The hard court sliding revolution
While one of Novak’s biggest competitive edges is clearly his return of serve prowess (while also keeping up with bigger and better serving trends as he’s gotten older), it’s the world No.1’s movement on the hard courts in particular which perhaps most visually sets him aside from the chasing pack.
Novak has brilliant shotmaking abilities, but there’s a certain kind of gasp from fans watching him live only reserved for when he digs out a near-impossible ball on the full slide, on either backhand or forehand, to keep himself alive in a point which would have been thoroughly dead for anyone else. The world No.1’s movement is also inextricably linked to that return of serve greatness mentioned above. Djokovic’s elastic ability to punch balls back in court on return, coupled with smothering the deep court with his gumby-like slides on the following rally shots, mean that his opponents consistently have to play points outside of their comfort zone that would have already ended on their terms against most other foes.
Djokovic is the best all-around mover on hard courts that we have ever had in this sport. And extraordinarily, as both Nadal and Federer have visibly declined in foot speed and back-to-centre-line recovery as they’ve reached their mid thirties (although Federer’s footwork from 2017-2019 was truly incredible for a 36-39 year old), Djokovic’s foot speed and recovery abilities have, so far at age 34, barely diminished. I’ve always put this down to Novak representing arguably the most optimal ratio of leg & core power to overall body weight. Extremely skinny and light upper body, complimented by muscular but still lean lower body and core, topped off with amazing flexibility, combining into a terrific tennis transformer of near-total balance and speed.
On that note, I’ve wanted to update a thread I wrote about modern hard court movement and sliding for a while. The original thread is here, but I’ll be adding to it, correcting it, and refining it in this piece with more examples, clips and context, while still keeping it in numbered chunks and therefore hopefully easy to read. Djokovic and a few others are the focus of this thread, but it develops into a more macro, bigger-picture piece about men’s tennis movement in general.
The hard court sliding revolution
1/ There have been plenty of lightning fast athletes throughout tennis history. But today’s game, alongside its high-margin, spin-laden power, has spawned a fascinating development in terms of on-the-run hard court movement.
2/ Sliding on-the-run has almost always been commonplace on clay courts. But consistently sliding on the stretch on a hard court, making contact with the ball whilst simultaneously stopping, is, generally speaking, a new invention of the last 15-20 years. (Michael Chang and Paradorn Srichaphan were some of the first athletes to really wow crowds with slides on a hard court, but they happened less frequently than they do nowadays, occurred almost exclusively on the forehand side, and were usually an attempted finishing shot on the run rather than frequently used to help recovery back to the middle of the court.)
3/ Here (below) we have the traditional, on the run, contact and change of direction courtesy of Pete Sampras. On both sides when faced with a ball that was nearly out of reach, we see traditional recovery steps. He makes contact, in a closed stance, and afterwards stops and turns around:
4/ This was seen as the accepted technique for much of tennis history when hitting from these kind of positions. Because contact, stopping, turning-around and recovering are three separate actions in this method, reaching and getting ready for the next ball is slow.
5/ In contrast, here's the more recent development of the open-stance, one-step jump & slide, on the full stretch, courtesy of Novak Djokovic, Rafael Nadal & Gael Monfils (arguably the trailblazers of modern baseline movement on the men’s side) and younger star Felix Auger-Aliassime: (excuse some of the terrible music in some of these videos, a few clips were taken from youtube compilations which are less prone to copyright issues)
6/ Note: the Sampras vs 'modern' comparison is very simplistic, & isn’t meant as like-for-like given Pete had a single-hander & no two points are the same (and one of those clips is on carpet). The comparison is merely to show difference in recovery time, footwork & body positioning from on-the-run positions between the techniques.
7/ Modern players (in the video above) can plant their leading leg in one big leap, in an open or semi-open stance (or occasionally facing the wrong way) — simultaneously stopping & making contact. This means a player is ready to push off that outside leg & move back to the middle of the court almost immediately following contact.
