For Novak Djokovic, the baseline is his kingdom.
He is its sole protector. There are times where his kingdom is penetrated, but he continues to fight back, in the face of all who wish to take over, even if just for a day. In most cases, the enemy is suppressed by an unstoppable and unrelenting force that takes the form of Djokovic’s impregnable defense.
For a player that is supposed to be a human being just like you and I, it’s hard not to watch one of his matches and wonder if he is some type of robotic automaton. The level of flexibility and dexterity that Djokovic brings to the court — aiding him in the deflection of his opponents’ most enlivened offensive stampedes — is unlike anything the sport has ever seen.
Many have fairly argued that Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal revolutionized the way we’ve looked at the game. Federer’s effortless technical precision, grace under pressure and uncanny ability to come up with unprecedented shots allowed him to assert a control over matches that the sport had simply not seen before. Nadal came along and changed the way we think about topspin forever. The Spaniard ushered in an age where the rest of the world was attempting to emulate what he did with the ball off the forehand side. What he has done on clay with his topspin forehand is above what any player has done any surface ever with any shot.
Djokovic’s defensive prowess is the “shot” in his arsenal that is not only controlling the game, but simultaneously changing the way it can be played. It’s easy to recognize something you haven’t seen before, and in the case of Djokovic’s defense, you are just left shaking your head. The best word for it is preposterous. Some of the balls Djokovic is able to get back defending out of the open stance (and less often, the closed stance) is preposterous in the sense that if I hadn’t seen it before and someone described it to me, I would laugh if it off as simply not possible. But, as Federer and Andy Murray could tell you, it is a frightening reality for anyone standing across the net from him.
If Djokovic is given enough time, he has the extraordinary capacity to plant his outside foot with his last step then proceed to enter an extremely aggressive slide into the ball — all while generating tons of upper body rotation. The distance he is able to create with his legs gives him an exceptionally lengthy reach — explaining why even the best offensive players struggle to find solutions against him.
Getting to the ball is only half the equation, and what happens to the ball once it leaves the racket is more crucial. To deliver an offensive strike, a player typically needs to have their body situated in a certain position and the ball coming at a certain speed and particularly depth. To Djokovic, almost all of this becomes irrelevant. He can take whatever ball he wants from a seemingly defensive position, and turns it into immediate offense. It is comparable to Nadal’s topspin forehand — a shot that used to be as safe as any other, but also had the quality of being an offensive powerhouse.
Moving forward, the amount of players defending out of the open stance should ostensibly increase. Players around the world will see what Djokovic is doing and attempt to replicate what he’s done as best they can, as they should. One player that has started to defend more out of the open stance as his career has progressed: one Roger Federer.
I’ll leave the influence of Djokovic’s open stance defending at that.