Consider the drop shot. You see your opponent standing far back after running off the court. They are way behind the baseline, just standing flat-footed and so you hit a delicate shot with just a touch of a backspin. If you hit it just right, well, that’s some feeling. The ball will barely clear the net, land softly just on the other side and then expire, like a parent crashing into a recliner after a long day of work. The drop shot is shattering when done right, it’s a psychological dagger, tennis’ version of a basketball blocked shot or a football pancake block.
The drop shot has always been one of tennis’ great weapons, but it has never been more powerful than it is right now at the highest level of the game. This is because tennis players are hitting balls harder than ever before, with more spin than ever before, and the defense against such power and movement is to stand farther and farther back. It’s common now to see two players just pulverizing topspin haymakers at each other from eight feet behind the baseline. From back there, players have more time to run down shots. Players’ defenses seem impenetrable.
Then one suddenly pulls back and hits a soft drop shot. Often, the other player is left glaring and defeated. The drop shot is one nasty little pill.
So, it makes sense that nobody on earth can beat the drop shot like Novak Djokovic.
* * *
Novak Djokovic, you might know (or you might not) is on the greatest run in the history of men’s Open Era tennis. This does not seem possible so soon after Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal redefined what tennis greatness looks like, but there you go. Djokovic’s relatively straightforward victory over the world’s second-best player Andy Murray in the French Open Final gave him four consecutive Grand Slam titles in a row. That has not happened since Rod Laver in 1969, just one year after the tournaments started allowing professional players to compete with amateurs. That was, to say the least, a very different time.
When Tiger Woods won four major golf championships in a row, we called it the Tiger Slam and celebrated. When Serena Williams won four in a row, we called it the Serena Slam and celebrated. When Djokovic finished off Murray, well, his four consecutive grand slam victories barely seemed to register in the larger sports world. Nobody is talking about the Novak Slam. Even inside tennis, most focused on how this gave him the CAREER grand slam — he now has a French Open title to go with his three Wimbledons, two U.S. Opens and six Australian Opens. The career grand slam is great, but that’s been done in recent times. Andre Agassi did it. Roger Federer did it. Rafael Nadal did it.
However, none of them won four slams in a row.
Of course, it has never been easy for Djokovic to win admiration for one obvious reason and for one less obvious one. The obvious reason: He came of age in the era of Federer and Nadal. Those two titans didn’t leave much oxygen for anyone else to breathe.
Their rivalry was mesmerizing, wasn’t it? Great rivalries are built on competing styles that bounce joyfully off each other. Federer and Nadal had that. Federer was the dancer, the impossibly graceful shot-maker who served the ball into corners, hit deadly forehands and often seemed to defy gravity with the way he glided over the court.
“I’m very lucky to be called basically ‘beautiful,’ you know, for style of play,” Federer once told the writer David Foster Wallace.
Nadal was the bruiser, the guy in the muscle shirts who ran down everything and hit shots with such heavy topspin that balls would hit the court and then strike at opponents like attacking cobras.
Federer v. Nadal was everything in men’s tennis. They brought the best out of each other. They left us wanting for more. What else did anyone need? From 2006 through 2010, Federer and Nadal won all but two of the grand slam titles. Djokovic won one of the stray grand slams, Juan Martin del Potro won the other. Ah, but who really cared, right? They were anomalies.
In 2011, Djokovic emerged, he won three grand slams, he won five Masters 1000 tournaments, he won 41 matches in a row, and most significantly he won 10 of 11 matches from Nadal and Federer. He did this just as Federer and Nadal had moved into that legendary status where nobody wants to see them fall. Every tournament, it seemed, Djokovic played the role of the villain. He is the player who savagely (and in straight sets) ended Rafa’s dominance on red clay. He is the player who has now twice denied Federer a record-breaking eighth title at Wimbledon.
(Jack Nicklaus, before he became one of the world’s most beloved sportsmen, was first the usurper who dared steal the glory from Arnold Palmer — and he was booed and despised for it.)
Djokovic endured that. But there are other things too. Djokovic’s brilliance is not as easily condensed as either Federer or Nadal (or, for that matter, Pete Sampras or John McEnroe). If Federer is beauty and Nadal is power, what is Djoker? One word does not do him justice. What would that word even be? Counter-puncher? Grinder? Consistent? His genius defies easy description. It is a service return at your feet. It is him retrieving three straight shots that all seemed like winners off the racquet. It is the numbing effect of shot after shot after shot, Djokovic is a whirlwind that never misses.
It is sometimes difficult to find the magic in the blinding efficiency of Novak Djokovic’s game.
And then, someone tries to beat him with a drop shot.
* * *
Novak Djokovic was a professional more or less from the day he was born. He often tells the story of being 6 years old and wandering across the street from his parents’ pizza parlor in Serbia to watch some students play tennis at an academy. He had already become mesmerized by the sport, watching on television as Pete Sampras won at Wimbledon. London and the Wimbledon grass, he would say, seemed so beautiful and far away from his own war-torn country.
He walked to the tennis academy, and he pressed his face against the chain-link fence and watched longingly until the coach of the academy, Jelena Gencic, invited him to come back the next day to really learn the sport.
