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Copyright April 29 2011 by Paul Fein

DJOKOVIC IS FLYING HIGH

    Last year Novak Djokovic climbed onto the wing of a biplane and rallied with another player to promote Head's YouTek IG Speed Racquet. Viewers of the commercial, which appeared on YouTube, head.com and other websites in March, were left wondering if the irrepressible Serb, dressed in headgear, goggles and a flight suit, really did play tennis 1,000 meters up in the air.

     This year there is no doubt The Djoker is flying high. He's played tennis out of this world, going unbeaten in six tournaments and 32 matches, highlighted by winning the Australian Open. There he outclassed legend Roger Federer in the semis and overwhelmed Andy Murray for his second major title. Djokovic's hard court domination continued at Indian Wells and Miami where he took out world No. 1 Rafael Nadal in riveting three-set finals.

     But can Djokovic sustain his reign at the French Open and Wimbledon, on clay and grass, his weakest surfaces? If he does capture Roland Garros, the Madrid Open final on May 8 may prove pivotal. There Djokovic upset Nadal to end the Spaniard's 37-match winning streak on clay as well as his own nine-match losing streak on clay to Nadal.

     In this wide-ranging interview, Marian Vajda, his highly regarded, longtime Slovak coach and confidant, reveals why the 23-year-old Djokovic has improved so much and what we can expect from him for the rest of the year..

     How much of a springboard for Djokovic's great 2011 season was his superb Davis Cup performance last December?
     Yes, that was a big thing. I really believe the Davis Cup final lifted him up. It was a big thing because the Davis Cup in every country is a big thing. It increased his confidence. It definitely meant a lot for him. During the entire 2010, his [main] focus was just on winning the Davis Cup for Serbia. That victory was even more important for Novak than winning the 2008 Australian Open.

     Last year Djokovic was the only top 50 player with more double faults than aces. This year at the Australian Open in his last three matches he hit a total of 22 aces and only 6 double faults. He also averaged an impressive 119 mph for first serves. Why is his serve much better this year?
     Because he's worked on different techniques. This year his serve is completely different from last year. His serve in 2010 was not efficient and not technically right. Biomechanically, he changed the whole concept. He worked on that for much of last year. Then he started to use his new serve because it gave him more power and more precision. From 2007 to 2009 his arm was bent a lot at the end of the backswing like a baseball throw, and the same is true this year. That method is correct. But in 2010, his arm was straight, like a bowler in cricket. Another big difference is that from 2007 to 2009 and again this year, he had more racket head speed and forward and upward thrust, which caused him to jump three or four inches off the court. All these things gave both his first serve and second serve more power, accuracy and consistency.
    

     His forehand used to be mainly a rallying shot; now it has become a major weapon. What is he doing differently on his forehand?
     Technically, he's improved his balance a lot. He's hitting through the ball more and his legs are more stable. He's using his balance better, and he's going forward more to attack the ball. He doesn't twist his body or lean backward. The result is that now his forehand has more power, and because of that it has more depth, and it also has more accuracy.
    

     Does Djokovic have the best backhand in the game today, and what makes it so effective?
      First of all, his backhand has been very natural since he was young. He had a very good teacher when he learned tennis. His first teacher was a lady named Gelena Gencic. The double-handed backhand is much more efficient because the left hand is very supportive, and it's much stronger to play with two hands than one hand, without a doubt. With a double-handed backhand you can also hit angles, and you can block the ball and return powerful shots much better. You can maneuver much better at the last second with a two-handed backhand and still hit a good shot. A one-handed player cannot also hit double-handed, but a double-handed player can always learn how to hit a slice backhand with one hand. He's very confident he'll never lose a point on his backhand, and he almost never makes an error on his backhand even though he hits flat shots. It's amazing. He can adjust to fast or slow shots, low or high shots, flat or topspin shots. His backhand feeling and technique are unique. You can't teach that.

