Novak Djokovic Gets Through at French Open Despite Serving Woes

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Novak Djokovic Gets Through at French Open Despite Serving Woes
Clive Brunskill/Getty Images

One who hasn’t played tennis competitively can’t really understand what it’s like to double-fault repeatedly.

It begins and ends with a lot of thinking. It starts with you knowing that the serve is crucial: Hit it with the right placement, speed and/or spin, and you control the center of the court and keep the other player on the run, thus winning most points.

Hit a serve that lacks enough of those qualities and you’ve served up just what your opponent wants (a short ball) on the very first stroke.

But hitting a good serve is not easy, particularly a good second delivery. It requires you to learn the awkward maneuver of throwing a ball behind your head, bending at the lower back and knees, then hitting up on the ball to give it the spin required to arc into the service box, then bounce high enough to stay out of the returner’s sweet spot.

Watching a player on TV who does this effortlessly, a la Marin Cilic, is enough to make one forget that this is not a natural position for the human body.

The coordination between the raising of the arms, bending of the knees, and the swing must be attuned, and the ball should be tossed in just the same place you threw it last time.

That’s too much to think about at one time, so the idea is to practice it until happens instinctively.

So you train yourself to put all these moving parts together into a single motion so that you can let the rest of your game...the groundstrokes, the movement, the volleys, all those less complicated actions...do its work.

And during the match it all works, but then the toss goes a little off target, the legs lose a bit of their bounce, or the arm just doesn’t accelerate like it did before. 

One double can be forgotten, especially if didn’t happen on game point. A second one, though, and the server gets to thinking about all the individual motions, rather than the whole.

The tendency is to get tentative and go for less, but then the serve starts landing short or worse, not getting over the net.

It’s the worst, because a misfiring forehand can be played more conservatively, and an off-target backhand sliced or run around.

Without a serve, though, you can’t even start the point.

When it reaches the juncture where your ability to put the serve in the box is affecting whether the game is won or lost, then you can try making up for it by breaking the other guy’s serve, but a glaring weakness in the service department puts more pressure on the rest of your shots. Soon, they start drifting long and wide.

Then an opponent, one inferior to you in every way except his ability to keep getting his serve in, becomes a threat, or possibly even your conqueror.

So remarkable are the athletes we see on the ATP Tour, and so extensive is their training that one almost never sees a double-faulting spell come over a top pro.

But Novak Djokovic is not most pros. He remains one of the most natural, fluid players on tour, but since his one-sided loss to a hot Rafael Nadal in the 2008 RG semis, he hasn’t been the same.

Suffering from a lack of confidence and struggling with physical ailments that include breathing problems, Djokovic turned to former pro Todd Martin for coaching help last year.

Unfortunately for the Serb, much of Martin’s attention was focused on Djokovic’s strokes.

After their partnership ended this spring, the Serb said that Martin had attempted to make changes to his serve which had not been fruitful, and now the Serb had to correct some misguided technical changes in addition to his other struggles.

Despite a so-far lackluster season, Djokovic’s talent was on display in his third-round encounter with Victor Hanescu. The 6’6” Romanian is a peculiar opponent, blessed with elegant, explosive groundstrokes but a serve whose lack of punch belies his enormous presence.

For the first set and a half, Djokovic had considerable success moving the Romanian around the court, taking advantage of his ability to run down one more ball per rally than his opponent.

Then, having won the first set and taken the lead in the second, the Serb couldn’t find the service box. He would finish the match with eight double faults to just two aces, and most of those doubles came in set two.

Twice he got up a break, and twice he promptly gave it back, then surrendered another service game to lose the set.

Fortunately for the Serb, it only led to the loss of one set. That hiccup aside, his greater athletic ability eventually overwhelmed the Romanian, as he won the last six games of the match to take the fourth set 6-2.

In doing so, he sets up a fourth-round encounter with Robby Ginepri, the surprise winner over Spaniard Juan Carlos Ferrero.

Even if his serve is shaky, Djokovic enters the match with the last American in the draw as the favorite, and will be again should he reach the quarters to face either Jurgen Melzer or Teimuraz Gabashvili.

Beyond that, Rafael Nadal looms, and Djokovic has the chance to exorcise the demons remaining from that encounter two years ago.

A few good serving days would go a long way in helping him recover.

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