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What’s it Like to Play Against Novak Djokovic?

Have you ever wondered what it might feel like to play the best player in the world? 

Last week I spoke with one of my long-term clients who happened to play him just two weeks ago in the Australian Open (I often work with players in the U.S and abroad via video). Two days after the match I asked him, “So, what was it like to play the best player in the world?” He paused and responded with an insight that made perfect sense to me. “It was kind of weird,” he said. “When he hit a winner it didn’t look like he was trying to hit a winner.” 

Doesn’t that resonate? Almost surgically, Novak massages the ball left and right within inches from each side line, pushing you around, getting you off balance just enough to uncoil an inside out forehand or line up a backhand down the line (or a drop shot, etc…) that ends up simply out of your reach. Novak has the weaponry, the consistency and the ability to turn defense into unexpected offense almost at will. So, his winners are just a natural evolution of the last 3-6 shots he leverages for the knock out punch. No need to force it. He simply capitalizes on the openings he creates.

But, how on earth can you even begin to leverage this particular insight for your own game?

One crucial takeaway that could potentially help you improve your game and your results is recognizing the value of building a point, staying calm and patient until you develop a “natural” opening to inflict the final blow or capitalize on a short ball. Often, I see the extremes—going for too much at the wrong time or playing too safe out of fear of missing. That is, often a sense of urgency can creep in, particularly when you have set up a shot and see the opening. This is where players can switch back into outcome mode and force their shots. Like Djokovic, try to stay calm and let the last shot (maybe even a winner) be a natural swing that simply builds on the last shot you hit. 

While Novak has many qualities worth emulating, I encourage you to borrow from his patient and flowing execution that might help you balance any impatience you may experience as you construct points and move the ball around with “controlled aggression.”

Many years ago I developed a concept I call the “sweep.” As if I have a broom in my hand I simply move the ball left and right away from my opponent. I am not going for winners. I’m just putting them off balance. Many players seem to like the idea of “sweeping” their opponents around the court. Give this a try and see what you think. It’s helped me simplify my game plan, especially in many pressure situations.

I also can’t help point out that when Novak does miss, while he can get as irritated as any mortal among us, if you notice, he also employs a smile, which I am quite sure has been cultivated over the years (probably mostly through yoga and meditation) as he is able to rise above the moment, find a little levity and transform this natural irritation into something constructive. It is magical and I believe plays a part in his personal mastery. Neither Rafa nor Fed seem to have this tool/perspective when they miss a sitter. You can read more about this concept in the chapter of my book, The Best Tennis of Your Life, titled, Smile to Expand Your Perspective. 

As you prepare for your next match try to visualize yourself building points (i.e. sweeping) with deep enjoyment as you run your opponent around. And if you happen to hit in the net a few times along the way (you will…so give yourself an error “quota”), remember that it’s only one point and you have the great fortune to come back to the line, yet again, and try to improve on the last point. Doesn’t get much better than that. 

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