8/ Not only can this streamline three motions — ball contact, changing direction, recovery back to the middle — into one, but it can also have various biomechanical advantages with regard to power generation & stability (wide open base/legs, freer rotation of upper body etc). Here's @_markpetchey with a great visual explanation:
9/ This evolution of movement has produced baseliners who seem impossible to hit through. Tennis’ age-old advice of ‘taking time away from the opponent’ is orders of magnitude harder when players can recover back to a central position in the court faster than ever before. As a result, positional advantage has never been countered more successfully than it is these days, in the baseline tennis meta that we find ourselves in. Here’s Novak again to demonstrate:
11/ This evolution has enabled some of the more athletic modern players to do the following:
Hit offensive or neutral shots, that historically would have been defensive.
Retrieve balls, that historically would have been un-retrievable.
and then in both instances:
Recover for the next potential shot in record speed, shrinking the size of the open court for the opponent to hit into on their subsequent shot.
12/ This evolution in on-the-stretch power/stability & shotmaking, is in exchange for different, and in some areas more extreme, joint (ankle, knee, hip) pressure caused by the more abrupt stop inherent in a large-step slide, compared to spreading the impact over multiple steps. Here’s Roberto Bautista Agut and Novak Djokovic again to demonstrate the extreme forces that go through the ankle, knee and hip joints when sliding on hard (and grass).
13/ An interesting aspect of this evolution is the emergence of 'fast giants' on the men’s tour. Despite tennis getting taller (Zverev 6ft6, Medvedev 6ft6, Tsitsipas 6ft5, Auger-Aliassime 6ft4, Hurkacz 6ft5) the sport is also becoming more nimble & building on top of Djokovic et al’s work. Each of these up-and-comers regularly employ the sort of lunging slides mentioned above, regardless of surface. The thing to watch out for in the following video is how small the open court looks to the opponents after one of these players hits a sliding shot. The recovery back to the middle of the court is rapid, which either sets the sliding player up to be able to make the next shot, or forces an error from the opponent who desperately tries to cling onto control of the point in the face of the sliding player slingshotting from the tramlines back to the centre line in record time:
14/ This wasn’t true of the emerging next-gen or established players in the late 90’s (& even into the beginning of the 2000’s) — it would have been crazy for example to see Greg Rusedski or Richard Krajicek, the two tallest members of the Top 10 in 1999, moving like the above — which makes this evolution all the more fascinating with regard to its relatively fast adoption.
15/ Players are now better at retrieval & point elongation than ever and, while some courts may have slowed relative to the extremely fast conditions of some surfaces in the 1990’s, the perception of modern court speed will also have been significantly influenced by increasingly impressive movement abilities from the sport’s biggest stars. There is regularly talk of the ‘homogenization of tennis surfaces’ but what arguably needs more discussion is the homogenization of movement, with players using some of the traditional clay court movement techniques above, and resulting patterns, on hard (and occasionally even grass).
16/ Usually single handers find it significantly easier to slide into forehands than backhands because of the difficulty in stabilising that single handed backhand in an open stance position. You will usually see single handers sliding predominantly on their right leg if they’re right handed, dragging that left leg mostly as a balance aid (this btw is why Tsitsipas usually breaks his left shoelace, because it drags close to the ground underneath his trailing leg and gets worn away). However, there are really interesting signs of evolution amongst the single handers, notably by Dominic Thiem:
17/ This is one of the things that makes Djokovic so superlative when it comes to his ability to slide and move. While a few of the other double-handed backhands like Zverev, Medvedev, Nadal (from 2005-2010) et al can or could slide well to their backhand side on a hard court (certainly better than most single handers at least), Novak’s balance on both forehand and backhand slides is on another level entirely. He can be offensive or defensive from either wing on the full stretch, and his spring loaded recovery thanks to strong but flexible legs negates positional advantage better than anyone. This all contributes to Djokovic being the hardest player to hit through, on a hard court, that has ever lived.
