BNP – Djokovic, Dolgopolov, and American Tennis

First off – Alexandr Dolgopolov.

PMac and I were luck enough to watch the riveting match between “the Dog” and Nadal.  A packed house on Monday for an evening match.  Incredibly contrasting styles, and an entire Rafa cheering squad with pom pons and more directly in front of us.  Rafa had mentioned earlier in the week about his back and concerns when serving.  And truly, his serve speed was all over the place.

But what stood out to me was the following pattern.  When centered on the baseline, Alexandr would bait Rafa to run slightly around his backhand to drive the first ball inside out.  Alexandr then played his forehand down the line to yet another forehand for Nadal which our world number one would inevitably whip crosscourt.  Now the fun began, and you will see this on replays on the Tennis Channel – Dolgopolov sprinted to the backhand corner to CRUSH sidespinning crosscourt winners back behind Rafa.

Said again, Dolgopolov intentionally opened his backhand wing but would then outhit Rafa in what is normally Rafa’s best pattern.  Again and again.  Amazing.
Now to the serve.  In the 1960’s players always had to keep one foot on the ground.  Then the rules changed and players could jump if they wanted.  But through that early 1970 and even 1980 era, tosses were simple affairs.  Laver, Nastase, Ashe, Borg, Connors or McEnroe – most tossed the ball just a bit higher than contact and served with a continuous rhythm.  But something has happened in our present day, for many players now use overly high tosses – Sharapova, Berdych, Steffi Graf (an original outlier on the toss) or Soderling.

Certainly there are many ways to play the game, many ways to serve, many toss heights, but Dolgopolov may return us to the era of the quick toss and hit.  The Bryan Brothers use this method, as did Roscoe Tanner and even Ivan Lubicic now the coach of Raonic.  But the Dog’s serve is pretty darn good – perhaps we could call it “tossing into the swing.”

Photo courtesy Jim Fawcette   ©jfawcette

After beating Nadal, Dolgopolov went on to “routine” Fognini 62 64 and then Raonic 63 64 before being subdued in the semifinals by the resurgent Roger Federer.

Now a question – Is Djokovic old school?  Really.  Is the BNP champion, who bested Roger in a third set tiebreaker an old school classical player?

Consider the following.  Some years ago compulsories were included within ice skating competitions.  Skaters would have to trace a large figure 8 on ice and the judges would measure how closely their skate followed the precise pattern on the ice.  A compulsory test to measure “perfection” before the free style performance.

Do we have any American tennis players who could perform the following “warm-up compulsory” that Novak does whenever warming up on court.  Novak steps in on EVERY BALL.  Novak is on PERFECT BALANCE for every ball.  Novak’s POSTURE is perfect on every ball.  Roaming the grounds at Indian Wells last week, and watching our two Davis Cup singles players (John and Sam) practice – I rarely saw true balance, both are casual if imprecise with their footwork.  Unfortunately Raonic the same but that is another story.  If practice makes perfect only when “practicing perfectly” take a moment to watch and rewatch the following two clips of Novak.

And consider – in our literature (meaning magazines, USTA publications, and all the websites) is balance and posture placed front and center as the most important aspect of the game – or is it touched on rarely with more attention paid to grips spin tactics and so forth with the tacit assumption that everyone is balanced (more or less) so lets get on to more exciting stuff.

20 Comments

  • Robert

    Reply Reply September 5, 2014

    Chris and Jim,
    On this tape Djokovic often moves his right foot behind his left during follow through. Chris misses that in each case, at that point he has ALREADY stepped into the ball (wight transfer to left foot) and rather than penetrate the court on his follow through, he steps over with his back foot to remain behind the line during his hitting session.

  • Robert

    Reply Reply September 5, 2014

    Fast forward to USO 2014. After his win over Qierrey, Djokovic remarked that he knew that Sam did not move very well and that figured into his strategy of moving him around during points.
    And on the women’s side, Peng Shuai in her quarter final against Bencic continually moved her out to FH side and then hit the reply behind her for exasperating winners, taking advantage of her not so polished movement skills.

  • Chris Trumbull

    Reply Reply April 27, 2014

    Regarding your comment “Novak steps in on EVERY BALL”. If you break the video down frame by frame you will see he does not. He hits one forehand where he steps out to the right with his right foot, makes contact, and his left foot comes across, not in. Another forehand he ends up stepping backward and to the left with his right foot. I only broke down part of the video.

    • Jim McLennan

      Reply Reply April 27, 2014

      Chris – as regards posture and balance Novak stood out far and away from the others at Indian Wells – and though the foot placement was not precisely perfect – truly no other player there hit with the same attention to detail – that is what I was trying to suggest
      Jim

  • Mario

    Reply Reply March 22, 2014

    Point well taken about Djokkovic and practice makes perfect. I see this all the time in practice where you let the ball bounce two or three times just so it gets into your hitting zone with out any effort as though you were saving your energy for next month’s match.

