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Is Djokovic Beatable At Wimbledon?
2nd serves, tiebreakers, matchups in his path to the final
Novak Djokovic is the overwhelming favourite for Wimbledon this year. So I thought I’d take a look to see whether he has any potential holes in the armour and who, if anyone, can exploit them.
Attack the 2nd Serve?
If we look at Djokovic’s serve and return performance for his two prime periods, 2011-2016 and 2018-2021, we get this:
The only interesting thing about this data in this context is Djokovic’s 2nd serve performance (top right corner) drop off on grass from 60% to 56%. The sample size is small, but a 4% drop off isn’t insignificant. And there have been periods of grass matches at Wimbledon in both 2018 and 2019 where Novak did look vulnerable on his 2nd serve — notably against Nishikori and Nadal in 2018, and against Goffin, Bautista Agut and Federer in 2019 (of course he still won all those matches).
Again, the samples are small (no grass matches since 2019 make the comparisons weaker) and Novak’s excellent first serve (and apparently ever-improving return game) can usually cover up occasional cracks in his 2nd serve. But do keep a look out for Djokovic’s serving performances over the coming two weeks in London, especially the speed and efficacy of his 2nd serve. It may well be that having Ivanišević in his corner will have bumped up his 2nd serve potency. But at least in recent history, that shot does offer the slimmest glimmer of hope for his opponents relative to the rest of his iron clad game.
Matt: This is a more speculative point, but having watched a lot of Djokovic and his improved serve over the past few years, it does seem like he feels much more comfortable hitting the aggressive slice 2nd serves (that have served him so well in Australia in particular) on hard courts than clay or grass. The reasoning behind clay is obvious given the surface doesn’t compliment the slice serve to the same degree as hard courts, but I would have expected grass to be more conducive to that shot. As a result I’m wondering whether we’ll see more aggressive slice 2nd serves from Novak this year at Wimbledon.
Get him to a tiebreak?
Djokovic was on a tiebreak tear last year in 2020. This year however things are looking quite different:
Djokovic tiebreak record in 2020: 15 wins 2 losses (88%)
Djokovic tiebreak record in 2021 (so far): 7 wins 8 losses (47%)
To be clear, his 2020, 88%, record was abnormally good (Novak’s career tiebreak record is 64%). But Djokovic does seem to be losing more breakers than usual in 2021, going into a time of year (grass court season) where tiebreakers are more and more common. His tiebreaker losses in 2021 have come at the hands of: Zverev (x2), Tiafoe (x1), Sonego (x1), Musetti (x2), Berrettini (x1), Tsitsipas (x1).
An interesting thing about tiebreakers is that while many assume they benefit big servers, the opposite is actually true on average. Per TennisAbstract, on average, tiebreakers feature the following serve and return performance differences compared to normal games.
Service points won: -6.5%
First serve in: +1.3%
Returns in play: +8.5%
Rally length: +18.9%
The assumption here is that, in general, players serve slightly more conservatively in tiebreakers (each point is more important in a breaker than a 40-0 point is in a game for example), and therefore get into more rallies, favouring the returners. The problem for those facing Djokovic is that he’s one of the few players whose own serve performance barely suffers in a tiebreak (just under 1% worse), while his return performance increases on average by a whopping 12%. The best way to think about this is that historically Djokovic has managed to avoid the pitfalls of conservative serving in tiebreakers, while managing to significantly capitalise on his opponent’s reduced serving performances in those crunch moments. Novak being one of the greatest returners of all time certainly doesn’t hurt in this context either.
But this year, for whatever reason, Novak hasn’t been quite at his usual, clutch best when it comes to those tiebreaker moments. A small hole perhaps?
The flip side of this ‘tiebreaker chink in the armour’ argument however is that Djokovic still won the most important breaker he’s played this year: the third set against Rafa Nadal at Roland Garros a few weeks ago. And that really felt like the only tiebreaker he’s played in 2021 which significantly altered the chance of him winning or losing the match. Perhaps then he’s still just as clutch as ever when it really matters, but has lost more tiebreakers against opponents he can afford to do so this year.
Still, statistically speaking, Djokovic’s opponents at Wimbledon should feel slightly buoyed by recent tiebreaker history should they manage to push sets to 6-6. Djokovic may well slam the door shut on this notion of tiebreaker vulnerability in the coming two weeks, but another slim, glimmer of hope nonetheless.
Slice cross court, blocked returns and net rushing?
I’m going to keep this very short because the number of players who have managed to actually trouble Djokovic by either slicing cross court, blocking returns well enough, and/or coming to the net a lot, on grass in recent years is vanishingly small. Federer in the 2019 final did a great job of all three (but still lost). Fed hit more slices than backhand topspin groundstrokes (188 to 184) and consistently forced Djokovic into trouble low and/or no-pace to his backhand side. Federer also approached the net about 18% of total points in that 2019 final (73 times) and won 57 of them (an impressive 78% win rate). But unfortunately for most of tour, Federer’s slice, approach shot instincts and volley skills are not common, especially on grass.
