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.
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.