  • Dino

    Reply Reply March 21, 2014

    Jim,
    This is a great video clip and I will show it to HS my students. I watched it multiple times.
    What I noticed is that Novak’s weight transfer; the heel of his back foot (FH) moved up before the foot stepped slightly forward for the open stand.
    I am from your generation and I enjoy watching Novak and Federer’s strokes for their modern foot work with the traditional weight transfer.
    Thanks again for your continuing effort to improve our tennis knowledge.
    Cheers,

    Dino from Illinois

  • Charlie from London

    Reply Reply March 21, 2014

    Hi, as a student of the game, I follow different views of the subject. Oscar Wegner has got an alternative way of looking at balance. He argues that players achieve and re- establish balance naturally, and that you have to trust ” the body” to do the right thing and adjust automatically when off balanced. Hence, you can’t really teach balance. If you remember a skiier called Franz Klamer, during his winning downhill runs, he was all over the place, and every time you thought he was going to fall , his arms and legs re established balance. So surely in tennis it’s the same, when Raffa in defence falls backwards as he hits a buggy whip, that’s perfectly normal balance, and you can’t teach that, the body just does it. Of course , in a warm up, you can hit in a balanced way , but once the game starts , it’s then a real situation, and que sera, sera!! Wonder what you think? Cheers from sunny London. Charlie.

    • Jim McLennan

      Reply Reply March 21, 2014

      Charlie – I agree that player can stretch, and can hit off balance, but what the rest of us overlook is the importance of basic balance and posture – and by extension I believe there was and is something remarkable in Djokovic’s “use” of his body
      Jim

  • Winslow

    Reply Reply March 20, 2014

    Very insightful. Thanks Jim!

  • Robert

    Reply Reply March 20, 2014

    You are absolutely right. In basketball it is the culture of windmill dunks and jumping out of the gym, while guys reach the NBA without having learned which foot to leap from to do a standard layup, and in tennis it seems to be crushing the ball off both wings at every opportunity and screaming winners. But even though I had a decent background in sports I did not appreciate the depth of balance in tennis technique until I studied your materials and worked specifically on balance myself. Now my self talk after UEs contains phrases like, “stepped in off balance, needed one more step to prepare,” and “fell off the to left a little on that one.” My technique is mostly good enough now when I am in the right place and in the right position to do what I am trying to do. And that means being well balanced.

  • Jerry

    Reply Reply March 20, 2014

    Jim…good focus on Jokers balance. Probably not taught enough, but having worked 3 years under the great Welby Van Horn(who always taught balance first), I have always also stressed it first. As usual, good job, Jim!:)

  • Bernard Mckey

    Reply Reply March 20, 2014

    These Videos are excellent-I love Dolgopolov double backhand is very helpful and his side split step is key-The Double backhand would add alot to my game.

  • key

    Reply Reply March 20, 2014

    really enjoyed your comments and opinions, (and agree) thanks for sharing.

  • Donald Roberson

    Reply Reply March 20, 2014

    I agree, Jim! Rarely will there be a published article on balance. I do remember going to a High School coaches clinic at Stanford where Dick Gould invited Bob Hansen to talk to us about balance as the number one priority. (Of course those two guys never produced any national championships at their schools! So, what would they know?)

    • Jim McLennan

      Reply Reply March 21, 2014

      Don – are you the gentleman who introduced me to Fred Earle at the USPTA conference so many years ago?
      Jim

  • Arturo Hernandez

    Reply Reply March 20, 2014

    Interesting. I think this shows that the base of the game is very similar for all great players. Phil Jackson felt the same when comparing basketball players from Europe and the US. European players had better fundamentals. I think this true in tennis as well. Not enough emphasis on the basic shots. Great points!!

  • Sachin

    Reply Reply March 20, 2014

    Jim – you mention that Djokovic “steps in”. Are you saying that most other players keep their feet planted and hit an open stance forehand. I am just trying to understand why this is old school. Thanks! Great post.

    • Jim McLennan

      Reply Reply March 20, 2014

      Sach – no I mean in most pro warmups the footwork is incidental and rarely this “perfect” they lean to one side or the other, hit off the back foot, make it look like it is mostly their racquet – watch for yourself – rarely are any of the players this precisely balanced
      Jim

  • Matt

    Reply Reply March 20, 2014

    I meant to also say I’m not sure the “dog’s” serve is one to copy as something’s not right with that low of a first serve percentage

  • Matt

    Reply Reply March 20, 2014

    Not sure bout dolgopolov’s serve – at least in the nadal match, his first serve percentage was in the high 40s I believe- nadal could have won that match even with a “bad back”. The dog was definitely clobbering his bh into rafa’s fh as u said, something djokovic has done well against nadal particularly in that year he owned nadal

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