build up confidence to serve big but when he’s low his serve can be really easy picking for the better returners.

Despite all these problems, Djokovic still managed to defend his title. The serve has always been and will always be the most important shot in tennis. 14-time Grand Slam champion Pete Sampras has gone as far as to say, “You live and die by the serve.” Djokovic more or less disproved that statement by fighting and grinding his way through some sub-par play for the World Number 2.

Djokovic summed it up well when he said, “You know, confidence-wise it’s a big boost because I believe in myself, you know. Even when I play bad, I know I have the abilities some — well, if you want to call it reserve or secret weapons, you know — running all over the court, trying to fight and play the right shots. Try to look and wait patiently for the chances from my opponent that have been given to me and then use them.”

Roger Federer won in Doha in 2005 and in Halle in 2008 without dropping serve once throughout the entirety of these events. That’s incredibly impressive no matter what the field you’re up against. Djokovic did nearly the opposite during his run in Dubai. Federer also possibly holds a record for number of matches won when not playing his best. Two weeks ago I said Djokovic should be more like Roddick in trying to find ways to win when he’s not playing his best. I’d say he’s on track already.

“Though your game is hardly the best
You can fray your opponent’s nerves
By methodically bouncing the ball
At least ten times before your serves.”

- Arnold J. Zarett

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27 Comments for Djokovic Defends and Matures; Serve vs Grit


The one unorthodox aspect of Djokovic’s serve is his how is arm is almost extended in a straight position behind him as the ball is tossed in the air(almost like he is going to throw a javelin). When you watch it in normal speed you see his arm flash way out behind him then in one motion he has to quickly bring his arm forward and bend at the elbow in order to swing.

I was trying to look at some old video(2007 vs 2010) of his serve and he seemed to keep more of a bent elbow rather than letting his arm straighten out behind him. It’s hard to tell though as I couldn’t get identical camera angles for comparison. Does anyone else see a difference?

It’s possible this might be the reason his serve is not as good as it was. If you have a great serve you just don’t lose it for a year unless there’s something technical going on like a change in ball toss,knee bend, arm positioning, back arch etc.

Ben Pronin Says:

I did notice that and he mentioned in his presser that he’s trying to get it back to the way it was before. I always enjoyed Djokovic’s service motion. It’s elaborated unlike all the other shorten serves of today.

Veka Says:

If I’m not mistaken Djokovic won Miami 2007 without having dropped serve

jane Says:

Thanks for the recap and the positive vibes Ben; I do think the grit pays off for Novak, that he can dig deep. I remember in 2007, especially at the USO, when he earned the nickname “Marathon Man” for grinding out some tough wins there (and in Wimbledon that year), and I noticed the ATP used that moniker to describe Djoko’s week at Dubai at least once. So that toughness and resolve can’t be bad things, as it was after that break through 2007 year that he won his first slam. If his serve can be put back on track, surely he has a good shot at winning another.

Andrew Miller Says:

Djokovic is a great player – when he wants to be. I know of no other player than shows poor body language (other than the Sulking Safin and Marcelo “I hit more sick shots than anyone ever will, ever, with the exception of Roger Federer” Rios) in the late stages of matches, especially when he has a shot still to win the match.

Seriously, I know of no other player that is always on the verge of wrestling control of a match, but whose spirit is defeated during the battle itself (not afterwards) and who kind of gives up, just a little bit. Djokovic is not like, say, Azarenka, who cannot hang with the best because she’s not the best. Djokovic CAN and DOES hang with the best, but he gives up when a little more might change his fortune.

I think Djokovic is a better player than Andy Murray. But Andy Murray doesnt defeat himself these days. Djokovic still does.

KillerC Says:

djoko is playing good so far this season, yeah– the loss at A.O. but he’s tinkering, eventually the pieces will fit and look out.. I remember last yr what really seemed to kill his confidence was losing to nadal in that clay court epic in madrid simis’ — he seemed real down about losing that one and never really regained form. I think he might be thinkin too much about the results right now rather than making his game better. the work will pay off eventually. the recent grinding win proved it. yeah rog and the others were out but still was a gr8 win. Look for him to have a good showing state-side @ cali and miami.

Nina Says:

@KillerC… yeah, Djokovic said that the Madrid semis affected him deeply psychologically. I wonder how much is mental and how much is just physical or technique in his case. I agree with Andrew Miller that he tends to battle with himself. Even though I enjoy watching his body language on court (one of the perks of being a Djokovic fan, it’s just too entertaining to watch even if a bit nerve wracking) I think it’s not a good idea for him to show so much his emotions on court. Players can read him easily. He has mood swings. I think it’s even worse now than before, don’t know why. He gets so frustrated with himself, not with the opponent, but with himself. I agree that Nole doesn’t lose a match, he defeats himself. He’s a walking paradox this Nole, but that’s why I love him.

Andrew Miller Says:

I think Djokovic’s forehand has a little hitch.

Andrew Miller Says:

Djokovic’s problems come from (!) the racquet switch! Sorry but that racquet he is using changes Djokovic’s playing style.

To wit:

He hit much cleaner in 2008.

mathias Says:

i think djokovic is a great player but he does not really play well when he is against other great players …

mat4 Says:


Yes, he has changed his game, you are quite right: he almost doesn’t hit flat strokes anymore, he is playing 2 to 3 feet behind the baseline now, and he can’t rely on his serve as he used to do.