     What about his backhand footwork?
     Novak has great footwork, and that is another reason for his great backhand. He is very flexible and agile. I met him when he was 18, and he had an incredible way of running with agility. That was his big, big advantage already. He plants his right [front] foot at a 45-degree angle. His fitness coach and I worked with him a lot on that. At the beginning, Novak didn't have that balance and footwork, so we worked on that in many practices.
    

     Djokovic's down-the-line backhand is his favorite shot, and it's a powerful weapon that many top players such as Federer, Sampras, Hewitt and Nadal don't have. What makes it picture-perfect? And how important is this shot in Djokovic's arsenal.
     It's a very, very good shot. And it's one of the most effective shots tactically to open the court at the very last second—he does this better than others with double-handed backhands—even though his opponents know his game very well. His down-the-line backhand is really effective because then he can attack with his forehand. This weapon has helped him be unbeaten this year. The players are studying his game, and they know him much better now. But he's still able to win points with his backhand down the line because it's so difficult to reach and return, and that's because it's powerful and he takes the ball early. It is similar to Jimmy Connors's great backhand.

     Djokovic is volleying more and better this year. Are you pleased with his net game?
     I think he still has to work on his net game. The frontcourt is like a minefield for him. You may think his volleying has improved, but it's not good enough yet. This is where I wish he could improve the most. In the final in Miami against Nadal, you can see Novak was very confident and he made almost every volley, which was great. The match was fantastic, and everything worked for him. But I wish he would use his volley more in matches where the other parts of his game are not going well. Then he could finish off the points with volleys. His technique is fantastic. Tactically, he is also very good. He knows when to come to net. But he needs to improve his position. He needs to make his first step much faster so that he hits his first volley closer to the net.

     When Djokovic gets a weak shot, does he drop shot too much instead of attacking it by rushing net?
     I've told Novak so many times not to drop shot. I hate this shot, the drop shot. I am frozen in my seat when he hits a drop shot because it gives his opponent a chance to finish off the point. Why give Federer and Nadal, who anticipate so well and are so fast, a chance to come to net where they like to be? But he's young and still learning. (Laughter)

     Djokovic is tied for No. 2 in points won returning first serve (37%) and in points won returning second serve (58%) and No. 3 in break points won among top 50 players (51%), as of May 9. As a result, he ranks No. 1 in return games won (42%), the most important serve return statistic. How do you explain these highly impressive and revealing statistics?
     I didn't know these statistics, and I'm glad you told me. His serve return is definitely one of the best in the world. It was always very good, and this year it's even better. Its great depth makes it very effective against both first serves and second serves. So his opponents have a lot of pressure on them and have to decide what kind of serve they will use. Novak can read his opponent's serves very well and anticipate what kind of serve it will be. Sometimes Federer slows up his first serve a little bit because when he hits it harder, it comes back to him faster. Federer is a genius, and he tries all different kinds of serves, but he doesn't succeed because Novak is unique in being able to return everything.

     Some experts say Djokovic and Ferrer have the two best returns of serve today. Why is Djokovic's return of serve technically excellent?
     His reactions are great. If the serve comes at 240 kilometers [per hour], you have less than half a second to hit it. He's doing technically great things, and against very fast serves he adjusts and shortens his backswing. In a short amount of time, he can adjust and move right or left. It's just a great reaction that comes from his ability to read the serve and anticipate. Some players can do it, but it takes them six or seven errors to figure out the serve, but Novak and Federer can do it after only one or two errors. It is a gift he has. You cannot learn it.

     Is there anything else that makes his return of serve great?
     Now, after two years, he has found a racket which is very good. It's a Head racket. Its sweet spot is very narrow. It was difficult to adapt to it, but once you adapt and you hit the ball in the right place, then the ball goes great off the racket.

