BY CRAIG O’SHANNESSY
The last time Novak Djokovic won the US Open in 2018, I was on his coaching team along with Marian Vajda. My specific role was match strategy. Keep a finger on the pulse of Novak’s game and research the daylights out of opponents. My goal was to always know the opponent’s tendencies better than they know their own game.
At this year’s US Open, Novak is back in today’s final, taking on Daniil Medvedev. Is Noval playing the same way as he did in 2018? Not exactly. Are there differences in the way he is playing and his demeanor in this tournament compared to other years? Most definitely. Following are 10 areas of Novak’s game that are fueling his drive to win Grand Slam No. 21 and also win the calendar-year Grand Slam.
For a variety of reasons that I will outline below, NOVAK IS TAKING ON LESS RISK IN POINTS. Not all matches are the same, and Novak does not play exactly the same way year to year. There a lot of variables that drive that such as his confidence, his fitness, his strength, his legs, his belief, how well he is serving, his desire to make opponents suffer, and so on…
It’s as big as it gets today and Novak is right where he needs to be. The first thing you need to understand is the four areas of the court – A, B, C, D.
The Court Cut Up Into 4 Areas – A, B, C, D.
Novak is the best player I have ever seen at taking forehands down the line from Position A. One of the big reasons he can do it better than other players is his BALANCE. He prepares so well, and his technique is clean, that he can consistently redirect the ball better than other players. Typically when a player goes down the line with a forehand from Position A and misses it, it is because they are recovering back to the middle of the court when they are hitting. You have got to separate the two entities – hitting and recovering.
What I have seen from Novak this tournament is that he is going less down the line with his forehand from Position A because he feels more comfortable hitting it BIG back cross-court and staying A to A with the forehand. He is hitting that shot really well from both offensive and defensive positions.
I do expect Novak to change directions frequently from Position A and go down the line with his forehand against Daniil Medvedev to hurt his opponent’s legs. But overall, Daniil is weaker running to a forehand in Position A than Novak is, and the wheelhouse of Daniil’s baseline game is hitting backhands in Position D.
So overall, Novak playing big forehands cross from A to A is a great tactic against Daniil. It was a key tactic in their 2021 Australian Open final. Below is an excerpt from my ATP analysis of the Aussie Open final.
ATP Excerpt: My analysis of the 2021 Australian Open final – Djokovic def. Medvedev.
Novak will go after Medvedev’s forehand in A again today. Hitting it cross from A will be key.
I call Position B “The Black Hole.” Not that many balls are hit there, and more errors come from this location than you would imagine. Position B is an ideal place to return, to attack the big backswing of the forehand on the Serve +1 stroke. Novak should be aiming a lot at Position B with his returns today to extract Serve +1 forehand errors from Daniil’s ungainly forehand backswing. Novak has looked rock-solid in Position B this tournament, not chasing angles that are not there. He will be quite content to get into a B to B forehand exchange today with Daniil.
This is where I have seen the most change from 2018. And it’s neither good nor bad. In 2018, the game plan worked out perfectly to hit a lot of run-around forehands from Position C to either attack his opponent’s backhand in C or D, or look to immediately finish the point to Position A. I told Novak, “you have the world’s best backhand, but your forehand hits more winners and forces more errors so you need to hit as many forehands as possible from Position C.” Novak did an excellent job of following that strategy.
In this tournament, he is hitting comparatively more backhands in Position C, and it’s really not a bad thing. He is locked in to hitting deep in a C to C exchange and refusing to yield any errors. He is not getting as many winners out of C from doing this, but he is lowering his risk as well because he knows he is not going to miss his backhand and opponents cannot hurt him at all with their backhand out of Position C.
He is minimizing the risk he has to take on in the point to win it. He is accepting he will have to go a few shots deeper in the rally, but he is mentally and emotionally okay with that. His supreme fitness and confidence is a key factor here. He will definitely hit some run-around forehands from C against Daniil, but it won’t be at 2018 levels.
What’s interesting is that Novak faces a world-class backhand on the other side of the net this afternoon. Daniil is quite happy to go C to C with backhands as well. This may very well be a match where Novak has to look for more forehands from C as a place to gain more offense in the point when the rally is flowing more through the Ad court.
This position is “lock-down” for Novak this year at the US Open. His backhand defense back cross-court to Position D has been ridiculously good. His early preparation and great balance are once again the keys here. Daniil is going to have a really tough time extracting errors from Position D today against Novak. In 2018, Novak was more willing to go for a bigger backhand down-the-line shot than he is this year. In 2018 he looked more for winners down the line. This year, he is only trying that shot when he absolutely knows he is going to make it. Again, it’s about lowering the risk by going cross-court and oftentimes asking the question of his opponent = “let’s see you hit the spectacular winner.”
Novak’s attitude has greatly improved this tournament compared to other events such as Rome or the Olympics. He is not as angry. Not as irritable. His fuse is longer. When he loses the first set, we are not seeing him pole-ax a racket into the court or the net post. In fact, we are seeing the exact opposite. He sits down in his chair and basically “meditates” for 90 seconds and comes out like a man possessed for the second set, where you typically see him race to a 3-0 or 4-1 lead. Losing the first set means absolutely nothing to him this year because he is not panicking. The problem-solving is taking the place of the rage, and he is a much better player for it.
The important thing to understand with Positions A,B,C,D is that they create natural angles. For example, a ball in A will typically go back to A, and so on. When you see a player change from one letter to another, they will either be doing it to escape a pattern that is not favorable for them, or to mount an offensive maneuver.
To the final, Novak is taking less forehands down the line from A, hitting less run-around forehands from C, and going for less backhand outright winners from D to D. That’s worked a treat to get him to the final. It will be fascinating to see if those patterns hold true against Daniil. Novak is prepared for this match to last until midnight. His fitness is there. His confidence is there. And his winning patterns are there. He will also try and copy/paste his Australian Open strategy by pummelling Daniil’s forehand in Position A.
Click HERE to read my full ATP analysis of the 2021 Australian Open final between Novak and Daniil
Craig O’Shannessy, Brain Game Tennis & Contributing Editor
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