“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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