Why Novak's 'Hard Slider' Is Paying Big Dividends

  • Posted: Oct 31, 2023

Why Novak’s ‘Hard Slider’ Is Paying Big Dividends

Djokovic targets the forehand on second serve

Second serves to the forehand.

Players typically stay away from this higher-risk strategy and kick the second serve to the less potent backhand return.

Not Novak Djokovic. Not by a long shot.

An Infosys ATP Beyond The Numbers analysis of 41 matches against right-handed opponents this season shows that Djokovic actually prefers to hit second serves to the forehand wing. By going against the grain, he collects more second-serve aces, extracts significantly more return errors and wins a higher percentage of second-serve points overall.

Opponents are sitting on a heavy kick to the backhand return. A hard slider to the forehand is what comes at them more often than not. Djokovic hit 55 per cent (382/690) of his second serves at the forehand corners versus backhand corners in both service boxes, while opponents only hit 26 per cent (164/622) to the forehand corners against him. Interestingly, Djokovic served more to the backhand return against left-handers.

Djokovic is leading the Tour in 2023 with second-serve points won at 57.91 per cent (816/1409). It’s his third-highest season total after 2015 (60.2%) and 2013 (59.61%). Directing second serves out wide in the Deuce court and down the T in the Ad court is powering these Tour-leading match metrics as much as anything else.

Deuce Court: Second Serves Wide To The Forehand Return
The numbers that show the difference in how well Djokovic utilises the wide second serve compared to his opponents are dramatic.

Second Serves: Deuce Court Wide

Direction – Deuce Court Wid Novak Djokovic  Opponents
Made 174 60
Won 75% (130) 50% (30)
Aces 4 1
Return Errors Extracted 50 11
% Return Errors Extracted 29% 18%

The performance gap is staggering. Djokovic goes to this location almost three times as much as his opponents (174-60) and has won 100 more points (130-30). He extracts an error when targeting this location 29 per cent (50/174) of the time. His opponents only benefit from a return error 18 per cent (11/60) of the time.

One of Djokovic’s superpowers appears hidden in plain sight.

Ad Court: Second Serves T To The Forehand Return
Serving second serves down the T in the Ad court also clearly catches opponents off guard.

Direction – Ad Court T Novak Djokovic Opponents
Made 208 104
Won 70% (146) 50% (52)
Aces 13 1
Return Errors Extracted 41 18
% Return Errors Extracted 20% 17%

Djokovic collected 13 aces to this specific location, while opponents only managed a solitary ace. Djokovic won precisely 100 more points (130-30) than his opponents in the Deuce court out wide and won almost 100 more (146-52) with the slider down the T in the Ad court.

At some stage, you would think opponents should pick up on this surprise serve and shut it down. But Djokovic has been employing variations of this strategy for several seasons, and he keeps taking it to new levels. The reasons why it works so well are four-fold.

1. Djokovic wins the mental game of surprising his opponent. He reads the opponent’s mind better than they do of him. He knows when they are not expecting it.
2. The larger size of the forehand return backswing can be immediately attacked.
3. He hits this specific serve considerably faster than his regular kick second serve to the backhand. Multiple speeds to multiple directions create confusion in opponents’ minds.
4. He receives more Serve +1 forehands. He hit 50 per cent (473/945) Serve +1 forehands in these matches behind second serves, winning 57 per cent (271/473). Opponents only hit 44 per cent (514/1171) Serve +1 forehands, also winning just 44 per cent (227/514).

Djokovic’s favourite second-serve location appears to be a mystery to his opponents. He backs himself against their perceived strength by taking advantage of multiple weaknesses.

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