The serve is the shot in tennis in which a player is in complete control. While environmental factors can influence aspects of the service motion, the shot itself – unlike a forehand or a backhand – is not burdened by the ball sent at them by their opponents.
This week’s #SaturdayNightShot is a serve that, in the past, has let its player down consistently. But over the past few years, it has helped this player win more matches than anyone else on the ATP Tour. Until this morning, this serve had contributed to an exceptional 28-0 win/loss record in China.
This serve belongs to ATP World No.1 Novak Djokovic.
Djokovic’s serve has seen plenty of changes in terms of both aesthetics and efficiency, but since the beginning of 2011 – a season where he won an incredible 41 matches in a row – his serve has been as polished as gem and as solid as a rock.
The Serb has built a balanced aggressive baseline game around his now-reliable serve, allowing him to hold with ease and put huge pressure on his opponents with what many consider to be the best return game in tennis.
The result? Over 270 matches won over the last four years.
With the help of Boris Becker, Djokovic has been fine-tuning his volleying as well to compliment his serve’s effectiveness. With both versatility and power, the Serb’s serve produces aces and unreturned service winners. He is capable of hitting corners with a high paced first serve and his second serve – now massively improved – can be spun in with both slice and kick. Even when he has had to make a second serve, he’s winning more points off it than anyone else on tour has on theirs.
Things were not always this good for the current World No.1. Fans of his will recall a “dark age” when he enlisted Todd Martin as a part of his coaching staff. Martin tinkered with small parts of his serve in 2010, which ultimately proved disastrous: his charge hit 282 double faults that year. One year later, when Djokovic ascended to the top of the men’s game in 2011, he had over 60% fewer double faults.
He stuck his arm out wide and, perpendicular to his ball tossing arm with his old motion, which added extra motions to his follow-through, thus making it less consistent. Improved since then, his ball toss is slightly lower and the service shot has more wrist in it to add spin. The confidence Djokovic has acquired in this shot is evidenced by the shortening of his pre-serve ball bouncing ritual – something for which he was notorious for earlier in his career.
Below is the customary compilation of hits for the Djokovic serve – as well as its misses, because every few aces is not without its double faults.
| HITS |
-Djokovic’s serve is versatile. He can hit slice serves out wide or flat high-paced serves down the T. On break points, he is able to come up with strong kick serves from the ad court, which can give him either an easy ball to put away or a weak response to volley.
-In matches where his ground game deserts him, he has been generally able to rely on his serve to get the job done. His recent successes at Wimbledon are evidence of this; while grass doesn’t suit his groundstrokes or movement, his improved serve has allowed him to excel on the surface.
-Djokovic’s game is defined by his movement, but his serve makes it easy for him to win cheap points, allowing him to expend his natural retriever skills more on return games when he needs to.
-His serve has allowed him to develop a more competent volleying game. He finds himself at the net more often to finish off points as a result of strong serving. Serve & volley is a legitimate option in his already expansive arsenal of tactics.
-Has a strong second serve to rely on, which takes the mental pressure off his first delivery.
| MISSES |
-As it’s the shot with 100% onus on the player, mental “walkabouts” directly affect the serve. Djokovic has been known to go on such walkabouts in his career and the serve tends to suffer the most.
-While his first serve percentage has been hovering around a solid 67% in 2014, in previous years it has consistently dipped lower. His second serve is good, but only Sara Errani can live exclusively with a second serve.
-Occasionally replaces depth with spin on his second serve, which cuts out double faults but allows opponents to step in and be aggressive off it.
-In tense moments, Djokovic sometimes doesn’t do much with his serves. Either he’ll miss attempted aces or he’ll throw in a poorly placed spun serves to keep his percentages up. This is ultimately a factor of his own mentality and if “fatalist Nole” emerges in a match, as it did against Federer in Shanghai this week.