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TennisOne Lessons

Novak Djokovic – Spinning like a Top

Jim McLennan

Tennis has changed and continues to change. Somehow the professionals lead the way and the teachers slowly follow. Example, in the 1976 Wimbledon final (and I was playing then) Ashe hit a number of reverse finish forehands in his match against Jimmy Connors. At that time I did not notice (I only realized this in a Tennis Channel replay of the match), but now with Rafa and others, everyone recognizes a reverse finish forehand, and the teachers have followed suit. Similarly, once a long time ago, when wooden racquets with smaller head sizes roamed the earth, our strokes were more linear than rotational. That is, players stepped in and shifted their weight – Tom Stow called this “coming against the ball,” and those strokes looked entirely different than what we see today. So, as far as contrasts go, we could call the modern game more of a rotational stroking model, where players accelerate the racquet through powerful turning motions.

Click photo: Djokovic’s down-the-line backhand may be the
best ever.

But, as in most things, some are better at this turning action than others, and to my mind Novak Djokovic has taken this to yet another level. Where his turns are perfectly centered, much like a gyroscope or a spinning top – but one where the top/gyroscope/or Novak for that matter does not wobble at all. This gyroscopic stability (I will explain later) allows him to get maximum acceleration with the least amount of effort, and since his skull and eyes are atop this spinning action, he can see the ball better, time the ball better, and hit his laser like down the line backhands whenever the court is open. Some many years ago Agassi’s father felt Andre’s up the line backhand was his best shot. We will look for similarities between these two. Andre was pretty darn good, and as may be apparent, Novak is even better.

In the video above, note that Novak's first move is a subtle shift to the left foot, his shoulders begin a slight turn, and his right foot moves first in a crossover step.  Now count his steps, he takes two initial steps and then two positioning steps until he is balanced on the back foot.  Further note that his back is never truly back until he settles on his back foot – think of this as “back and back.”  He seemingly stays sideways forever, waiting on the ball, and at impact if you imagine his spine as the axle, his arms and racquet serve as a perfect lever, right angles to the axle, for maximum leverage.  Finally, this shot does in fact expose his forehand corner if the opponent can run this ball down, so he takes an initial drop step recovery moving back to center of the baseline.

The US Open Final

Now permit me a slight digression that shows you where we are going with this article. The stats in the fourth set of the US Open final were truly amazing. Up to that point many rallies lasted 28 or even 30 strokes. Better court movement than I have ever seen. Rafa positions so darn deep that he ran much further overall than Novak, and he may have been pooped, and appeared so when not running for a drop shot or a forehand winner in that fourth set. But overall, after Nadal snatched the 84 minute third set, many thought we would settle in to a five set battle – which based on the first three sets might have taken 6 or even 7 hours.

Not so, however. Novak took quite a bit off his first serve, resulting in a resounding 84% first serve percentage, 21 for 25, he made just 4 unforced errors compared to 5 for Rafa, but here is the key, the amazing 17 winners versus a mere 5 for Rafa. Again, 17 winners struck in just 7 games. To my eye, Rafa stuck to his game plan, kept the ball in play, hustled, and tried for every point, all the while knowing this could be his sixth consecutive loss. Novak turned the tables, no longer willing to trade ground strokes in interminable rallies, he stepped up to end the points sooner, much, much sooner. Dennis Waitley, a renowned cognitive psychologist uses the phrase, “Losers hope it happens and winners make it happen.” Well, unfortunately, Rafa waits hopes and sometimes causes the opponent to lose, but in this case Novak stepped up to make it happen. Interesting that when you are a hammer all the world looks like a nail, and certainly this kid has now nailed the entire ATP field.

Click photo: In the fourth set, Novak turned the tables, no longer willing to trade ground strokes in interminable rallies, he stepped up to end the points sooner, much, much sooner.

Timing, that is where this is all going. Consider two players trading heavy deep cross-courts, back and forth, power to power. On the tele you will note that in these exchanges, neither player recovers completely, both will essentially bait the other to play up the line. And note, changing the direction of the ball from crosscourt to up the line is the most difficult as well as the most risky of shots. Difficult because the net is a bit higher, and the court is just 78 feet long in this direction compared to 82.5 feet long when measured on the diagonal. And risky because if this up the line is not hit perfectly, the opponent has an open court for a crosscourt ripper to the opposite corner.

So truly, Rafa plays heavy, heavy cross-courts, rarely recovers fully, and his combination of power and spin denies the opponent the opportunity to expose his open court with down the line winners. Not so Novak, he can and does hit these shots in his sleep. And I believe of his 17 fourth set winners, most were up the line.

Click photo: Novak was not afraid to take Rafa's heavy topspin crosscourts up the line, he can and does hit these shots in his sleep.

Batting Basics

John White wrote an amazing book, Batting Basics (you can find it on Amazon) where he compared the baseball-batting stroke to the physics of a spinning top. He presented materials to a tennis conference many years ago, where he suggested it would be easier to swing the racquet if one stepped in far less and relied more on a centered turning action.

He showed that when over stepping with a long hitting stride, one turned less quickly, but when hardly shifting one’s weight but rather moving to “center” the turn would be much quicker.

His technical terminology concerned gyroscopic stability and precession – which roughly translated means if you nudge a spinning top it begins to wobble and loses speed quickly (precession) but if undisturbed the spinning top stays in one place and keeps its spinning momentum longer (gyroscopic stability).

White presented this material to a USPTA conference, and most of the teaching professionals in the John’s seminar were pretty skeptical. Then one of our leading lights (so to speak) mumbled in the back of the room that this sounded a little like the strokes we saw at that point in time with Agassi and Seles. Far less “stepping in” and far less “weight against the ball” and much more “turning into the hit.” Note that Agassi’s father considered Andre’s up the line backhand his best shot.

Well, considering that your head rests atop this spinning apparatus, any movement, any wobble will influence if not disrupt your vision and by extension your timing. Now take yet another look at Novak, maybe even place an eraser atop his head on your computer screen, and note how centered his spins appear. Further, you will find many a similarity between his and Andre’s backhand.

Click photo:

Click photo:

Comparing Andre and Novak’s backhands, they appear pretty darn simple.  Both balance on the back foot, both step forward onto the right foot, both meet the ball well in front, and both truly “mean business” with this shot.   To my eye, the most telling feature occurs if you place the eraser end of your pencil atop their head (on the computer screen) as they begin to swing – and neither guy truly moves off center during the hit. 

Next time you take this to court, see if you can turn quickly but stay centered. Very much like an ice skater, but in this case where you allow your arms to move out at impact to “smack the ball.” The linear model allowed players to lengthen the contact zone. This rotational model adds significantly to racquet speed, but with a smaller hitting zone, the trick, the secret, the whole enchilada rests in the “timing.” See the ball better, turn into the hit, do not wobble, and time the ball up the line. Most opponents will play you crosscourt balls to the backhand wing. You become the real thing when you own this shot.

Your comments are welcome. Let us know what you think about Jim McLennan's article by emailing us here at TennisOne.

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