Defense as the New Offense: Analyzing Ferrer and Djokovic

Novak Djokovic lunges to make a shot

By Evan Valeri

While Berdych didn’t have what it took to defeat the world number one in their quarterfinal matchup, he played well. It was right along the lines of some of the other matches the two have played over the course of the past two seasons. Berdych seems to squeak a set out of him every now and then sandwiched between a couple lopsided whoopings. Tomas wasn’t able to capitalize on a few keys to winning the match. He needed to keep points short and win a majority of the rallies that lasted between four and nine shots. Tomas was unable to complete this task with Novak winning 60% of those points. Tomas also needed to serve well and win most of his first serve points. This was also a bust with him winning just 66% against the best returner in the game.

It’s tough to play your best tennis and capitalize on the key points every time when you are playing the best in the world. Even though Djokovic was coming off a five hour marathon match with Stan Wawrinka, he looked fresh and fitter than ever. For the number six ranked Berdych to win sets more consistently against the top players, he needs to become a more complete player. It’s possible for him to elevate his game and play top tier tennis, hitting big winners against these players for a set, but to do it for three is another story. He lacks the ability to play grinding, retrieving, defensive tennis, which the top five players in the world are able to do.

A player’s ability to run down ball after ball has become a must. Look at the Ferrer vs. Almagro quarterfinal a few days ago. Almagro was able to play at a very high level the first four sets, but after the fourth set ended and the two players were past the three hour mark on court, he looked weary. He wasn’t hitting his shots with the same zip they had early in the match and he was moving as though he had glue on the bottom of his shoes. Ferrer on the other hand, who is considered to possibly be the fittest man on tour by his peers, looked fresh as a daisy as though the two players were just starting the second set. Because of his superior fitness, Ferrer cruised to a 6-2 win of the fifth set, and won the match after clawing back from two sets to love down.

The Djokovic vs. Ferrer semifinal matchup tonight at the Australian Open will show any casual fan the importance of being fit and being able to stay in the point. These two are masters of pulling out points after it appears their opponent has won the point two or three different times. They are bound to trade blows for at least four sets and several hours. Fitness most likely won’t be an issue tonight with these two. They have proven they can both play at the highest level for over five hours. The match will feature many points where these guys are moving each other side to side behind the baseline, waiting for that carefully calculated, high percentage chance to be aggressive and finish the point.

While tennis seems to be following the “defense wins championships” trend, it takes more than just running down ball after ball and staying consistent to be the best. Players need to be able to combine that with the ability to play aggressive, point ending, all court tennis when the opportunities present themselves. If players can’t master the transition ball and they just counterpunch every shot, eventually they will get too far out of position and the opponent will seize that moment to change the tides and win the point. If you look at the five best players in the world, they are able to play defense better than anyone and transition that defense to offense at the drop of a hat.

The fitness of modern players has changed the game of tennis. Tennis used to be a game dominated by the serve and volley, but with the introduction of more powerful racquets, the change to more western grips, and polyester strings, the trend has favored the hard hitting baseline player. During the serve and volley era, points were short and although the top players were in good shape, fitness wasn’t a priority like it is to athletes today. With the amount of topspin players are putting on the ball in today’s game, they are able to swing more powerfully while staying consistent. If players aren’t able to run down ball after ball to stay in points they are going to lose every match. The open stance has also grown in popularity and is hit on both the forehand and backhand wings. It allows players to generate loads of angular momentum and apply tons of spin and pace to each shot, while also recovering quicker towards the center. As time goes on we are seeing courts get slower, which also encourages defensive play and long rallies. Players have advanced from quick serve and volley points to grinding 20 plus shot rallies and five hour matches.

Combine all of this together and it is easy to see that defense is the new offense.

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