Tennis Note #35

The Brick Breaker — Novak Djokovic Finally Wins Roland Garros

Phillip G. Pate
Jun 6, 2016 · 8 min read

According to Roland Garros officials, two tons of brick are needed to cover a red clay court. Terre battue, or a tennis surface topped with a layer of brick, is the calling card of the French Open. The surface known for its unpredictable bounces and slower pace requires more measured play and as a result, it has created quixotic journeys for many of the game’s greats including Sampras, McEnroe, Connors and Becker. This familiar futile journey seemed to resurface with the current No. 1 player in the world, losing at Roland Garros for eleven straight years including in three of the past four finals. However, a few weeks ago, the layer of brick that covers Philippe Chatrier Court became a metaphor, reminding fans of the late Randy Pausch’s message: Novak Djokovic broke through his most elusive “brick wall” and became the fourth male player since 1969 to win a Career Grand Slam (joining Agassi, Federer, Nadal).

Unfortunately, Djokovic has become criminally ignored in the main stream. His style is not as graceful as Federer’s nor as powerful as Nadal’s but his ability to convert his weaknesses into strengths has made him a threat to unseat Federer as the best tennis player ever. Sports fans should appreciate this recent Roland Garros victory as further proof that world class athletes are not just predestined but, with grit, are made.

In honor of John McPhee’s Levels of The Game, the balance of the article pivots between Djokovic’s transformation to the World No. 1 and some of the key takeaways during his French Open Final versus Andy Murray.

The Opening Set

Murray serves a perfectly angled 125 mph bullet into the right corner of the deuce court, forcing Djokovic to hit a crosscourt forehand well inside the baseline. This gives Murray enough time to set up a cracking forehand crosscourt and pushes Djokovic back to hit another forehand. Murray meets it as he storms the net hitting an approach shot to the ad-side and then, swiftly volleying away another defensive Djokovic backhand at the net. Murray gains advantage [Ad-40] in a pivotal game that lasted 10 minutes and appears to be the true start of the match at 4–2, Murray.

Murray would win the first set 6–3. The Scotsman channeled his early adrenaline into big shots and octopus-like defense. The first set surprised the pro-Djokovic crowd and reminded the spectators, and probably the competitors, that Murray beat Djokovic in straight sets three weeks earlier on the Italian Open clay. However, you could tell Murray expended a considerable amount of energy to open well.

The First Brick Wall: Stamina

“I don’t trust his injuries. I think he’s a joke, you know, when it comes down to his injuries,” Roger Federer said this about Djokovic’s early maladies. According to ESPN, from 2007 to 2009, Djokovic called for a trainer more than any player on tour. Even further, Djokovic quit in the middle of four grand slam matches over seventeen tournament efforts.

If you started following tennis in 2011 [the turning point] you wouldn’t believe the last paragraph. His retirement from his match earlier this year was the first time since this turning point. The most common item in a Djokovic story today is about his draconian eating habits and compulsive workouts. He is now indisputably the fittest player on the ATP. Djokovic is 15–3 in 5-set matches since 2011.

The Second Set

Djokovic serves from the platform stance, hitting a well-aimed spin shot out wide and this creates an easy forehand for the Uniqlo/Adidas man to slap for a winner down the line. Djokovic is 15–0 in the first game of the second set. Arthur Ashe, taught by his childhood coach Dr. Robert Walter Johnson, placed an emphasis on the first point of a set. He thought of it as a psychological benefit that restored one’s confidence and edge over his opponent. Djokovic proved Dr. Johnson’s theory correct as he dominated the second set 6–1. The spindly Serbian dictated points pushing Murray to the extremes of the 27 foot baseline as well as finessing gorgeous drop shots (e.g. 4–1, 15–30) that forced the Scotsman to race 39 feet to the net (tennis’ 40 yard dash) much too often.

The Second Brick Wall: The Serve

In 2010, Djokovic had almost two times the amount of double faults (282) in comparison to 2015 (147). His turnaround has made him one of the best servers in tennis. [Let’s take a moment to recognize that this article has not been kind to 2010 Djokovic. His game has evolved and yet in 2010, he was the number three player in the world!] In 2015, he won 89% of his service games (#5 in ATP) and 60% of his second serve points (#1 in ATP). Djokovic explains the maturation of his service game succinctly: “My serve has gotten better — not in terms of speed, but in terms of precision and accuracy.”

