A male player with a lethal forehand, an even better backhand, great movement, amazing footwork, comfortable at the net, able to use a reactive baseline style which brings success in the modern game (explained here), combined with a great serve and a great return of serve.
How do you beat him?
Well, until Roger Federer did so at Roland Garros, nobody had beaten Djokovic in 2011 – the Serbian’s 40+ match winning streak was and still is amazing, defeating Nadal in 5 finals on three different surfaces and defeating Federer in a semi final of a Major add huge credibility to his streak, and for a while, many believed he was simply unbeatable.
It took a sensational performance from Federer to defeat Djokovic, one of the greatest in his career – Federer has a tendency to play his best tennis in the semi final of a Major – previous destructions at Australian Open semi finals include Roddick in 2007, Roddick in 2009 and Tsonga 2010, Djokovic in US Open 2008 and 2009, etc, thus it was not completely surprising that his best tennis of the year came during the semi final of the second Major of the year.
What was surprising is how intelligent Federer played, and how complete he has become with his tactics. Despite being past his peak, Federer delivered a stunning performance, one reeking of a proactive, aggressive style that has become rare to watch in the modern game. Federer’s proactive style is in huge contrast to fellow top players (Nadal, Murray and Djokovic just to name a few) that makes Federer so much more enjoyable to watch for many fans.
So how did Federer defeat Djokovic?
1. Federer took time away from Djokovic, made him move laterally AND vertically on the court. (the images below will explain this further)
2. He used his backhand extremely well – Djokovic was very frustrated during this match because he could not break down Federer’s backhand, as opposed to the 2011 Australian Open and the 2010 US Open where either Federer’s forehand or backhand eventually broke down in extended rallies. On this certain match, Federer’s groundstrokes were brilliant, when his game from the back-court is on, as Djokovic experienced, it is very, very difficult to play your game as Federer asks many questions with his serve, groundstrokes and movement. Federer hit a lot of backhand topspin down-the-line winners in this match, in fact Federer’s topspin backhand down-the-line was arguably the key shotin this match (each player’s serve being more important), and as explained before, hitting down-the-line can be very effective in any match, regardless of opposition, which makes it a proactive tactic to use, which fits well with Federers game.
3. Federer defended extremely well, often slicing his backhand cross-court to the service line, which made Djokovic have to “reach” in the court and stretch down for the ball to return it, not many players can use this short slice, it was not surprising to see Djokovic often struggle with it.
4. He served very well. Serving well is arguably the most important thing to do in a tennis match (if not one of the most important), and doing it benefits to reducing unforced errors from reduced pressure, hitting more winners due to having shorter returns from the opponent, and more concentration to focus on your opponents games than your own, reducing pressure.
The images below should help extend the analysis, explaining how the 4 points in a more clear and extended manner with diagrams and notations.
In the image above, Federer slices a backhand cross-court to Djokovic’s backhand, the positioning of the shot is quite shallow – it’s near the service line, this would usually lead people to believe that Federer is being defensive, but he is actually using an attacking tactic here.
By slicing low, short and aggressively (not a floating slice) to Djokovic’s backhand, he makes the Serbian come inside the baseline, which again seems advantageous for the Serbian, but this exposes more of the court to Federer as Djokovic is not behind the baseline anymore, as well as not having the extra time or space to prepare for his groundstrokes for more power and accuracy, by staying inside the basline, Djokovic would be forced to hit on the rise in a groundstroke rally, thus this tactic is used to “pull” the Serbian into the net, and to sort of distort his fluency from the back of the court.
But how does it matter later on in the point? What effect does this slice have?
Here you can see how low Djokovic has to get to slice the ball back, his footwork and technique needs to be exceptional to hit a slice (a topspin is out of the question in this case) that Federer cannot attack from either the slice floating too high to Federer’s hitting zone, or Djokovic’s court positioning.