He came back the next day with a fully packed tennis bag — packed with a racquet, rolled up towel, wristbands, and all the other little things you might find in a professional’s tennis bag.
“Who packed this for you?” Gencic demanded.
“I did,” Djokovic said, and he was offended. He did not understand what made this extraordinary, did not understand that a 6-year-old child in a non-tennis playing country like Serbia should not instinctively know how to pack a tennis bag. Djokovic was born to play this sport. He was destined. Gencic, who had coached Monica Seles, began calling Novak the Golden Child.
It is that professionalism, that preparation, that unabashed ambition to be the No. 1 tennis player in the world that has marked Djokovic’s ascent. He was something of an enigma when he first came on tour. Djokovic liked doing funny impressions of the other players on court — it sometimes seemed he was more interested in making people laugh than winning. He would wear out physically during matches; at the U.S. Open against Gael Monfils he actually collapsed on the court. He had this nervous habit of dribbling the ball so many times before he served that it became something of a sport for fans to count the bounces.
Sure, his great talent was apparent (he was the youngest man to reach the semifinal of all four grand slams). He was fast. He had incredible reflexes and, as such, could hit the ball on the rise cleaner than anybody else. His returns off serves were instantly the best in the game. Still, there was something missing.
And then … there wasn’t.
* * *
Djokovic transformed himself. He changed his diet. He rebuilt his body. He began a journey toward inner peace, using yoga and meditation and Tai Chi and kayaking. When he was young and Gencic was training him, she would sometimes play classical music in the background. He didn’t understand why at the time. But Djokovic came to realize that he needed to find the musical rhythms in his game. He needed to find tranquility inside himself.
In 2011, the Novak Djokovic the world now knows came to light. He won three grand slam titles that year, one of the greatest seasons in the history of tennis. In the years since then, he has won or reached the final of 14 of the 18 grand slam tournaments. And, of course, he has won the last four slams.
Djokovic wins through sheer will. He does not get many easy points — he’s 23rd on tour in first-serve win percentage. He averages fewer than four aces per match in 2016. He has trouble putting away overheads. Everything is hard for Djoker, and that’s why no Djokovic match is complete without him looking up at his box and dancing these desperately sarcastic dances that we Djokovic fans have grown to love.
These little dances include the:
— “Can you believe I missed that shot?” twist.
— “This guy has never hit that many good shots in his life” Watusi.
— “I can’t believe we have to play in these conditions” rain dance.
— “World (and chair umpire) is against me again” step dance.
— “I have not missed that shot since I was 11,” shuffle.
He always works through all of this, however. He leads the tour in winning percentage on second serves (58 percent), on first-serve returns (37 percent) and on the second-serve returns (58 percent). Get him into a point and he will begin grinding down opponents with a blurring variety of shots. He will hit a huge topspin forehand that pulls his opponent off the court one way. Then he’ll hit a wicked cross-court, two-handed backhand, followed by a skidding slice backhand that forces the poor opponent to bend down low. Then he’ll hit a down-the-line forehand that makes the opponent reach down, and then a down-the-line backhand. Then comes the drop shot that steals the man’s heart. It’s like body blow after body blow.
However, sometimes, he will play the defender, chasing down every shot an opponent can conjure up. In this adaptation of himself, he’s the scariest sort of opponent, the kind who is most dangerous when he seems most vulnerable. With Rafael Nadal injured and fading, nobody in the world hits more winning shots from more helpless positions than Djokovic.
All of this makes him extraordinary for tennis fanatics, but you do wonder if some of it gets lost in translation for the general fan. Federer’s greatness, Nadal’s greatness, Sampras’ greatness, all of these were transparent, palpable, big serves, gravity-bending topsin, grace, fury, any first-time tennis watcher could see it within minutes. It takes longer to understand and appreciate Djokovic’s genius.
Which, at last, brings us back to the drop shot.
* * *
Andy Murray might be the best drop shot artist in the world. It’s debatable, of course, but he’s certainly one of the best. He disguises it well, hits it softly from any position on the court; it’s one of the key weapons in his arsenal.
And yet, time and again, he tried some sort of drop shot in the French Open Final only to watch Djokovic run the ball down and do something magical with it. Murray hit a good drop shot to his right, Djokovic ran it down and cracked a two-handed backhand winner. Murray hit a soft half-volley drop shot to his left, Djokovic ran it down and hit a forehand winner. Murray even had Djokovic off the court and hit a drop shot that would have put any other player in the world away. Djokovic still ran it down and, somehow, flicked a cross-court shot that floated parallel with the net, landed only a few inches over and bounced playfully out of Murray’s reach.
When Djokovic plays like he did against Murray, that’s when the Djoker’s artistry is palpable and jaw-dropping. So much of his game is deflecting power — it is fantastic when these little moments like these come — when someone dares hit a drop shot against him and challenges him to do something astonishing. In those moments, he is as graceful as Federer and as inventive as McEnroe.
And then the match goes back to normal, with Novak Djokovic pounding balls through opponents in tennis matches that are closer to boxing matches. As a spectator, you wish more people would hit drop shots against the guy, just so you could see him hit a few more miraculous and wonderful shots. But they won’t. I mean: Why would they?