Sliderman turns up the pressure
18/ As mentioned at the top of this piece, Novak’s return of serve, coupled with his truly extraordinary movement skills, represent a conjoined nightmare of abilities for opponents. Much has been written (in fact too much) about the importance of the 0-4 shots range in professional tennis. Around 65% of points in professional tennis take place in the 0-4 shot range, with that short point majority mostly facilitated by the huge serves we see in the tall modern game. This is how the average breaks down:
0-4 shots: 65% of points
5-8 shots: 27% of points
9+ shots : 8% of points
(Thanks to Shane Liyanage for these and the figures below, taken from the Data Driven Sports Analytics database — sample size 2000+ matches)
I’m going to go a bit deeper into the 0-4 shot topic in a soon to be released issue (update from Matt: issue is available here), as unfortunately the ‘0-4 shots’ emphasis has become a bit of a meme in the tennis strategy world. It tends to underemphasise the importance of 5 shots or more, especially given the extremely small margins that make up wins and losses in this sport, and that not all points are created equal in importance or influence. But something really interesting happens if we isolate the pressure points i.e all breakpoints (both the BP creator & defender), 30-All, deuce points, AD-40 or 40-AD, all tiebreak points, and 0-30 on serve:
0-4 shots : 57% of points (-8%)
5-8 shots: 33% of points (+6%)
9+ shots : 10% of points (+1%)
Players tend to play longer points, on average, when in pressure situations. And this is where Djokovic’s ability for the return of serve, and the other-worldly movement and sliding skills, become a particularly interesting edge. Players facing Novak not only have to deal with him putting more of their serves in play than usual, but his incredible sliding and movement also helps extend points on their serve longer than any server would ideally like.
Much is written about Djokovic’s ability under pressure. And, at least in return games, his movement and sliding ability are probably not given enough explicit credit as to why he’s that good on those bigger points. After all, no one else forces opponents out of their comfy serve +1, and therefore short point, patterns on a hard court quite like Novak.
19/ notes: Federer burst on the scene at a time (late 90’s) when the above technique wasn’t prevalent. But Federer managed to learn a version of it mid-career & you can now occasionally see him utilising it on his forehand side to great effect. An impressive form of adaptation.
20/ Chang & Srichaphan were both early examples of players sliding on hard courts. But neither consistently employed the open stance, single leap into contact of the more modern players followed by fast recovery back to the middle. Both should however be regarded as athletic trailblazers in this sport regardless.
22/ Lower-bouncing/faster courts, more grass/carpet, more volleying, heavier racquets, less forgiving strings, smaller racquet heads, meant that players from previous eras didn’t need to, or couldn’t, develop their movement as modern baseliners have in past 20 years. This thread should by no means be read as a criticism or marginalisation of what previous era’s achieved with regard to mobility, as those bygone stars were merely optimising for what the game of their own time demanded/allowed. They were extraordinary in their own ways!
23/ Not all sliding is good. There are times where it is not the optimal choice of movement or shot type, especially when the player isn’t on the full stretch and they could retain more control over the shot without that big lunge. Grigor Dimitrov is an example of a player who occasionally slides too often (often not intentionally!), sacrificing balance and margin.
24/ There is a WTA version of this analysis coming soon, with particular focus on the incredible athleticism of Kim Clijsters, Iga Swiatek, and the Williams sisters. The women deserve their own piece on this given a few differences when it comes to movement between the tour tours.
I hope you’ve enjoyed this slightly different piece. There will be more on this soon. In the meantime keep an eye out for Novak Djokovic and others sliding around the hard courts of New York for the next couple of weeks.
But in particular, enjoy the master of movement while you still can.
If you have any questions on the above, let me know in the comments. No question is dumb.
See you on Thursday.
The Racquet goes out twice a week, a (free) topical piece every Thursday and a (paid) analysis piece every Sunday/Monday.
Top: Darrian Traynor/Getty
Bottom: Quinn Rooney/Getty
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