The grey rectangle represents where Djokovic is more dangerous and more importantly, “comfortable” on the tennis court – it is impossible to blast through him through the grey rectangle shown in the diagram, his tall height, great footwork and consistent forehand + backhand means you have to move the Serbian extremely horizontally to try and hit winners to the corners.
In the image above, Federer hits a topspin backhand to the black rectangle, meaning he is moving Djokovic away from his most comfortable position on the court (the centre of the court).
Djokovic now returns a topspin backhand cross-court, an identical shot to the one Federer did, however the grey rectangle now represents where Federer is most comfortable on the tennis court – Federer is the best defender (with Nadal and Sampras close below) in the game when it comes to defending the backhand side (his left side), despite his backhand being weaker than his forehand, the court positioning, technique on his shots, footwork and variety he has from his left side (where he can go inside out/in with the forehand on top of using the backhand) are far more than to his right, where the cross-court or the down-the-line forehand are his only options.
Federer is aided by having an exceptional slice, which means moving him laterally to his left can be useless unless he is faced with heavy topspin (think Nadal’s forehand), but even then, Federer often runs around his backhand or hits a down-the-line backhand to counter this tactic, thus as you can see in the above image, Djokovic is tempting fate by leaving the whole court to his right free by hitting to a position Federer is already in (Djokovic was not in the position he is in the above image from image 3, as opposed to Federer, who is in the same position in image 3 and image 4 ( the image above) ).
With all the free space, Federer hits a clean down-the-line topspin backhand winner.
This pattern is repeated in the match perhaps 30+ times and nearly all the time Djokovic loses. This pattern emerged in just the third game of the whole match – that Federer hit a down-the-line backhand winner so early tells you he had a clear strategy from early on.
At 6-6 in the tie-breaker, Federer hits another cross-court slice, however unlike the one in image 1, this slice is more deep, much higher than the service line.
Djokovic can opt for a down-the-line backhand, which he is so comfortable with, to avoid losing balance and court positioning (and the point) from Federer inevitably hitting down-the-line with his backhand if he returns the shot cross court.
Federer now hits a down the line backhand, Djokovic has to move laterally to his weaker wing to recover the shot.
And indeed he does; however now Federer hits an even more risky shot, an inside-out down-the-line backhand, which wrong-foots Djokovic; Federer is a tough match-up for any modern baseliner to deal with because he has so much variety.
Djokovic now has to recover this shot and you can see the clear wrong-footing Federer has done; Djokovic has partly lost balance and lost his position completely/
Later on in the point Federer makes Djokovic completely lose his balance on top of court positioning.
Although it may seem just like one point won by Federer, doing it loses Djokovic’s timing; he has to continuously “recover” shots just to get back into a rally, it makes the timing much harder for when he is in control of a rally due to just how rare it is (for him to be dominating, not Federer).
At 4-5, 0-30, it is crucial Djokovic wins this point to not give Federer 3 break-back points, yet once again, the Serbian fell to the 1-2 combination Federer used so many times, the cross-court backhand slice/topspin (or cross-court inside-out forehand), and the backhand down-the-line, this shot in particular was a clean winner and effectively ended any chance of Djokovic taking the match into a fifth set from his own serve.
This different angle shows the cross-court rally, where both players are camped to their backhand side, one hits back to the other player (Djokovic), where as the other is hitting to the space (Federer).
By the time the ball has landed in Djokovic’s court (and if you look clearly, Federer’s winner wasn’t the most powerful or deep either; it just cleared the service line), the point has already ended.
But what would happen if Djokovic started camping a little more to his forehand side, or started to prepare to move to his forehand side from a cross-court shot to Federer’s backhand, surely Federer would not do so much damage with his down-the-line backhand?
Unfortunately, this is where the proactive style Federer employs means it is impossible to beat him, by now looking to move to his (Djokovic’s) right, he now leaves an open hole to his left where he can be wrong-footed by an inside-out shot (arguably Federer’s best sub-forehand shot).
