Home » Charles Bricker, HEADLINES AND FEATURES, Top Stories » Why Novak Djokovic is the best returner in tennis

It was the opening point of the fifth game of the Indian Wells semifinal 12 days ago, and here was a quintessential example of why Novak Djokovic is the best returner in tennis.

Roger Federer had hit one of those perfectly placed, half-slice serves about an inch inside the sideline — a ball that does not come back against 99.9 percent of the players on the ATP Tour.

But there was Djokovic, his body already into an extreme lean a split-second after the serve was hit, and his racket so fully extended that he struck the return from beyond the doubles sideline. Not just struck it, but returned it with enough pace that Federer didn’t have a gimme second shot.

Novak Djokovic

Even though Federer’s back-up ground stroke had plenty of pace to the backhand corner, there was Novak, a bit off-balance from a mad dash but with sufficient power in his wrists to lash a cross-court pass for the winner.

David Ferrer? Great service returner. Very quick-twitch feet. Nikolay Davydenko? Superb serve returner. Makes you work for every point. Rafa Nadal? Well, what needs to be said about his returning.

But if you had to pick out just one player who is, today, the best returner in tennis, it’s Djokovic, who is, with very little doubt, also the toughest man to ace on the ATP Tour.

How tough? Federer had just one ace in that Indian Wells semifinal — an unheard of number for the former No. 1 player. One ace in a three-set match in which Federer had 13 service games.

In three matches this year against Djokovic, all losses, Federer has served 39 games for 11 aces.

A lot has been written about Djokovic’s precise serving, his court coverage and his metronomic ground stroking — all key facets of his game. But, for me, the single ingredient that has separated him from the pack in 2011 is his returning.

The inability to get free points off this guy not only makes him a threat to break in almost every opponent’s service game, but there is the added intimidation of his victims.

In the Indian Wells final, Nadal had perhaps the worst serving match since ascending to tennis’ elite — under 50 percent first serves in as he tried to pump up the speed to compensate for Novak’s returning. He lost in three sets.

The art of the service return doesn’t make too many TV sports replay segments, but if you value highly the more significant skills in tennis, you need to spend time watching Nole at work against a top server.

Wednesday at the Sony Ericsson Open, for example, Djokovic held tall, power-serving Kevin Anderson, who had 37 aces for the tournament coming into the match, to just four. And the first was, in fact, a fault which, for some odd reason, Nole refused to challenge.

It’s not just warding off aces that makes him the best returner in the game. Getting a racket on the ball is only one part of the equation, along with getting the ball into play and getting it back deep enough to get into the point. Djokovic has that entire package.

He’s had some matches this year in which he gave up a significant number of aces, but it was to players who are capable of rolling up big numbers on a hot-serving day. Tomas Berdych had nine aces against Nole at Dubai a few weeks ago and Feliciano Lopez had seven in the same tournament.

Two of the biggest servers in the game are Ivo Karlovic and Andy Roddick. Djokovic last played Ivo three years ago and gave up 20 aces, but you could argue that was another Djokovic in another time. The last four times he’s played Roddick, he’s given up 21 aces — well under Roddick’s average.

Great service returning requires fresh legs, even after three hours on court, and it’s amazing to see Nole is this heightened state of fitness, because he’s been going almost non-stop since last season, playing the Davis Cup final against France in the first week of December and then having very little time off to rest before preparing for 2011.

Yet he’s showing no signs of tiring. In these last two tournaments, both ATP 1000s (Indian Wells and Key Biscayne), Djokovic has played 10 matches and been aced just 21 times in 84 service games. That’s one ace every four serving games.

You won’t have any difficulty arguing that he has evolved into the best returner in tennis.

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Charles Bricker can be reached at nflwriterr@aol.com.

3 Responses to “Why Novak Djokovic is the best returner in tennis”

  1. Nice article !! Couldnt agree you more.I also always felt that these commentators also sometimes failed to point out the fact that Nole is too good in returning and they would simply put the blame on the opponents as having them a bad day or something.As of today i think he is arguable the best returner in the business too

  2. So true. Novak’s best part (if you are picky) of the game is return.
    I think you are the first to state that and you are totally right.

    Great servers against Djokovic look so average.

    Nadal’s terrible serving in IW finals is not coincidence or just bad day.
    It’s because Djokovic’s return and Nadal as you said was trying to put some speed on his serve, and it just didn’t work.

  3. There’s a very interesting article about Djokovic’s return of serve in today’s Financial Times (!). Apparently the reason he’s the best returner is because he can move and swing in 1/10th of a second. This is much faster than anyone else (most top players are at least 2/10ths). As a result he has longer to actually look at the ball before he actually makes his return. Basically, he can delay his return for longer than anyone else. That’s the key.
    Btw, for info, you have 1/2 second to return a top player’s serve. It takes 2/10ths to see the serve leave his racquet. That leaves you 3/10ths to watch the ball and then move and swing.
    Hope this is useful.


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