So we’ve built a very small hypothetical threat to Djokovic. Either a…
big server who can push him into tiebreaks and who would ideally have a good 2nd serve return (bonus if they can approach, volley & slice well).
or perhaps just a great returner to exploit Novak’s 2nd serve, especially if he has a rare bad day on 1st serve.
But is there anyone in his path that fits either or both descriptions? His projected path to the final looks like this:
Rd 1: Draper
Draper would need a home-court-advantage inspired miracle to trouble Djokovic, given the experience and level gap between the two players.
Rd 2: Anderson
Anderson would have fit the big serving description a few years ago, but he’s in the worst form of his life which probably takes him out of the equation.
Rd 3: Fokina/Seppi/Kudla
Both Seppi and Kudla count grass as their best surface, and both have solid career 2nd serve return numbers. But while both may offer some rally resistance, neither should be able to maintain it for five sets vs Djokovic, and neither have big first serves to help push them to a tiebreaker.
Rd 4: Monfils/Garin
Given form and surface preference, I would not expect this round to be competitive regardless of who makes it there.
Quarter Final: Schwartzman/Sinner/Rublev
Counterintuitively considering Schwartzman’s worst surface by far has been grass over his career, his excellent return game, should the Argentine make it to a hypothetical quarter final, could be interesting to watch clash against Djokovic’s serve on grass. Berrettini at Wimbledon 2019 called Schwartzman a nightmare to play against (after a 5 set battle) because of his return ability. And if Schwartzman can neutralise Berrettini’s serve then he can probably do so against anyone on a good day. But Djokovic would need to have an abnormally bad day at the office to make that match close on grass. Sinner and Rublev, the other potential quarterfinal opposition, are both still sort of unknowns against elite opposition on grass, and neither serve well enough to make tiebreakers likely. Both matchups would be good grass acid tests of two young talents though.
Semi-Final: Tsitsipas/Bautista Agut/Shapovalov/Evans
The potential semi finals are interesting because of the different play-styles that could make it through. Tsitsipas, on a good serving day, could very well force tiebreakers, which gives him a chance. But it would be surprising if Tsitsipas’ weak return game forced enough consistent pressure onto Djokovic over 3-5 sets. The Greek does possess the net skills to do some damage however, so this hypothetical matchup could yet be interesting despite the gulf in return ability. Same goes for Shapovalov RE: strong serve and weak return. Bautista Agut is a weak server but did trouble Djokovic on return in their 2019 Wimbledon semi final. And Dan Evans with his slice and blocked returns would probably be as close as possible to what Federer did to Djokovic’s 2nd serve in the 2019 final (lots of short angle slices low to Djokovic’s backhand, which made Novak uncomfortable). But Evans doesn’t have the Federer serve nor the baseline game to complete the package. Tsitsipas and Bautista Agut the biggest potential threats at this hypothetical stage.
This (and arguably against Tsitsipas in the semi finals) is the only round where, if Djokovic has played a high level throughout the tournament, an upset looks even remotely possible. Medvedev, Berrettini and Zverev all have big enough serves to force lottery tiebreakers against Djokovic. But despite Medvedev and Zverev’s good return performances against the field in general, their deep return positions can be punished by Djokovic’s angled slice serves on grass. None of them possess consistent enough net games (Berrettini is better than the other two however), and only Zverev or Medvedev would stand much of a chance at exploiting Djokovic’s 2nd serve. Berrettini’s slice backhand does give him some very interesting rally options against Djokovic though, and that would be an interesting dynamic to watch play out.
Federer, coming into this event as cold as possible, probably won’t make it this far, but if by some miracle he playing well enough to the make the final, he’s a threat for all the same reasons he was just a point away from beating Djokovic in the 2019 final (apologies for the PTSD Fed fans).
If you’re wondering why the above all sounds quite thin, it’s because it damn well is. Djokovic is a heavy favourite for a reason, and these supposed holes in his armour can probably only even be seen during matchplay by about 5% of players, and capitalised on by an even smaller subset percentage of those. Novak in his current form, and against the backdrop of currently quite weak grass court competition, is a bit like Achilles wearing foot and ankle plating. Only if he removes his own armour and telegraphs his weak spot to the battlefield with a bad performance or injury, or if an opponent can fire an arrow just right through the chink in the metal (probably via forcing and winning coin-flip tiebreakers), can he be taken down.
Matt: it is possible that Djokovic will come into this event a bit cold given he’s played no warm-up events and is coming off a mentally and physically exhausting clay season. There’s a good chance his biggest threat this tournament is the challenge of living up to his own usual standards.
Djokovic’s absolutely incredible movement, balance, and complete-ness of his baseline game, on both forehand and backhand, means that he can largely impose his hard court game onto modern grass courts. This wonderfully balanced set of strengths renders surface transitions less jarring than many of his less balanced contemporaries. The safe bet is obviously him lifting Slam number 20 on the 11th July. But do watch out for Novak’s 2nd serves and any tiebreakers that may loom large in his future over the course of this fortnight in London. You never know.
See you on Thursday
If you have any questions or thoughts about what you just read you can leave a comment below & I’ll answer it. No question is dumb.
The Racquet goes out twice a week, a (free) topical piece every Thursday and a (paid) analysis piece every Sunday/Monday.
Top: Clive Brunskill/Getty
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