I got to the tennis center here in Mason on Monday evening in time to watch a couple of the evening ATP matches, Wawrinka-Schwartzman and Djokovic-Johnson. Andy Murray had gone out earlier in the day to Lucas Pouille, and I framed the story that I wrote that evening about the three former top players making their way back (Stan, Andy and Novak), each in the unusual circumstance of being asked to play six matches to win the tournament instead of five.
One of them, Novak Djokovic, has made his way through five matches, and if he wins the sixth he’ll become the only player to achieve career wins at all 9 M-1000 tournaments. So history is on the line – something Djokovic has woken up to many times in his career, though possibly he and his supporters are rubbing their eyes that it’s happening again in August of 2018, given the state of Novak’s game in April of 2018.
To me, though, Novak’s path through the draw in Cincinnati, and his path through the first eight months of 2018, have been a reaffirmation of the single most important precept his game, almost literally, embodies – “bend, but don’t break.”
When you say the word bend, you immediately invoke flexibility – the physical attribute that Djokovic has demonstrated becomes a kind of superpower at this level. It’s most obvious in the defensive shot that Djokovic (along with Gael Monfils) helped to introduce to the ATP, the low wide groundstroke off either wing doing a near-split under control, transposing the slide previously seen only on clay courts to hard surfaces. But you also see it in attacking play, when Djokovic finds a way to skim a pass at a near impossible angle past an opponent who has seemingly brought off a winning drop shot, only to look back over the net with an “I can’t believe you can do that” look.
But it’s also apparent in the tactical choices Djokovic makes, his willingness to adapt game plans, and the different variations of forehand or backhand rally balls he’ll use to work through a point. A signature Djokovic point earned him the first break of set three – Cilic hit a good first serve down the T, and Djokovic blocked the ball back deep with the forehand. Cilic was able to hit an inside-out forehand on his second shot, but he couldn’t get a lot of pace and width on the shot, and Djokovic’s deep backhand reset the point to neutral. His next shots are a heavy forehand to ad, a deep slice to ad, a topspin backhand to ad, a deep slice to ad, another slice to ad, then a flat forehand drive down the middle, inducing a Cilic forehand in the net.
At no time after the first shot was Cilic in control of the point, and that has to prey on an opponent’s confidence. Cilic told the press yesterday, “I was serving really well, probably best serving performance in the week in that third set. And still, he made a few unbelievable deep returns, couple points he played unbelievably well from defense.”
Tennis analyst Craig O’Shannessy pointed something out a couple of years ago after a Djokovic-Tsonga match that has stuck with me: Djokovic’s winning percentage on Tsonga’s second serve was as high as his winning percentage on his own service points, and Djokovic was effectively holding three serves to Tsonga’s one. When I’ve watched Novak play in Cincinnati this week, the return has been one of the two shots I have focused most on. Many players are impressively quick in reacting to well-placed serves, but Djokovic’s drive backhand return against the typical high-kicking wide second serve is nonpareil. He is not the most aggressive returner in the men’s game – Dustin Brown is, and fascinatingly Ivo Karlovic and John Isner are right up there – but his ability to neutralize a point in two shots, then play the rest of the point on his own terms, keeps him at the top of the ATP return stats.
I said that the return was one of two shots that I focused on. The other was the serve. Over the years it has been the shot Djokovic has visibly tinkered with the most, and it has already been through several iterations this year as Djokovic has worked around, then through, the chronic right elbow problem that bedeviled him and came to a head midway through 2017. During his recent dominant period between 2014 and 2016, his first serve had speed and work: In Cincinnati I noticed that Djokovic was hitting flat first serves consistently in the 114-118 mph range, without a lot of deviation in the trajectory. After yesterday’s match I asked him whether this was what he wanted from this shot, or whether he wanted more from it:
Q.I’d like to ask a technical question about your service motion. You have had different service motions during the past.
NOVAK DJOKOVIC: Yeah.
Q.Partly because of stress, perhaps. It looks now similar to the motion that you have had –
NOVAK DJOKOVIC: Yeah.
Q.– at times when you have had great success, but the speed seems a little bit slower, high 110s or so. You’re getting a lot of free points with placement, but is it where you expect it to be or is it still a work in progress?