Djokovic is on his tip-toes on this image expecting a down-the-line shot from Federer’s forehand, but Federer “checks” the ball, leaves it for a more seconds (which is very risky and requires exquisite timing) and hits an inside-out forehand to Djokovic’s backhand.
For proof on Djokovic’s change of identity when returning Federer’s shots; the image above clearly shows how he was not prepared for the shot to his backhand side and is making a recovery shot. This leaves Federer with a huge space.
Federer duly converts with an inside-in forehand winner.
This leads to almost a double-edge sword for Djokovic in baseline rallies; either he lets Federer hit down-the-line backhands continuously and hope Federer misses them or stops hitting DTL BHs, or he starts moving to his right and is now open to the inside-out forehand wrong-footing shot.
Overall, this match was played on a quicker than usual clay surface, the tennis balls were reported to be much quicker than usual, Greg Rudeski labelled them as “pellets”, the conclusion on this is that quicker surfaces and quicker tennis balls definitely aided Federer more than Djokovic here; his serve was more damaging (despite Djokovic being taller, Federer has a better serve) than at the Australian Open, Dubai or Indian Wells, this meant he could focus on the return games more, Federer is known for being awful at converting break points; his big serve let him focus on Djokovic’s games more than Federer’s.
The statistics from the match help aid this point, Federer hit 18 aces on a clay-court.
A Matter Of A Few Points
It is important to note, despite Federer playing extremely well, Djokovic also played a very good match, a match which was very close and could have been decided in a different manner (Djokovic winning) by perhaps only a few different factors. This article shouldn’t be see as an article in which Federer is receiving constant praise for his game-style, had Djokovic won the analysis would have been on the inefficiencies and problems Federer had, despite the match being very close and Federer most likely employing the same tactics as this article shows, this is very important as it shows how during a modern tennis match, often the correct strategies are being used by both players – just one player is adapting to the surface better, feels more “motivated”, etc, it is these little things that can make the difference.
Djokovic has defeated Nadal five times in 2011 – at times he has toyed with the Spaniard, one of the reasons he can do this is because he finds it easy to be aggressive against Nadal (aka it is in his own hands).
Against Federer (Tsonga is also a good example) however it is different. It is much more difficult to be aggressive against him in comparison to players such as Nadal. Federer has more variety and thus you need to find different ways to be aggressive, his low-slice means it is very hard for anyone to be aggressive against him as the slice aims to take out aggressive shots from the other player (how can you hit an aggressive shot when the ball is 3-5 cm off the floor?).
This was different in the Australian Open semi final – where Federer was the one who found it very difficult to be aggressive against Djokovic. Difference from that match and this match? Federer served lights out in Paris and very poorly in Melbourne.
With both players comfortable hitting cross-court and down-the-line with both wings (Djokovic more comfortable hitting down-the-line with his backhand and Federer more comfortable hitting down-the-line with his forehand), the winner of the point, at times, came down to which player had the first opportunity to hit the aggressive shot – and even then, with the remarkable defensive ability both players have, often the aggressive shot was counter-punched very aggressively, at times (Djokovic in particular) either player mystically lost the point after being in control of it due to the other’s remarkable defensive ability.
The current “Big 4” (or Big 3, if you count Slam winners only), are very different players; whilst they all have big serves and are comfortable on all surfaces; they have different techniques, Murray has arguably the worst forehand of the top 4 whilst Djokovic has arguably the best backhand of the top 4, Federer with the best volleys and Nadal with the best mentality and consistency (although Djokovic has started to challenge this with his hugely impressive run this year).
However – with all the key differences, the Big 4 unite with one thing; they are all amazing defenders on a tennis-court, what is remarkable is that they defend differently.
Murray defends well by making opponents hit aggressive shots time after time which usually result in unforced errors, he does this technique-wise by hitting cross-court a lot when in a defensive position and using slice on his backhand to add some variety.
