In the ridiculously short offseason for professional tennis, Novak Djokovic was eager to make changes to an area of his game that the tennis world thinks is pretty much perfect: His return of serve.
Djokovic was looking to tweak the all-important “split step” on his returns, according to a source.
Why would arguably the greatest returner in the history of the sport want to mess with something that, both statistically and visually, was working so well?
75 million people who play tennis worldwide understand. It’s an almost-pathological addiction: The constant chase for perfect strokes.
In the competitive player’s mind, there exists the knowledge that his next opponent is every bit as fiend-like, obsessing over details that will win key points, win the match… win the championship.
And perhaps Novak Djokovic was right to fine-tune his strength because that’s exactly what Rafael Nadal was doing as well.
Statistically one of the best servers to have ever played tennis, particularly on his second serve, Nadal was busy working on a slightly different service motion.
Now it’s time for all those hours filled with minutiae–the grasping for an edge–to be uploaded in a clash of colossi: Djokovic versus Nadal.
How have the changes been holding up so far in their respective runs through the Australian Open on the way to the men’s final? A look at the numbers:
Djokovic’s Return of Serve
A key metric to judge the efficacy of the return game is receiving points won. It’s an especially noteworthy statistic for players like Djokovic, whose return, rather than serve, is a foundational aspect of his game.
When Djokovic beat Nadal in the semifinal of Wimbledon last year–an epic 5-set drama that played out on two different days–Djokovic’s percentage of receiving points won was passable.
He won 76 of 210 points on the receiving end, for a total of 36%. He managed to eke out the win over Nadal with that.
What about against a power server? In the final of the 2018 US Open–a match in which Djokovic captured the title in 3 sets–Djokovic won 39% of the points he received (35/89).
Those percentages in the mid-to-high 30s were pre-tweaks to the return. Clearly the Serb was looking to dominate more, perhaps aggressively striking first with his return.
So how has it been shaping up so far?
Djokovic has received a total of 580 points at this year’s Australian Open so far and has won 249 of them. That’s a receiving point winning percentage of 43%–a substantial improvement over those earlier percentages.
Whatever he’s doing on the timing of his return may have made him even more dominant in this area of the game than he was before. A scary thought for any server.
Let’s consider the effects of the Spaniard’s altered service motion that some have speculated is designed to put less pressure on his often-injured lower body.
In that now-storied Wimbledon semifinal of 2018, Nadal won 134/210 points on his serve. It’s a somewhat pedestrian winning percentage of 64%, and he did lose that match.
Conversely, so far in this year’s Australian Open through 6 matches, Nadal is winning 74% of his points on serve. That’s a more Rafa-like number, worthy of some vamos love.
It’s possible that a reduction in strain on his lower body after the serve is helping Nadal take over points more quickly and efficiently.
So in this battle between tennis titans, Djokovic and Nadal–one of the greatest rivalries the sport will ever see–look for the nuances of this particular matchup: Rafa’s adjusted serve versus Djokovic’s recalibrated return.
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