From a technical standpoint he changed from the pinpoint stance (the service motion begins with your feet moving together, inches apart as the server jumps to hit the ball) to the platform stance (The server jumps with feet apart as he strikes the ball). The change helped his mechanics by limiting his body movement before the serve and creating a more fluid motion forward. Despite the fact that most players use the pinpoint stance, some of the best servers in the game used the platform stance [Sampras, Federer, and now Djokovic].

Thus, while his improved fitness gets all the headlines, the fact he wielded his stamina AND serve into top tier weapons is what sets him apart. Over their careers, Lebron James may have added post-up moves and Nolan Ryan may have added pitches but when it counts, Lebron is driving to the hoop from the perimeter and Ryan is throwing a fastball. If you think about how Djokovic has turned his weaknesses into his supreme strengths, it is pretty amazing.

The Third Set

Murray rockets the ball down the tee and Djokovic stretches for a seemingly impossible return to block the ball to Murray’s backhand; Murray capitalizes on the ball’s position, placing his top spin shot perfectly in the ad-corner, which forces Djokovic to stretch behind his body and stab a slice just above the net to Murray as the Scotsman places a drop shot. Djokovic is too good of an athlete and his best in class conditioning makes this an easy get as he sprints to the net and flicks a forehand cross-court winner past Murray. Textbook defensive clay court tennis wins the point.

The play is now in motion as predicted. Despite the set’s score, this is truly a No. 1 vs. No. 2 in the world match with consistent medium to long rallies of baseline tennis. Euclid would not believe the angles hit during the match. The best indicator for who will win the point is the player hugging closest to the baseline during each rally. Given the exceptional play on both sides the set appears close if you are not keeping score. However, for those who are not treating this as a no-score youth game, the set has a clear winner. Djokovic is rolling now and takes the set 6–2.

The Third Brick Wall: The King of Clay and Stanimal

The final hurdle for the Serbian is actually winning on the red clay of Paris. In the past four years, his form has been impressive with a 23–4 record. In 2015, we all believed it was his time after he overwhelmed Rafa 7–5, 6–3, 6–1 (Rafa was 70–1 at the French Open prior to this match) in the quarterfinals. However, Stan Wawrinka (aesthetically, the tennis player brick house) hit through Djokovic in the final, creating an upset French Open run with the most gorgeous backhand on tour and the ugliest shorts in fashion history.

Although most consider Djokovic a power baseliner, his defensive game generates high quality clay court results. Djokovic’s athleticism to get to the most impossible ball with his patented slide makes his game suitable for the red clay. However, as tennis fans know, the Parisian red clay can be unforgiving and unpredictable not to mention have a bracket full of clay court specialists ready to devastate top seeds. The Serbian’s 12th attempt (the most efforts before a first Coupe des Mousquetaires) ending in a championship reflects upon Djokovic’s mental toughness as much as his world class physical game.

The Final Set

Murray fought in the fourth set refusing to let Vegas look too smart (Djokovic was -125 pre-tournament). Djokovic continued to whip Murray around the court, controlling a break point by hitting a crisp backhand at its highest point cross-court and forcing Murray to scramble left and then right with his forehand. This pattern of cross-court control continued twice more before Djokovic hits a drop shot with extreme precision. Murray surprises the world No. 1 (and observers) by getting there and winning the point. Down a break 1–3 and serving to fend off another break point, Murray wins the game then rallies to make the set score 4–5.

Now Djokovic would serve for the match. Djokovic served a 3rd championship point at Ad-in after three hours of play. It was a physical, long baseline rally of 20+ shots beginning with 6 crisp crosscourt backhands. It continues with a geometric cacophony of deep forehands and backhands, crosscourt and down the line, when finally Djokovic surprised Murray with a down the line forehand, one that Murray unsuccessfully tried to send crosscourt. Novak Djokovic wins 3–6, 6–2, 6–1, 6–4. Novak draws a large heart with his racket, from the service line to the baseline, in the red brick surface and collapses in the center of it — victor at last.

Hello everyone. My name is Phillip G. Pate. I’m excited to play on the Tennis Notebook Davis Cup team. I’m from the same home courts as Agassi (apparently with much less talent) and have loved tennis since the 1992 Wimbledon. That love has grown with every Guga grunt, Kramer ball pick-up, and DFW deep dive. As a result I’ve been inspired to cover the game. Hope everyone enjoys!

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The Tennis Notebook

A ‘romantic’ tale between tennis enthusiasts and an elegant sport. Includes light commentary and analysis of the game.

Phillip G. Pate

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The Tennis Notebook

A ‘romantic’ tale between tennis enthusiasts and an elegant sport. Includes light commentary and analysis of the game.