On the other side, this racquet gives him more spin and power from the baseline, and his only big problem is the serve, loosing 6 or 7 mph of speed. The difference in power can be clearly seen on clay.

contador Says:

loved this piece, Ben Pronin.- from the djoko quote at the top to the Arnold J. Zarrett (?? ) at the bottom. good one, made me laugh.

he’s only 22, his 2008 confidence and service game will be back, i say. but i do think he goes too far with his ‘respect for his opponent,’ gracious demeanor. he has to play fed like he did in basel , not how he did at the us open 09.

we’ll see. he’s a solid world #2 now and a whole lot more ready and poised to grab another slam, on any surface, playing ugly with the serve or not. of course his health and fitness holding is key. ( just wait till RF beats samprass record at #1, please, please, nole.)

about RF, for fedfans and not-so fedfans, i just read this one on oregonlive. very jealous a neighboring state pays so much attention to tennis at all!

madmax Says:

contador! thank you for the link. I read it today and you beat me to it! Some people on TT should read this, as they were the first to post the article in the Times from an anti-fed journalist. But certainly, this is an interesting read.

Thanks again.

Yes Ben, great to read some objectivity here from a decent writer. (and I love the quote by Zarett).

madmax Says:

to add to contador’s link, by the same author, douglas perry, here is one on MIRKA. very rare to find anything about her, but I can tell you all, this is worth the read – about Pat Cash!

Mirka, YOU go girl!

sar Says:

Although there has been no official confirmation, reliable sources have told Peter Bodo, Senior Editor for TENNIS magazine, that Roger Federer will pull out of the Indian Wells tournament because of his ongoing struggle with a lung infection.

siddy Says:

I think Djokovic is a better player than Andy Murray. But Andy Murray doesnt defeat himself these days. Djokovic still does.


Uh, did you even watch Murray at the AO against Federer. It was a complete embarrassment. Say what you will about Novak but Novak would never let Federer school him like he did Murray. Murray gave that title to Federer; he belonged in the junior AO draw. My 14 year old son would have gave Federer more of a battle. Djokovic has earned that #2 spot because he is the second best player in the world right now; I would even say he is THE BEST player in the world right now.

margot Says:

siddy:remember you have to GET to the final, b4 you can challenge Fed.

Murray fan Says:

siddy:remember you have to GET to the final, b4 you can challenge Fed.


Or in djokovic’s case, make the semis, but he got the shit beaten out of him by tsonga (literally!)

Djokovic is the best player? You must be his mom. She has been saying that since 2007 and most people would say she fits the description of “clinically insane”

what next? Djokovic is the king of clay? come out of la-la land and see the real world.

Oh, also murray reached no.2 6 months before djokovic did. so, please!

jane Says:

I don’t think one can say definitively who’s better between the two. BOTH Murray and Djokovic got at least a little help getting to number 2 because of Rafa’s injury, though both of them were consistent enough for a long enough period to claim that spot. Both have been in 2 slam finals, Djoko winning one (by going through Fed). Djoko has 5 Masters titles (with 6 MS finals + 1 Queens final) and 17 titles total; Murray has 4 Masters Series titles (with MS 1 final + 1 Queens title) and 14 titles total. Djoko is more accomplished on clay; Murray, perhaps, on grass (due to the title at Queens; they’ve both been to semis of Wimbledon). They’re about equal on hard courts. Djoko also has a YEC title. So I guess Djoko is more accomplished so far, but these two are close in all ways. There is no reason to trash one to compliment the other.

Can’t wait to see what the both of them achieve this year!

Ben Pronin Says:

There’s no reason to ever trash another player to compliment another.

sar Says:

Don’t forget the Olympic medal!

jane Says:

sar, oh yeah – that’s a biggie!! : )

Ben, 100% agree.

Kimmi Says:

“There’s no reason to ever trash another player to compliment another” Ben, words of wisdom.

OK, this is what I see.

Most Djokovic fans don’t like Murray because he is the biggest challenge to their idol…this is vice versa to Murray fans..I think in this part of the world Djoko has probably more fans than Murray but I think with Murray current success he is starting to attract few more fans.

I could be wrong here but I feel both fans would probably not mind to see their idol lose to federer than lose to each other. (for me does not sting too much coz the fed is my man) I don’t know how these fans feel about their idol losing to Nadal though, maybe on clay they wouldn’t mind as much

As what jane said above, Djoko has accomplished more than Murray, Murray peaked a little later and..ofcourse compared to Djoko he has a lot of catching up to do. But imo, what matters is what they finish with at the end of their career..they are exactly the same age separated by few days.

Anyways, have fun people and I am wishing all players all the best.

Kimmi Says:

ESPN has a tennis coverage on Twitter and its a lot of fun to follow. There are quite a lot of players twitting nowadays.

Love Roddick…he cracks me up all the time. Serena is chatting the most so far, she can be funny too..she is telling everyone about her activities and selling some of her goodies too, she would chat with Venus sometimes and its fun to see. Clijsters, Soderling. Laura Robson sometime Murray posts too but not much. Few doubles players too.

I don’t chat with them, just reading their posts..a lot of fun.

Kimmi Says:

So, is davydenko not playing IW then? This article talks about his injury and how he is missing Davis Cup and that he could miss Miami too..but what about IW?

Bad luck for davydenko, he was peaking very well so far this year. That fall in Rotterdam seem to be more serious..maybe not. Well, what can I say! Wish him all the best.

Sean Randall Says:

He’s withdrawn from Davis Cup. Uncertain for IW.

Kimmi Says:

Sean, thanks. Lets hope he plays IW and Miami. davy always makes the draw very interesting.

Top story: Djokovic Stunned; Raonic Sick; Sick Friday Line-Up at Aussie Open