Gymnasts with a lot of flexibility are practically contortionists. Novak Djokovic (Nole) has amazing flexibility. He has been working on it at least since his days at the Pilic Academy in Germany at 12 years of age. He worked/studied alongside Ernests Gulbis at “Pilic.” The story is told of how he tried to convince Gulbis to become more flexible apparently to no avail. That flexibility seems a centerpiece of Novak’s game today in which his major championships now equal Pete Sampras for third on the list behind Federer and Nadal.
Yet Djokovic is not a dominant server but returner, maybe the best ever. It has been argued that the serve followed by the return are the two most important shots in tennis. I would argue the return is more important because it is a short stroke with less margin for error than the serve. In other words it is the ability under stressful conditions to execute well that can separate the good player from the great player. The nerves are less a factor with a simpler stroke, noting the complexity of the service ball toss and overhead motion. Certainly in this era what one can do with the modern strings in bringing the ball down more forcefully with ground strokes has been important to Novak’s return as well. Incidentally, I would also argue that Rafa’s return of serve falls short of Nole’s, but, his top spin, unequaled in tennis, supplants the shortcomings in Nadal’s serve.
Notice that Sampras and Federer are/were excellent servers, one a spot server and one a spot/speed server. However Roger never beat Nadal at the French Open and Djokovic did. Sampras never won the French Open. I would argue the preponderance of Wimbledon championships by Sampras and Federer account for their position on the list, absent great returning. On every non-grass surface the serve seems less important than the return of serve. Recall the amazing match point Federer had at the 2011 U.S. Open. Novak’s winning return of serve began the process of depriving Roger of that U.S. Open Championship.
Nole has apparently begun again to dominate men’s tennis including grass. I would argue it’s his flexibility, his surgeon-like creativity, his youth relative to Fed or Rafa and significantly his return of serve.
H. Robert Rubin Amazon, best-selling memoirist and author of Look Backward Angel, How Did I Get Through This? and Please Save the Third Dance for Me, available on Amazon