Nadal defends by slowly pummelling the opponent with his forehand and eventually controlling the point, or (less frequent now than say in 2006) by making the opponent hit a risky net approach or go for an aggressive shot from a shoulder-high tennis ball, which many players do not have the footwork required to aggressively attack.
However Djokovic and Federer defend in a more “attacking” sense.
Federer at times will just go for the big, risky shot when outside the second week of a Major and accepts the unforced errors that come.
When he does need to defend however – he does so by using his brilliant cross-court backhand slice, his more rare inside out backhand slice (see the image below) or by wrong-footing the opponent (90% of the time it’s with his forehand). The key is that he slices with his backhand very well when in a defensive position and looks to attack in creative ways with his forehand to change the point around so he can control it.
When a match is completely out of Federer’s hands (his 2 last meetings at Majors with Del Potro, last meeting with Berdych and last meeting with Soderling), he starts adopting Murray’s tactics and essentially hopes the other person misses, in these matches, Federer usually looks his poorest and most vulnerable to being beaten.
Djokovic has perhaps the best defense – he uses Federer, Nadal and Murray’s defensive attributes combined into one.
Thus it was interesting to see just how effective Federer’s defense was in comparison to a player who is more complete defensively (Djokovic).
At the ripe-old age of 30, Federer may not have the legs or superb agility that Djokovic now has (and that Federer once did), but his defensive game-plan was very effective; slice aggressively cross-court with his backhand and look to attack with his forehand in many creative manners. Having a very clear, if slightly simple, game-plan, Federer knew what he had to do and did it very well; Djokovic is a more complete defender and thus had more options and perhaps he found it slightly difficult to know which shot to go for.
At times Djokovic seemed to be lost in what to do in the rally and at these times he just peppered Federer’s backhand; this tactic is not limited to Djokovic, Nadal and Murray have used this tactic effectively very well against Federer.
However consistently hitting the ball to his backhand meant Federer started hitting down-the-line more – even earlier on in the match (as the first couple of images show) Federer was keen to hit down-the-line with his backhand, this was not a great match to pepper Federer’s backhand due to Federer being consistent with his groundstrokes. Federer is known for shanking (mis-hitting) his backhand and forehand in tight matches (he hit a huge mishit in the fourth set to almost lose it) or/and when he is not playing well, today Federer very rarely shanked or mishit any groundstrokes, when he does this it makes him exceptionally hard to break down (and he was similar against Nadal in the final, playing a superb first set up to 5-2).
Perhaps this increase in groundstroke form was related to him serving so well, Federer has a tendency to complete a whole service game in around (or even less!) the one minute mark, today against Djokovic he couldn’t complete service games so quickly due to the great returning ability of Djokovic, but several service games, at tight moments, were quickly pulled away from the Serbian by great serving from Federer.
This is very similar to how Djokovic “stole” the Australian Open 2008 and 2011 matches from Federer and how Federer stole the US Open 2007 final from Djokovic. Great serving at crucial moments to snub the moments when the opponent had a chance to break or had a chance to get a chance to break (such as being 0-30 on a service game).
Overall, this match is probably the highest level of ball-striking you will see in 2011 (yet); the Fognini-Montanes match at Roland Garros may have been more dramatic and climatic, but had several errors, lapses of concentration and lack of variety of play from both players. This match was never going to have that – Djokovic is playing the best tennis of his life, Federer was the player many would look at for the errors and concentration lapses.
Djokovic has beaten just about everyone this year. Federer’s superb, proactive performance went against all kinds of theories (one handed backhand breaking down after sustained pressure, just to name one foolish theory some have collected), it has pushed the boundaries of men’s tennis, similar to how the 2008 Wimbledon Final did – the difference is in that match to this match? Federer played dreadfully from the baseline yet served brilliantly, in this match he played excellent from the baseline and served lights-out.
(Highlights of the match)