NOVAK DJOKOVIC: Still a work in progress. There are days where I’m able to serve, you know, consistently well throughout the match. There are days when it goes up and down. But if I analyze the matches that I had this week so far, I mean, you know, I had lots of ups and downs with serves, second serves. It was, you know, quite slow and double faults in some important moments.
So I am still trying to find the proper rhythm, you know, and surgery was not a while ago. I did not know how impactful that surgery and the whole of the last two years’ period of compromising my service motion will actually affect the actual serve. But it did affect, pretty much.
So I had to find ways and alternations to, you know, to the actual motion. I had worked with Agassi and Stepanek at the beginning of the year on that, and then Marian joined the team. Of course we are working on it. I know that the speed-wise is not up there where it was and where it should be, but I’m slowly building it.
You can’t have it all right away, but it is the most important shot in the game, without a doubt. So I know I can’t serve like Raonic, you know, speed-wise, but I have been always a player that used the accuracy and precision more than speed. But I know that I have couple miles more on my serve, definitely. But I think it’s just a matter of the service motion and technique and ball toss and so forth. It’s a matter of rhythm. But I believe that it will come together. Actually in Wimbledon it was really good. The serve was very accurate. It was giving me a lot of free points, you know, because grass is obviously the quickest surface in sports. It’s quite different than other surfaces. I’m working on it, and things will come together, I’m sure.
Novak’s serve, in his own mind, is a work in progress, just as his return to the top level of tennis is. He has beaten his last four opponents here in three sets, and in two of them he has been behind in a potentially decisive set. Bend, but don’t break.
Today he plays a familiar opponent, although it’s more than two and a half years since the two last met. Federer gave his own assessment of Djokovic’s 2018 in an abbreviated press conference after his abbreviated win over Goffin last night:
Q.Novak has been hitting some really good down-the-line backhands again. I think that was something he was missing during his slump. I wonder if you watch him play closely enough to see if he’s doing something different or if you leave that up to your team?
ROGER FEDERER: Yeah, I mean, I didn’t pay that much attention to exactly know he’s not been hitting his backhand very well. When they asked me in Indian Wells and Miami to judge Novak, I was, like, It’s not real Novak, then.
He was just coming back, and he came back too soon. Same at the Australian Open. That one wasn’t quite the 100% Novak we know he can be.
So I don’t look at that kind of match like what could he be struggling with, because if you give him time, he’ll fix that. Same with Stan. If he’s got time, they will fix that. They will be very different players three months down the road. And look what happened after the French. Everything turned. He could have won Queen’s, should have won Queen’s, maybe. Ends up winning Wimbledon and he’s back in another finals. It looks like he hasn’t missed any tennis at all over the last few years.
No, but I think it gives him a lot of confidence, as well, winning all those three-setters now, because in Indian Wells and Miami, what I saw there was a tired Novak, which was very rare to see that, you know. But that’s why it wasn’t real. He hadn’t had enough practice yet. Still coming fresh off his injury.
So, yeah, I think he’s playing much better tennis now, much more solid off the baseline. I mean, I still think he’s got room to improve. Will be interesting to see how he finishes the year.
Your mileage may vary, but I think that’s a respectful, objective and sympathetic assessment.
Neither of the two finalists have looked at their best in Cincinnati. Federer had an awful first set from the baseline against David Goffin, possibly in reaction to a two-match Friday. Federer was the better player and winner of the tiebreak that ensued, after which Goffin got a shoulder rub. Two and a half games later, Goffin pulled the ripcord, allowing a grateful No. 2 seed a pass to the final he might not have earned against an opponent at 100 percent.
It will be the 52nd meeting between Djokovic and Federer, not counting the walkover Federer conceded in the 2014 London WTF Finals. To me, it’s a near coin flip: Federer has beaten Djokovic here in the finals three times (Djokovic has also lost to Murray in the finals twice). But Djokovic is 7-3 over Federer in their last 10 meetings. He has also shown this week that consistency — and the ability to bend but not break — gets you the bigger smile at the handshake more often than not. Either man could win today, but I’m leaning towards Title IX for Novak.