Inside Novak Djokovic’s unlikely dominance on grass

Tennis

Editor’s note: This story originally ran on July 5 but has been updated after Novak Djokovic defeated David Goffin in straight sets on Wednesday to advance to the semifinals at Wimbledon.

LONDON — The distance from the Bank of England Sports Centre in Roehampton to Wimbledon is a mere 3.7 miles. But on a lovely June day in 2005, the just-turned-18-year-old with jet-black hair — and a hint of what would soon become his permanent five o’clock shadow — wondered if this would be the lucky day when he would earn the right to make the trip.

Growing up in Serbia, Novak Djokovic never even saw a grass tennis court, much less played on one. Nor did he compete in a Wimbledon junior tournament. Yet here he was, on grass for the first time in his life, in Roehampton’s qualifying event for Wimbledon. A win and he’s in. His opponent: grass-court veteran Wesley Moodie.

“[Roehampton is] the most special qualis of any tournament because you have so much pressure,” Djokovic said on Monday at Wimbledon, recalling his first trip to London. “You play best-of-five in the last round. The reward is having an access to this club, which is a very exclusive club. This was something I always dreamed of.”

Djokovic navigated the slippery surface at Roehampton. He dealt with the curiously dead bounces and spins that were either wickedly enhanced (a deadly lefty slice) or muted (topspin). Djokovic adapted to the bad bounces and survived a few match points to upset Moodie. Afterward, he almost immediately placed a long-distance call to Serbia.

“It was a family affair when I won my last qualifying match,” Djokovic said. “As soon as I qualified, my brothers booked a flight, my parents, my whole family came over. It was a great experience.”

Djokovic reached the third round at Wimbledon in his heady debut year. But ultimate Wimbledon success eluded him until 2011, the first year he eclipsed Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal to finish atop the world rankings.

“To be honest, at first I did struggle a little bit on the grass to really understand how I need to move on the court,” he said. “[Also] how I need to adjust my swing and my game in general, tactically what I need to do.” Djokovic subscribes to the conventional wisdom that the transition from clay to grass is the most radical of the year. He believes it takes “more hours” of training to become comfortable on grass. Then, when Wimbledon ends, poof! It’s all over for another year.

“You just have some form of a subconscious [program] from before,” he said. “Then you try to unlock and remember and use it for the season every year.”

The four-time Wimbledon champion appears to have the memory of an elephant when it comes to retrieving the formula, year after year. From 2011 to the start of this year’s tournament, Djokovic tallied a 43-4 record at Wimbledon. Even eight-time Wimbledon champion Federer (40-6) trailed him over that same period. Djokovic has made the third round for 11 consecutive years, second only to Jimmy Connors’ record of 14. On Wednesday, he cruised to the semifinals of this year’s tournament with a 6-4, 6-0, 6-2 quarterfinal win over David Goffin.

“On grass I would say Roger is probably the best because he has all the weapons and his game fits with the surface,” Goffin told ESPN.com last week. “But the last few matches against each other, Novak was a little bit better, a little more solid. And it made a difference.”

If Nadal is the “King of Clay,” Djokovic is threatening Federer’s claim to be the ruler on grass. He’s hoping to surpass Rod Laver and equal Bjorn Borg with five Wimbledon titles this year.

Some of the best minds in tennis believe Djokovic has flourished because the All England Club broke with tradition in 2001 and adopted an all aberelf ryegrass seed for its court surface. The result: “slower” courts that produced a higher bounce and, over time, began to play more like hard courts than typical low-bounce, slick grass. There’s just enough truth in the belief to make it dangerous: Wimbledon’s courts are anything but hard courts with a pretty grass covering, and Djokovic isn’t good on grass for the same reasons — or in exactly the same ways — he’s good on hard courts.

Grass is still, to use Djokovic’s word, “unique.”

“Every single year [the courts] get better and better, so it’s easier to play from the baseline,” Federer said. “But at the beginning it’s still very soft; it’s tough to move. Especially, I would say, the first week at Wimbledon. It’s still a huge change from hard courts.”

That makes Djokovic’s first-week record at Wimbledon — the aforementioned 11 consecutive third-round appearances — that much more impressive.

