Jul
07

Inability to hit perfect volley may be Djokovic’s undoing

THREE matches played going into the second week of Wimbledon, not a single set dropped and barely five hours spent on court. Things could not have started better for defending champion Novak Djokovic, but will it continue? Is there an Achilles heel in the Serb’s armour, can he be beaten? Yes he can would be my answer, but it will take a brave player to do so because the only way to get the better of Djokovic is to take big risks and drag him out of his comfort zone. By that I mean lure him to the net, where he has always been less than certain of his own ability.

Anybody who thinks that they can beat Djokovic by allowing him to play the way he wants with extended baseline rallies is deluded and on a one-way path to the exit door. And I include both his main rivals for the men’s singles title, Andy Murray and Roger Federer, in that assessment.

The world No 1 is so comfortable playing that sort of game, so confident in his ability when on the baseline. He moves so supremely well, possesses a great wingspan and an almost super-human flexibility when stretched. People regularly say that he could have become an Olympic gold medalist as a downhill skier if he had wanted because he was raised in the Serbian mountains and loves the sport.

I will go down a slightly different direction and say that Djokovic has all the physical attributes to be a topclass ballet dancer because of his grace of movement and athleticism. However, I think it’s a reasonably safe bet to say that we will never see him in tights.

Will we see him hoisting the trophy again in a week’s time? I remain to be convinced because I believe that Djokovic’s long-standing inability to understand how to play a volley may prove his downfall.

Numerous are the times I have sat in the commentary box alongside fellow former Wimbledon champions such as Goran Ivanisevic or Richard Krajicek, and found all three of us shaking our heads in disbelief at some of the basic errors that Djokovic makes. He appreciates it is a weak area and in his time he has employed former players with a good volley technique, such as Mark Woodforde and Todd Martin, to help him out, but there has not been much improvement.

Back in Boris Becker’s great years, he knew how to play a perfect volley. Plus being a regular opponent of Stefan Edberg and myself, dare I say it, he was aware of how to prevent the shot being the deciding factor in matches.

I have no doubt that Becker has spent many hours on the practice courts trying to drill Djokovic into having a more decisive volley but there’s still so much work to do.

It’s not a question of poor technique, although if I was being really picky I would say that Djokovic’s head is still a little bit high and should be at exactly the same level as the ball.

Though it has improved lately the glaring problem is that he moves into exactly the wrong position when faced with a passing shot and finds himself having to rely on his flexibility to stretch to the shot when the volley should be a smooth, decisive movement.

And what is the end result? He either clips the ball into the net, sends it wide or, much more likely, just spoons up a poorly hit short ball which leaves him wide open to the passing shot from across the net. In the French Open final, we all saw the damage that can be done with somebody who is as gifted in that department as Stan Wawrinka.

So knowing Djokovic has these problems, the next thing is to devise a tactic to expose them and this is where a bit of bravery comes into the equation, along with plenty of talent.

The first thing to do is to keep him off his rhythm by hitting shots such as a backhand slice across the court that veers wide and keeps low. He has to hit a similar slice back and sometimes he’s guilty of floating the ball, giving too much air. This is a rare chance for his opponent to attack him.

The other chance requires courage and retrieving skills.

So often we see Djokovic hit one, two, three or even four putaway balls before coming in to the net and when he finally does so, players with the skill can make life tricky for him in his attempt to end the rally.

Precision is required because presenting too easy a volley would be suicidal, but if you place the ball in such a way to expose his bad positioning then there’s a reasonable chance he will make a hash of finishing the point.

Because the weather has been so dry, plenty of sun has shone down on the courts in the first week, and the surface is very dry and prone to becoming roughed up in places. This means there is the chance of bad bounces, particularly close to the baseline, and that is where Novak likes to play the majority of his tennis. No matter how good a player anyone might be, there’s nothing you can do when the ball bounces in a completely unexpected direction or trajectory.

Djokovic portrays the air of somebody who is supremely confident. Believe me, that defeat in the Roland Garros final means Wawrinka will still be front and centre in Novak’s mind. And if things work out the pair could meet in the semi-final, which could be the most fascinating confrontation of the tournament. The defending champion might have had the most straightforward of first weeks. The second could be a different matter altogether.