It was just over a week ago when Novak Djokovic defeated Alexander Zverev 6-7(3), 6-2, 7-5 in the ATP Cup on Rod Laver Arena. Tight match!
Now the pair face off in a blockbuster Aussie Open quarter-final on Tuesday on the same court. It has history written all over it. Zverev is in very good form and getting more confident in his game as he progresses deeper into the tournament. Djokovic is carrying a little niggle that he initially thought was a torn muscle, but he just defeated Milos Raonic in four sets. The injury is a setback but is being managed with pain-killers. Novak is rolling, but he does not possess the aura of inevitability that he typically has in week two of a Slam.
Zverev went 1-2 at the ATP Cup. Here are his results.
- Defeated Denis Shapovalov 6-7(5), 6-3, 7-6(4)
- Lost to Novak Djokovic 6-7(3), 6-2, 7-5
- Lost to Daniil Medvedev 3-6, 6-3, 7-5
Those are three quality matches. Don’t read too much into the two losses.
Here’s Zverev’s run to the quarters at the Aussie Open.
- Defeated Marcos Giron 6-7(8), 7-5(5), 6-3, 6-2
- Defeated Maxime Cressy 7-5, 6-4, 6-3
- Defeated Adrian Mannarino 6-3, 6-3, 6-1
- Defeated Dusan Lajovic 6-4, 7-6(5), 6-3
A quick aside… Djokovic will also gain valuable insight from Lajovic (Serbian ATP Cup teammate) on exactly how Zverev was playing, and especially what patterns of play he gravitated to under pressure. It’s how allegiances in our sport work.
I put a lot of weight into what a player has done in the lead-up to a big match like this. How did they perform in the curtain-raisers? Zverev ticks all the boxes. Now let’s have a look at Djokovic. Here are his ATP Cup results:
- Defeated Denis Shapovalov 7-5, 7-5
- Defeated Alexander Zverev 6-7(3), 6-2, 7-5
Two good matches. Two good wins.
Here’s Djokovic’s Aussie Open body of work to the quarters.
- Defeated Jeremy Chardy 6-3, 6-1, 6-2
- Defeated Frances Tiafoe 6-3, 6-7(3), 7-6(2), 6-3
- Defeated Taylor Fritz 7-6(1), 6-4, 3-6, 4-6, 6-2
- Defeated Milos Raonic 7-6(4), 4-6, 6-1, 6-4
That’s some tough tennis right against some salty opponents. Djokovic has been in the pressure cooker for the last three matches. The good news is that he has withstood the pressure and is still in the tournament. The bad news is that Zverev will most likely chat with Tiafoe and Fritz and Raonic and gain a sense from the conversations that Djokovic is vulnerable/beatable right now. He has a sniff. He has a chance. Those are some very close results that could have possibly swung the other way…
Below are five strategic elements of the match to look for when Zverev and Djokovic battle it out for a place in the semi-finals against either Grigor Dimitrov or Aslan Karatsev (not a typo).
1: ZVEREV DOUBLE FAULTS
This is his Achilles heel. When the wolves howl in his head in big moments, this is the unfortunate result. The good news for Zverev is that he seems to have this part of his game in check of late. Here’s his count in 2021.
- ATP Cup: Zverev (7) vs Shapovalov (5)
- ATP Cup: Zverev (8) vs Djokovic (5)
- ATP Cup: Zverev (9) vs Medvedev (13)
- Australian Open: Zverev (4) v Giron (8)
- Australian Open: Zverev (3) vs Cressy (9)
- Australian Open: Zverev (6) vs Mannarino (3)
- Australian Open: Zverev (3) vs Lajovic (2)
TOTAL Double Faults
- Zverev = 40
- Opponents = 45
The eight double faults against Djokovic at the ATP Cup is concerning. The fact he has only committed 16 through four matches at the Australian Open, including just three against Lajovic, is very promising.
In the ATP Cup match against Djokovic, Zverev committed two double faults in his opening service game, but they came at 30-0 and 40-15 so he still won the game. The real problem popped up at the end of the match, as Zverev double-faulted twice at 5-5 in the third to lose serve. The first one was at 0-15 and the second one was at 30-40. That simply can’t happen this time round v Djokovic. Playing the Super Serb is the toughest task in our sport at the moment. You can’t be your own worse enemy as well.
For reference, Zverev served nine double faults against Medvedev at the ATP Cup. At 5-5 in the third set, Zverev double-faulted twice at the identical scorelines of 0-15 and 30-40 – exactly the same routine as against Djokovic.
Zverev can afford to hit two double faults a set against Djokovic and still have a chance of victory. Any more than that and the wheels could very easily come all the way off.
2: ZVEREV FOREHAND ERRORS
Here’s Zverev’s forehand performance at the Australian Open so far.
- Forehand Winners = 38
- Forehand Forced Errors = 73
- Forehand Unforced Errors = 42
- Total Errors = 115
- Breakdown = 38 winners – 115 errors = -77
As a comparison, here’s Djokovic’s forehand numbers
- Forehand Winners = 75
- Forehand Forced Errors = 67
- Forehand Unforced Errors = 60
- Total Errors = 127
- Breakdown = 75 winners – 127 errors = -52
So, Djokovic is superior in a forehand head-to-head analysis. -52 is better than -77. Remember that Djokovic has played 16 sets to Zverev’s 13. Regardless, I would rather be on Djokovic’s side of the equation in this battle.
Zverev Forehand – Hold Ground & Block More
The picture above is an ideal snapshot of what goes wrong with Zverev’s forehand. When pressured, he retreats too far back behind the baseline and “whips” with the racket instead of holding his ground around the baseline wanting to block his way out of trouble. Zverev is most vulnerable out wide in the Deuce court – just like the picture above illustrates.