For Djokovic, success is rooted in his movement. His flexibility is an enormous asset on grass, not least of all because even late in the tournament, when the courts are roughed up, he adjusts to bad bounces as if he were on a gimbal. Movement on grass requires “different talents,” according to Federer. Djokovic has worked on those subtle differences. “I am always fine-tuning,” he said, “working on being in a right balance on the court.”

ESPN analyst John McEnroe puts Djokovic right up there with Bjorn Borg, who won five consecutive Wimbledon titles from 1976 to 1980, in the movement department. “I don’t think I’ve ever seen a guy cover the court better,” McEnroe said in a conference call just days before the start of Wimbledon. “He’s taller, and that helps, but he’s got great flexibility. And if you watch him, he’s got incredible footwork and balance.”

Djokovic does a lot of that “fine-tuning” of his serve for grass as well. A service break on grass still has a higher market value than on any other surface because the serve is a more potent weapon on grass. “You just have to rely more on your serve here,” Djokovic said. “You’re always looking to have free points on the serve.”

Long acknowledged as the best returner in tennis, Djokovic has also incorporated an excellent slice backhand into his repertoire. He is confident enough these days to attack behind it. In addition to the increased similarity of grass to hard courts, Djokovic’s outstanding movement and return are reliable components that serve him well on all surfaces. But he also has some less-conspicuous assets that help explain how he has become the most successful of all grass-court players over the past seven-plus years.

Stan Wawrinka, a three-time Grand Slam champion, is still trying to master grass. He has difficulty with the pace of play and the quick decision making required in short rallies, telling ESPN.com, “I always struggled to have time to think of what I want to do.”

By contrast, Djokovic is an efficient, swift decision maker. That’s an acquired habit, fed by success and the confidence it breeds. “To take a quick decision [in a rally],” Wawrinka said, “you need confidence from the beginning. And [with the short season on grass], you don’t have time to develop it.”

Or, as Djokovic said, on grass, “Everything happens very quickly.”

That reality seems almost custom-designed to boost Djokovic’s fortunes. On clay and hard courts, his nonpareil defense allows and even encourages him to hang back and get into long, breakneck rallies. He is exceptional at winning them, but he’s 32 years old, and, in addition to taking a physical toll, those rallies make him less efficient.

“Patience-wise, he’s better off playing on grass because he doesn’t get into as many deep rallies,” McEnroe said. “I would say grass would be his second-best surface [after hard courts] now, and clay would be third.”

McEnroe’s fellow Hall-of-Famer and ESPN analyst Chris Evert believes that she and Djokovic, both rock-solid baseliners, were forced by turf to be more effective.

“The grass forces Novak to play more aggressive, too — to get bigger first serves in, to be more alert,” she said. “He’s forced to take more chances and take more opportunities. I think that only enhances his game. It doesn’t take away anything.”

Over the years, Djokovic has come to value and exploit that dividend. He is less concerned now with his rally game. “I’m working on being in a right balance on the court, trying to execute all the shots, take short balls, come in,” he said.

The all-ryegrass courts have created another advantage that Djokovic would not have enjoyed back in the McEnroe-Borg era. The ball certainly bounces higher on today’s courts, but the grass still blunts the effect of spin. As Federer said, “The way the ball bounces, the way it takes the spins — or not — I think is quite a change still.”

As it turns out, the balls now seem to be bouncing right into Djokovic’s wheelhouse. “Because of the nature of these courts, the ball comes through in a kind of slot,” Craig O’Shannessy, a tennis analyst who has worked with Djokovic as well as the ATP, told ESPN.com. “And Novak is one of the best ball strikers in the history of the sport.”

Bingo.

For proof, O’Shannessy looks to Djokovic’s recent history. Still dealing with a slump, partly because of an elbow injury that required minor surgery, Djokovic struggled through the early hard-court season in 2018. He was inconsistent on Euroclay. Then, at the Wimbledon tuneup event at Queen’s Club, he had a match point in the championship match against Marin Cilic but fell just short. He went on to win Wimbledon — and the next two Grand Slams as well.

“How do you go from struggling to winning the biggest title of all?” O’Shannessy said. “With help. The grass helped Novak find his game.”

The way Djokovic is playing, it’s unlikely he’ll misplace it again soon.

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