     Darren Cahill, who coached Andre Agassi and Lleyton Hewitt, considers two statistics the most telling: Percentage of second serve points won on your serve and percentage of second serve points won against your opponent's serve. Djokovic has won 56 percent of his second serve points, which ties for No. 2; and he's won 58 percent of the points when he returns second serves, which ties for No. 2. Please analyze why he is so successful in these two important categories.
     Professional tennis players always say you are only as good as your second serve. His second serve was always good, except in 2010. But now his second serve is one of the best. I think Novak has one of the fastest second serves on the tour. His spin is also great.
     For the second part, obviously the second serve is slower than the first serve, and he can adapt very well because he is very agile. His technique is very, very good on the return. So he can attack the second serve more quickly than the other players. No matter how tricky the spin is, it doesn't bother him.

     What is different about his tactics this year?
     The Davis Cup gave him confidence, then he won the Australian Open, which gave him more confidence, then he had fantastic results in America [winning Indian Wells and Miami]. His game is very effective now, he can reach every ball, his movement is great. So there is no reason to change the tactics or adapt to his opponents. He knows their strengths and weaknesses. We've done a lot of work over the years to reach this point. He's not playing that many drop shots anymore from the baseline, which is smart. He can come to the net more, but that will take some time. This is another step [in his progress]. This is very interesting work for me. (Laughter)

     Does Djokovic's game resemble Andre Agassi's game because they are both grinders, but power grinders.
     Yes, but it's tough to compare their games and strategies. Agassi had great groundstrokes. He was punching all the time, like a boxer. He took some punches, but he punched back even more. Agassi was one of a kind, as well. There was a different kind of pro game in the 1990s. There is definitely a slight similarity there. But now it is much more baseline tennis; there is no serving and volleying.

     Success breeds confidence. How would you assess the evolution of Djokovic's mental game?
     He definitely has calmed down, and he's more confident now. He has his weapons, and he has his weaknesses he can work on still. But now he's more of an all-around player. He believes in his game much more. Being more mature has helped him achieve his goals.

     Is he also maturing as a person off the court?
     Yes, definitely. He's more responsible for his decisions, and he understands the consequences of his decisions better. He organizes things better in his private life, and writes down what he has to do every day in a notebook. He's very focused, but he's also very relaxed. He likes to play golf and he likes to talk with the guys. He makes jokes which people like. (Laughter) Some people call him "The Djoker." That's a good nickname.  

     Djokovic and Murray had both played third fiddle to Federer and Nadal from 2007 to 2010. Djokovic thrashed Murray in the 2011 Australian Open final and has played phenomenally well, while Murray has slumped badly. What are the biggest differences between the two?
     In Grand Slam events, you have to stay focused for all 14 days, and that is tremendously hard. Novak was able to cope with that. When Andy played the Australian final, [it looked like] he didn't want to be on the court. The first set was close. But Novak was eager and really on top of his game from the beginning.

     Djokovic almost never serves and volleys. Since both his serve and his volley have improved, do you think the next stage in his improvement should be to serve and volley occasionally as a surprise tactic on grass and hard courts?
     That's a good question. Yes. He could volley much more, but not on a hard court because it's kind of slow. But grass would be different. I wish he could do that. For Wimbledon, I wish Novak would have that option and be confident enough to come to net more often. Maybe he could even do that on the U.S. Open hard courts, which are a little bit faster.

     Clay and grass are Djokovic's least successful surfaces, though he's reached the French and Wimbledon semis twice. How do you predict he will fare this year as the second seed at the French Open and Wimbledon?
     I don't predict anything, but our hopes are high. He wants to win one of them. It's just a matter of good preparation right now and choosing the right tournaments to enter. He could win both the French Open and Wimbledon. In his mind, he thinks his chances are equally good to win both tournaments. He likes both surfaces, but I would prefer clay for him right now. Another good advantage is that finally Novak is going to be seeded No. 2, which means it is less likely he will have to beat both Nadal and Federer.

     Would it surprise you if Djokovic won three major titles this year?
     No! (Laughter). He has the ability and a strong mental game.

     Would it surprise you if Djokovic won all four majors to win the Grand Slam?
     Yes!

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