In an Agassi-Esque motivational moment, Zverev needs to give himself a good talking to during his pre-match shower and convince himself that he is not going to beat Djokovic without total commitment to “change gears” with his forehand.
Too often he is passive or neutral with it. He rolls it instead of driving it. He goes down the line when he is not balanced. He goes back at an angle when attacked wide to the forehand side. None of that can happen against Djokovic. His forehand has the potential to be the biggest shot on the court. If it’s not, he loses. If it is, it’s going to be because he had the courage and conviction to use it in that manner. You are not going to “out-neutral” Novak Djokovic in the quarter-finals of a Slam.
No chance. Hit it hard. Hit it deep through the middle. Hit it with heavy spin to pull Djokovic wide off the court.
Hit it like you have just picked up the last hammer on planet Earth.
3: DJOKOVIC SERVING T – AD COURT
Do your homework. Know your opponent. Be sitting on a serve and rip the return right back at your opponent’s feet. It’s no secret that Djokovic is going T a lot more in recent years in the Ad court with first and second serves. In fact, nothing is a secret on a tennis court. It’s all happening right before our eyes. It’s up to coaches and players to interpret the data to get an edge in the match.
Djokovic serves more T in the Ad court now because of a few factors, with the most important being the surprise element, plus the return will come back more to his Serve +1 forehand than Serve +1 backhand. Zverev can’t be surprised by this tactic. If you do just a modicum of opponent research, you will dig up the numbers such as in the two tables below.
2021 Australian Open: Djokovic Ad Court 1st Serves
2021 Australian Open: Djokovic Ad Court 2nd Serves
Djokovic is going to serve more T in this match as well. In many ways, it does not matter if Zverev knows it or not. It’s the right thing to do. Zverev’s backhand is his strength. Serving wide in the Ad court creates a lot of backhand-to-backhand rallies which even the playing field. Serving down the T lets Djokovic keep considerable control of the point by hunting a Serve +1 forehand in the middle of the court. If Zverev can punish Djokovic here – just in this one simple facet of the match – it can be enough to win him the match.
4: GO TO THE NET
Let’s call a spade a spade. Outlasting Djokovic in baseline rallies is a zero-sum game. He is going to hurt you just as much as you hurt him. And he is better at it (check trophy cabinet).
Djokovic has won an extremely healthy 54% of baseline points so far in Melbourne. That part of his game is dialed in. That’s not the spot to forge the advantage you are looking for. The good news for Zverev is that he has gone to the net 97 times in 13 sets = 7.5 a set. For a guy his size, that’s historically on the low end.
Baseline Points Won
- Djokovic = 54% (280/519)
- Zverev = 50% (195/387)
Net Points Won
- Djokovic = 69% (52/75)
- Zverev = 72% (70/97)
Basically no matter what happens in this match, Zverev’s net win percentage is going to ultimately be superior to his baseline win percentage. Djokovic needs to keep him back, because coming to the net A LOT may just be just the kink in the match that Zverev needs. On the other hand, Djokovic should also look to come forward to finish points as much as possible. Novak has already said the courts are as fast as he has ever seen in Melbourne. That means that approach and volley should sit higher on your list of priorities.
5: RALLY LENGTH
Here’s their combined performance to the quarters with the three rally lengths of 0-4, 5-8 and 9+.
- 0-4 Shots = 352 won / 311 lost = +44
- 5-8 Shots = 105 won / 95 lost = +10
- 9+ Shots = 66 won / 38 lost = +28
- 0-4 Shots = 335 won / 239 lost = +96
- 5-8 Shots = 80 won / 83 lost = -3
- 9+ Shots = 37 won / 32 lost = +5
The player that has done the best at a specific rally length is Zverev in short rallies. He is almost 100 points better than his opponents in the 0-4 shot rally length where a maximum of just two shots are hit by each player. When a fifth ball in a rally is struck, Zverev has collectively only won two more point than he has lost (127 won / 125 lost).
What you see here is a game plan that is already forged. Zverev does not need to reinvent himself to beat Djokovic. Playing a lot of shorter points with massive offense on first serves and second serve returns is what is required. Zverev needs to be lights out defending against first serves and when hitting second serves, avoiding Serve +1 groundstroke errors.
When you examine Djokovic’s metrics, he is doing comparatively worse in 0-4 and a lot better than Zverev in the longer rally lengths. In many ways, Djokovic is a master of surviving the 0-4 rally length and extending the rally to where his superior athleticism takes over.
I see a potential problem here for Zverev. He may be inclined, in the heat of battle, to be okay with extending the rally and going toe-to-toe with Djokovic in 10-20 shot rallies. Sometimes that will work, but when push comes to shove and the match is on the line, Djokovic will tip the scales in his favor in longer rallies.
Zverev needs total commitment to attack first and ask questions later.
The way I have viewed the 2021 Australian Open is that you pencil Djokovic in as the winner before the tournament even starts. There is no point predicting who else can win until this heavyweight favorite has been knocked out of the event. Even with the potential of a pulled muscle for Djokovic, my viewpoint remains exactly the same.
It’s Djokovic’s tournament to lose. Period. End of story.
Zverev has a chance tomorrow, but A LOT has got to go his way in order for him to win.
Also consider this icing on the cake…
Zverev needs to remain ultra-positive throughout the match. As positive and determined as he has ever been. For example, he is going to need that positive mind-set when potentially serving for the match at 5-4, 40-30, 2nd serve in the fourth set. If the wolves are howling in his head, even though the scoreboard says he is so close to winning, the mental/emotional baggage will hold him back.
Stay cool. Stay positive. Keep your head in the game. Fight like crazy.
May the best man win.